Tuesday 15 June 2010
[Mr. Gary Streeter in the Chair]
UK Parliamentary Sovereignty and the EU
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(James Duddridge.)
It is a pleasure to speak before you in this Chamber, Mr. Streeter. I would like to dedicate this debate to my mother, who died this past weekend, and to my father, who was killed in action in Normandy in the last war.
I heard today that Philip Ziegler’s biography of Mr Edward Heath has just been published. I recall vividly a discussion that I had with Mr Heath in the Smoking Room on an anniversary of the D-day landings. It transpired that we had an enormous amount in common, which may seem very strange. I heard Philip Ziegler this morning describing Edward Heath as a person who stuck to his course, who did what he thought was necessary, and who was bloody-minded. That is not an uncommon characteristic of those of us who get entrenched in European battles.
I recall that Mr Heath was not much disposed to talk at the beginning. He had on an Artillery tie, and I asked him, “Why have you got that tie on?” He said, “It is because of today’s commemoration.” I mentioned the fact that my father had been killed in Normandy, where Mr Heath had fought at the same time. Interestingly—to me, at any rate—he then began to engage in earnest conversation and explained to me the real reason he took the line that he did on Europe, which I do not think has come out in some of the reviews of the book. He felt that if we did not take that line, the problems that he had witnessed in the war might well recur.
I also remember, while I am in historical mode, a Cabinet lunch in July 1990 to which I was unexpectedly invited. Margaret Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher, invited me to No. 10. She said, “Today we will talk about Europe.” There I was, surrounded by an impressive galaxy of Cabinet Members. She turned to me and asked, “Bill, what do you feel about Europe?” Rather taken aback, I said that I thought that her task was more difficult than Churchill’s. She said, “Did everyone hear that? Bill says that my task is more difficult than Churchill’s. Can you explain?” I said, “Yes, Prime Minister. He was faced with bombs and aircraft. You are faced with pieces of paper.” That is the starting point of my concern about what has developed during the 26 years that I have had the honour of being a Member of this House.
The time has come for action. I quote a passage from “Julius Caesar”:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
I believe that we are at such a moment.
It is ironic, perhaps, that this week there will be an incredibly important summit that will deal with the essence of our sovereignty in relation to the proposals for budgetary arrangements and the question of whether they would be presented to the European Commission before they are presented to this sovereign Parliament. Therefore, without overdoing it, I hope, I suggest that, as in the case of the passage I just read out, this is the moment when there will be those who will be seen at Philippi.
There are similar problems today in respect of the sovereignty of our country, our people and our Parliament, and we have a responsibility to deal with them analytically and politically. Sovereignty means supreme power or authority. It means a self-governing state. I hasten to add—this is for my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I have had the pleasure of debating these matters over many years—that this debate is not specifically about getting out but about the practicalities of how we should now deal with the European issue. It is not about an abstraction but about the daily lives, economic and political, of those who vote us into this Parliament. It is about Euro-realism in the United Kingdom and in Europe as a whole.
This debate is about rules that do not work, economically or politically, and the need for radical reform of a system that has become uniform and inflexible, with the acquis communautaire, which has become sacrosanct and irreversible, and with majority voting and the pernicious system of co-decision. Barring only a total negotiated change by all 27 members in an association of nation states will problems be resolved. If and when that fails, we must assert the sovereignty of the UK Parliament to override this failing system. It is in our vital national interest to do so.
To give but one example of the problems, the system of co-decision is described by someone from the European Commission’s Legal Service as creating a situation in which the European Parliament
“is allowed to propose uniform, irrational, impractical amendments, safe in the knowledge that they have no responsibility for implementation.”
Of course, that is compounded by the role of the European Court of Justice. If the Legal Service takes that view, and it is so seminal to the undermining of the sovereignty of this Parliament, a serious review is called for.
On the “Today” programme yesterday, I heard a pre-eminent German banker state that he believes that there will be “revolts in the street” in “ever higher frequency” and a kicking out of the Government. He described the situation as highly dangerous, and said that there were indications of revolution. Michael Sturmer, who was Chancellor Kohl’s adviser, is also deeply disturbed, and Angela Merkel herself, who, by all accounts in today’s paper, is in serious crisis with her coalition, acknowledged recently that Europe is in danger, as is the euro. So it is, and so are we.
We have already seen hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe coming out on to the streets, and the catastrophic failure in Greece. It is not as if this has not been coming for decades. In a series of essays published in “Visions of Europe” in 1993, I warned of how the then new rules of economic and monetary union, which we opposed at Maastricht, would increase the likelihood of strikes and civil disorder but that there would be less and less practical accountability as the leaders of Europe withdrew from their responsibilities and handed over more decisions to unelected bankers and officials.
I then went on to warn of the neutering of national parliaments and the paralysis of Europe, which would
“give way to the…collapse of the Rule of Law, compounded by waves of immigration from the east, recession and lawlessness.”
I say this not with any sense of self-congratulation—at the time of the Maastricht rebellion, we were under the most intense pressure to disavow what we were saying. I simply ask that, in all honesty—an eminent columnist wrote to me the other day and said that it was lacking—people admit that a problem exists and that it must be addressed.
The real question is what the UK and our coalition Government will do about the situation as it is now—as it has come about—and how they will lead the UK and Europe out of the predicted and present chaos which is damaging to the UK economy and democracy, and to individual European countries and Europe as a whole. That is a practical necessity requiring vision, statesmanship and political will. The argument, I would say, is over, and it is now down to action.
The European Communities Act 1972, as Lord Bridge said in the Factortame case, is a voluntary Act. European treaties are subordinate to Parliament—as I established in exchanges with the right hon. Members for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) when they were Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe respectively—and that includes the Lisbon treaty. I have made that point consistently and repeatedly, and I have already made three speeches in the new Parliament on the issue. In January 2010, I set out the legal and constitutional case, and in this contribution I wish to concentrate more on the practical questions, as compared with the remedies that I proposed in my United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill.
Over many years, I have set out the case in correspondence with the current Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary for the immediate implementation of the sovereignty Bill. In my view, there is an unchallengeable, legal, political and constitutional case for that Bill, and a necessity to enact it immediately to underpin negotiations that are needed and which include, for example, talks that the Prime Minister will conduct this week in Brussels. The sovereignty Bill was in our manifesto. On 4 November 2009, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), now Prime Minister, made a speech entitled, “A European policy that people can believe in”, to which I replied in The European Journal. That was on my website during the general election.
Immediately before the general election, I intimated to the current Foreign Secretary that we needed the sovereignty Bill now, so as to underpin negotiations and deal with what appeared to be the inevitable and now present course of events. On 10 May, I wrote to the Prime Minister regarding those fundamental matters in the context of his pending negotiations for the coalition agreement. He replied on 21 June.
The situation has become significantly worse, including proposals in the context of majority voting for the sovereign right of the United Kingdom Parliament to receive and determine its own budget, which the Prime Minister will have to address this week. I regret to say that under the coalition agreement we are now reduced to a mere proposal for a commission to discuss sovereignty, not the manifesto commitment to pass the sovereignty Act on which we fought the election, and to which I referred in my commitments in my election material.
In my judgment, the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament and the imminent practical necessity supersedes the compromises of a coalition. This is no time for dither or prevarication, or for too-clever-by-half manoeuvres by the Foreign Office or diplomats in the Committee of Permanent Representatives, or by others. This is a time for action. We are where we are, and we must address the present crisis that lies at the heart of our constitution and at the axis of our economic and political future.
On “The Andrew Marr Show” last Sunday, the Foreign Secretary replied to questions about the European proposals to submit the UK budget to European institutions before submission to the UK Parliament. He replied that those were only proposals and would be dealt with in due course, and that we will argue for that position and maintain it. So far, so good, but we heard nothing about the use of the veto, no doubt in the knowledge that the proposals will be dealt with by majority voting. There are times when issues cannot simply go on being deferred or avoided, as happened, for example, in very different times during the 1930s. We cannot expect that something will turn up, or that negotiations with recalcitrant parties will somehow succeed.
In 1986, I tabled an amendment to the Single European Act, which is where majority voting comes from. It was refused for debate but stated:
“Nothing in this Act shall derogate from the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament.”
It was supported by only one other Member of Parliament at the time, the right hon. Enoch Powell, who clearly understood why it was important.
There is also the question of the still outstanding Irish guarantees, which take us back to the Lisbon treaty and which we are told will be attached to the next accession treaty, possibly with Croatia. We will be denied a referendum on that, despite the accretion of powers to the European Union that it will involve. We have already been refused a referendum on that treaty, despite the fact that it fundamentally alters the constitutional relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union—a point that was outrageously denied by the outgoing Government but well understood by the Conservative Opposition during the last Parliament, and about which I made a minority report in the European Scrutiny Committee.
Why can France, Holland, Denmark, Ireland, Spain and other European countries have referendums, yet we deny one to our own people? There is also the question of what are, in my view, the unlawful guarantees given by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding the Greek bail-out. I tabled questions on that, but I have received no satisfactory answers. They appear to have been thrust under the carpet, despite exposing the fact that the UK taxpayer has been saddled with about £12 billion of commitments. That is against the background of the current Government debt and deficit, which is second only to Greece. It is compounded by our being the second greatest contributor to the European Union, with costs rising to £6.6 billion for 2010-11. According to the TaxPayers Alliance, the European Union costs individual British taxpayers £2,000 each per annum, which they certainly cannot afford. In the context of that broad landscape, I have to ask what it is in return for.
Furthermore, there is the proposed European tax on our financial services sector, which infringes the sovereign right of taxation of the UK Parliament, not to mention the European regulation of the City of London, about which I have written in the Financial Times on many occasions over the past few years, and spoken in the House. That tax is again by majority vote, and the jurisdiction—as with all European legislation—is with the European Court of Justice over and above the Bank of England and/or the Financial Services Authority.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the costs of the European Union. Does he accept that other additional costs go beyond those that he has mentioned? Because of the European Union, economic growth has been slower than it would otherwise have been. If one adds up the cumulative loss of growth over 30 years or more, it represents a considerable cost to Britain. Additionally, there is the higher cost of food which is a result of being a member of the common agricultural policy.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his consistent, persistent predictions, all of which have proved to be right, even if he and I may differ as to what use we would make of the sovereignty if it were reclaimed. The right hon. Peter Shore became a good friend of mine, and during the Maastricht debates, he and I debated issues of the kind raised by the hon. Gentleman. We can honestly say that we did our best and that what we demonstrated has occurred.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about costs raises the question of over-regulation and competition. Professor Roland Vaubel of Mannheim university has written on that matter, calling it a form of “regulatory collusion” between the Governments of the member states, with member states using majority voting to create competitive advantage. Vaubel shows that regulation is explicitly used as a means of raising rivals’ costs. People must take that seriously. That is what is going on; it is a form of warfare—as Clausewitz would have said, “War by any other means”. Indeed, Germany followed that model, led by Prussia in a majority coalition after 1871. As with so much of what goes on today, much has already happened in the creation of modern Germany.
There is also the problem of over-regulation calculated by the British Chambers of Commerce in its “Burdens Barometer”, written by Tim Ambler and Francis Chittenden. It shows that in both the United Kingdom and Europe, 70% of over-regulation comes from the European Union, which since 1998 has cost the British economy £76.8 billion.
One of the most invasive legal obligations is the working time directive, which came through the Single European Act. Despite my warnings to the then Government, that directive was misleadingly included in a declaration in that Act, which the Court of Justice subsequently ruled, as I had expected, as a legal obligation—a costly mistake, which has to be reversed. Even the noble Lord Mandelson stated—as did his fellow EU Commissioner Mr Verheugen—that the over-regulation that so undermines EU and UK competitiveness, with China and India for example, amounts to as much as 4% of GDP. Indeed, we heard yesterday that the noble Lord Young of Graffham will lead a review of health and safety legislation. I trust that that review will recognise that so much of this damaging legislation—some of which is necessary—comes from the European Union, and particularly from the powers made under the so-called precautionary principle, which bypasses judicial review and is used by the Court of Justice. That principle will need to be overridden—as will so many other laws—under the sovereignty Act that I propose. That same principle applies in the fields of environmental and consumer protection law, and it is therefore pervasive.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman’s flow yet again, but he made a point about competitiveness. There might be many differences between the two of us on economics, but had Britain been a member of the eurozone we would not have been able to depreciate and our competiveness, compared with India and China, would have been even worse.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is, as ever, slightly ahead of my curve, but I now move on to the next point.
We hear from the Prime Minister that we want the eurozone to be stable. I have argued for many years that an imploding European Union is not in our national interest. I have been saying that for 20 years; I thought that it would occur, and it has. What has been needed is a realignment of European institutions and Europe itself into an association of nation states, precisely to avoid the implosion that is taking place. Only a few months ago, the Prime Minister himself referred to the desirability of our forming ourselves into an association of member states, which I take to be much the same idea.
The Lisbon agenda has failed. I railed against the stability and growth pact in 1996, when the now Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), was Chancellor of the Exchequer. I wrote to Members of Parliament in reply to his letter, indicating that I did not think that the pact could work. It has failed, and with it, the rule of law. Yet, here they are: I heard Madame Lagarde only yesterday talking about bringing it back again, as if experience cannot be seen for what it is. Experience, in my judgment, crushes hope.
The common agricultural policy, the common fisheries policy and the EUROSTAT statistical system have all failed. I believe that the latter is at the heart of the problem in relation to—let us put it bluntly—the lies that were told about the Greek economy. EU origin marking causes enormous damage to the third world, as the committee of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) demonstrated the other day. We had an interesting analysis from the global governance commission in Washington, which emphasised over and over that the EU origin marking system was one of the major problems for the third world.
There is endemic fraud. The Maastricht deficit criteria of 3% is nothing short of a joke, with massively seriously consequences for the voters in this country and throughout Europe, who are subjected to bungled economic management, and massively increasing debt, with the hidden costs of up to £3.1 trillion——in our own case in real terms—which cannot be swept away. The budget deficit proposals of £6 billion are a mere sop in relation to the mismanagement that is coming through Europe and affecting our economy as well, and we will not convince the bond markets or the rating agencies, which determine our ratings in the global marketplace.
As I have said, we were told by the Prime Minister that we need a strong eurozone, because 50% of our trade is with that zone. However, the eurozone is imploding, and Angela Merkel and 68% of the German people are opposed to the Greek bail-out, precisely because the whole economic and political structure of the European Union does not work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, in this very timely debate. I am listening with great interest to him analysing the situation, both within and without the eurozone. Does he agree with me that if we do not move now and grasp the nettle—as he has accurately said we should—one of the political problems will be the rise of the far right across Europe, which preys on the very fears and concerns that we all know are out there, and which we have seen emerge from time to time in various nation states?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and in my essay in “Visions of Europe” in 1993 I said exactly that—that that would be the consequence of the lawlessness that would follow. The problem is that it is not good enough to wring our hands and say, “Oh well, we’d like this to be better,” or “We’re going to go along with it.” We have to have a radical policy based on proper analysis. I wait to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister says, but I cannot believe that he could seriously disagree with anything I have said. These are factual questions. If it is just a matter of culture or attitude: “Oh well, we want to be good Europeans,” or “We don’t want to face up to these things,” or “People such as Bill Cash are just Europhobes who go around ranting about Europe and banging on”—
I am glad that my hon. Friend has made the inevitable harrumph, but the matter needs to be taken extremely seriously. Europe does not work as it is now devised; it is pre-eminently a practical matter. It is no good our being committed to a eurozone that is so undermined by its own institutional inadequacies and contradictions, by the diversity of its different economies, and by the real requirements of the voters and the business community in each country. Is it all so difficult, complicated and entrenched that nothing can be done, or do we roll up our sleeves and get down to resolving it? I suggest that at the summit this week we at least start to get serious about the nature of the problem. Europe does not work, not only because of over-regulation and the irreversibility of the acquis communautaire, but because it is essentially undemocratic and authoritarian, which is dangerous, as both German and Greek commentators agreed only yesterday. And it is not only one or two commentators; that view is becoming endemic and demonstrable.
The whole of Europe is trembling and action is needed now. There are those, such as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of The Daily Telegraph, Martin Wolf and Ralph Atkins of the Financial Times, Walter Munchau, Stephen Glover, Andrew Alexander and a growing band of Euro-realist Members of Parliament who are beginning to speak out, and many who have done so over many years. In Holland, the general election left its message on the table—in France and Germany, the same. Across the entire breadth of the continent, in Italy, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, in the referendums that have taken place and in the ditching of the constitutional treaty, which was then supplanted by the Lisbon treaty—virtually the same thing—people are disillusioned with the European Union and demand change and action, yet we are still presented with a policy of further enlargement, against which I have argued for many years. In the leader in today’s Financial Times we hear more about Europe’s debt crisis. It states:
“Europe’s sovereign debt worries have prompted parallels to…2008”,
“crisis management is not the same as crisis resolution.”
On enlargement, only last week The Spectator devoted its leader to the proposal for Turkish accession. It is clear that Turkey is moving towards accession, and on both economic and political grounds it should not be regarded as a prospective member of the club, given its current dealings with Syria, Iran and the middle east. As is so often the case in the political and economic sphere, the problem with enlargement is that European Union policies, once espoused, are deemed irreversible. Just when decentralisation and democracy—listening to the people and involving them and the big society in our Government—have become so essential, the institutions and governmental establishments of the European Union and each of the member states career ever more wildly into crisis.
Recently, we have had the experience of the European arrest warrant. The absorption of our criminal justice system is yet another area of deep concern. Under a European arrest warrant, Mr Arapi, a British resident from Leek, in Staffordshire, was convicted in his absence and sentenced to 15 years. We have the inconceivable and unacceptable vision of a British judge ordering Mr Arapi’s extradition, when there is apparently overwhelming evidence that he was not where he was said to have been when he was supposed to have committed a murder in Italy. The whole project is flawed from beginning to end and must be radically reformed, or else.
I turn now to the European Scrutiny Committee. Parliament has a system for dealing with many of the problems that I have outlined or, at any rate, for alerting Members of Parliament to what is going on. I regret to say that the Committee is still not sitting, despite the fact that Parliament has now been back for a couple of weeks. I have been on the Committee for 26 years, sometimes in adverse circumstances; it has been difficult to be heard, let alone listened to and certainly agreed with, despite much evidence. While in opposition in the last two years of the previous Parliament, the Conservative party achieved remarkable unity on the European issue and the Lisbon treaty, barring just one vote on the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
Although the manner in which Parliament deals with European legislation has been subjected to a number of improvements, we have not gone far enough. Indeed, the present Home Secretary made some significant proposals for reforming European scrutiny. She agreed to adopt my proposal that if the European Scrutiny Committee recommends a European matter for debate, and 150 Members of Parliament propose that it is a matter of national interest, it should be subjected to a free vote on the Floor of the House—I say “vote”, not “take-note motion”, because that is one of the problems. She also proposed that the Committee meet in public, as many of us have advocated for some time. After the issue was finally voted on by the Committee, it was abandoned, and it must be revived.
In my 26 years on the Committee, the establishment and the Government of the United Kingdom have always ensured that there is a majority in favour of European proposals that emanate from Brussels. Matters may be recommended for debate in a European Standing Committee—sometimes by a majority vote—but no vote in such a Committee ever goes against the Government. If one ever does, it is immediately reversed on the Floor of the House as being inconsistent with the European Communities Act 1972. That is no way to proceed. Not one vote has ever gone against Brussels legislation in my 26 years on the Committee. Only last week, a Cabinet Office Minister indicated that there were no proposals for a sovereignty Act to alter that disgraceful state of affairs.
That is how the European Scrutiny Committee functions. I have been on it long enough to know that not one single vote on any European legislation that has been through a European Standing Committee on the recommendation of my Committee has ever been passed on the Floor of the House, and I challenge anyone to come forward with an example. We have take-note motions, Adjournment debates and general European affairs debates, but we do not have votes on seminal matters of the kind I have described.
Whatever the merits of the national interest, which I have already described, it is vital to create a requirement, set out by our Prime Minister in 2005 when he referred to an imperative requirement to achieve competitiveness in the British economy. The European Scrutiny Committee is called in for debates, but issues are not voted on, which makes the process intrinsically futile. The Committee is important, but it must be reformed and improved, although improvements are taking place.
The Committee has the power to impose a scrutiny reserve while debates take place, but it is sometimes overridden out of what is described as urgent necessity. In any case, such measures merely hold down the European juggernaut for the time being, and there is no resistance whatever to majority votes in the Council of Ministers being imposed on the UK Parliament. A work by Sanoussi Bilal and Madeleine Hosli states what some of us know already, although it is worth recording. They say that in the EU,
“a major difficulty arises from the lack of transparency of the decision-making process. In particular, decisions by the Council seldom result in a formal vote, but are rather taken by consensus (or without a vote when no obvious blocking minority has formed)…why would a minority member state cast a vote against the majority knowing it is doom to lose anyway, unless it wants to make public its disagreement. Therefore, most of the time, formal votes at the Council level merely represent the tip of the iceberg of the coalition-building and decision-making process.”
Given that the enormous matters we are discussing affect the entire British economy in one form or other, and given what is at stake, only some of which I have indicated, it is inconceivable that there should be such incredible problems in the fault-lines of the system that has been devised. Once again, the issue needs to be taken extremely seriously, but I wonder whether it will be. If it is not, there will be difficulties of a kind that I do not need to specify.
The Back-Bench business committee proposals, which will come before the House this afternoon, do not include European documents, although the proposals would not seem to preclude votes on European affairs, unless such matters were taken only in Westminster Hall, and that highly contentious question will no doubt be debated this afternoon. We therefore have debates on European matters without votes, on a take-note basis. Much business is conducted behind the scenes in Brussels by the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the European Union and COREPER, using their own arcane procedures. It is conducted within and parallel to the European establishment and it is intertwined with it. Why and how can that be allowed to continue?
Not only is most business conducted behind closed doors, but the majority voting system itself is not transparent. More often than not, we do not even know which way the UK will have voted or whether it will have deliberately abstained—we know a bit more about the German situation—to acquiesce in or even appease the European institutional consensus. At the same time, the UK Parliament, and therefore the British people, are bypassed and stitched up.
Recent events relating to the 1922 committee concern the independence of Conservative Back Benchers, but the same applies to the parliamentary Labour party. It is essential that those of us on the Back Benches have systems, mechanisms and procedures that can act as a safety valve. We do not necessarily want those things because we want to act in a hostile manner or to be difficult or awkward, but because there is an alternative view, and expressing it is part of our freedom of speech and vitally affects the interests of those who vote us into this place.
The BBC has consistently declined to give proper coverage to the European issue and has adopted that policy with tenacity and editorial contrivance since the 1950s, as has been well documented. Anyone who raises serious and seminal questions about the European issue—most of their predictions have turned out to be true—tends to be regarded as Europhobic or worse.
What can now be said with certainty is that, as we speak, our economy, our democracy and our constitution are on the line. This week, the summit will discuss proposals for our Budget to be presented to the European institutions before our Parliament sees it. There may be attempts to create some obscurantist device, perception or spin to make it look as if these things are not really happening or that they are all happening under the aegis of the majority vote. At last, however, the penny has begun to drop. The mask is being stripped away. Our national interest is at stake, and the need for political will to reaffirm the sovereignty of the British people through their representative Parliament has become paramount in the national interest, as is there for all to see.
This critical summit is the time for us and the European Union to face up to action and reality. Let us put our commitment to a sovereignty Act on the table this week. Let negotiations commence between all 27 member states for a voluntary association of nation states to get out of the mess that exists, which will get worse. Even the Prime Minister has recently put forward the idea of an association of member states. If that falls on deaf ears at the European Council, let those member states who want to, including Germany and France, use the enhanced co-operation procedure for a fiscal and political union—a new Zollverein with a new treaty—with a referendum here in Britain on the proposals; for they will affect us in a fundamental change in our relationship with the European Union. We can remain with other like-minded states in an associated status within the amended European arrangements, as I proposed in my pamphlet of 2000 called, in deference to Churchill’s time-honoured phrase, “Associated, Not Absorbed”.
May I say first what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Streeter, and secondly may I convey my sympathy to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on his bereavement? I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important debate. I thought it important to come along and put a democratic socialist perspective, arriving at the same conclusions from a different perspective on the European Union.
This is a critical time in the development of the European Union and in Britain’s history. The European Union and, indeed, Britain, are suffering severe economic difficulties. The eurozone is in crisis and the plans of the extreme federalists are unravelling before our eyes. That is a welcome movement, and is happening not before time. It is possible that Germany is in the process of re-establishing the Deutschmark, or a Deutschmark area. It has great difficulty in doing that, because it is so exposed to other member states of the European Union, which have great economic difficulties, but that shows the folly of imposing a single currency on different economies, with different levels of economic success. It does not work and on many occasions elsewhere it has been proved not to work.
The peoples of Europe are deeply sceptical about the European Union and the direction that it has taken. The danger, as the hon. Gentleman said, is that there could be a rise in nationalism as a reaction. Such a reaction results from the fact that the peoples are not listened to. The opposition to much of what the European Union has been doing recently comes from the left. The referendum in France was won—that is the sense in which I see it—by people of the left. The left was also in the lead in the Dutch referendum. Even to go back to the Swedish referendum on joining the euro, which was another substantial no vote, it was the left—trade unionists, socialists and social democrats—who pressed that case.
Over and again I have to point out that, although we keep talking about Europe, we are discussing not Europe but the European Union. Europe is a geographical entity with many historical and cultural links. The European Union is an invention of humankind, imposing a political structure on many of the nations of Europe, but it is not Europe itself. Although I may be accused of being a Europhobe I genuinely love Europe. I am culturally European. Clearly, Britain is European. I love European music, languages and literature. I love and enjoy everything about Europe, but I do not approve of the European Union.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that positive intervention. In a few weeks I shall be sojourning in Provence, sampling wonderful European wine, listening to music and so on. Europe is a wonderful place, but the European Union is deeply flawed.
The hon. Gentleman has said that even this week the European Union is trying to interfere and to impose its will on Britain’s decisions about its budgetary situation and economic policies. That was reported yesterday in the Evening Standard, so it is not going away. I hope and trust that the new Government will tell the European Union in no uncertain terms that decisions about our budgetary and economic policies will be decided by the British Government, who will be accountable to the British Parliament, and will not be determined by the European Union. Perhaps the EU is under the illusion that it can manage Britain as well as it has managed the eurozone. That would lead us pretty much into disaster.
While I am on the question of the European Union’s recent policies, I shall mention enlargement. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentioned Edward Heath. I listened to one of his last speeches to Parliament before he retired 10 years ago, and he made a strong point to the effect that enlargement would not work. He was against it. I do not speak for or against it today, but Edward Heath was strongly opposed to it because he thought that a European Union covering more than the developed nations of western Europe would not work. He wanted a deeper and stronger European Union, possibly with a single currency, but he believed that it could not work if it were to be widely enlarged. One of the reasons I have supported enlargement is that I believed it could weaken the European Union. That may be a cynical view, but I thought that over time people would realise that ramming countries or nation states together in that way would not ultimately work. Therefore I have gone along with enlargement. I think it is a way of ensuring that in the end people come to their senses.
I am not against international alliances or co-operative relationships with all our neighbours. Indeed, those are vital. I am sure that everyone would be in favour of those things if they were based on democratic Governments agreeing to work together for mutual benefit on behalf of their peoples. That is what the European Union should become, in my view. We must stop the drive towards a federal Europe now, retain what sovereignty we have, and begin to roll things back: the EU and what it has taken over from Britain and other member states.
I have often mentioned my concern about the common fisheries policy, which is completely barmy. I think that Edward Heath decided at the last minute that we should go into that, but it has been disastrous. Some of the biggest fisheries in Europe are Britain’s, and the EU itself has reported, in the past week or two, that 30 per cent. of fish stocks are at the point of collapse, and all fisheries are being overfished. The only way to overcome that is for fisheries to be restored to member states, which will then have the sense of ownership and responsibility for managing the areas in question. Then fish stocks can start to recover. Reforms have taken place and there are non-fishing areas, but it will not work until member states take over responsibility for their historic fisheries and husband them as they did in the past.
The costs of agriculture are enormous and every member state in the European Union has its own approach. Some are more agricultural than others. We are one of the most efficient agricultural nations, but that is only a small part of our economy. Other countries are overwhelmed by agricultural costs and inefficient, small-scale agriculture, but it is up to those member states to manage their own agriculture. If we need to transfer revenues between member states, that can be done on a voluntary basis, and if poorer states need to be sustained by richer states perhaps fiscal transfers can take care of that. The common agricultural policy distorts the whole of agriculture and operates in an inequitable way. Some member states pay more than they should and some receive more than they should, in a way that bears little relationship to their relative wealth. We should start to roll back agricultural policy.
I hope that the Government will give notice that we want to return to a world in which member states manage their own fisheries—an abandonment of the common fisheries policy. If other member states or the European Union refuse, Britain should give notice that, after a period, we would re-establish control of our historic fishing grounds. I hope that that would put sufficient pressure on the EU to make some sense of it.
The real question is one of democracy—of whether the populations of the various member states have control of their own destinies and can choose to be free market capitalist or democratic socialist countries. I have campaigned all my life for a democratic socialist Britain, and I do not want that possibility to be taken away by EU bureaucrats. Equally, some want to see a more free market capitalist world in Britain. We will not want bureaucrats in Brussels telling us that we cannot do things if the people of Britain have chosen to go in those directions. It is about democracy. One of the great advantages of our system of government is that when the population gets fed up with the Government or do not like what they are doing, it can kick them out and put in another Government with a different view. The essence of democracy is a real choice of policy in how people are governed.
British economic policy should be decided by British Governments that are elected by the British electorate. As and when we need to co-operate with other member states and other nations, we should do so on a democratically agreed basis. I am sure that that would be most agreeable to everyone, as well as being beneficial. It would also help us resist the tendency to nationalism. If people become frustrated about the EU and the lack of democracy, they may turn to other forms of politics, some of which would be much more unpleasant—one such is nationalism—and there is talk, even in Germany, of serious disorder if things are not made democratic. If the Germans and the Greeks can decide their future, so can we. Although we have friendly relations with other member states, if we rather than the European Commission and the European Union were able to decide our future, everyone would be a lot happier. The danger of extreme politics would go.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, and I share most of his views. Does he agree that one of the mistakes made by our trade union and labour movement—it was a historic and democratic mistake—was to be persuaded by Delors that we could more easily get a shift to the left and more trade union rights via the back door of the European Union, then the Common Market, than by winning the argument in this country?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The fear was that the only way to roll back what was then described as Thatcherism was by going along with the European Union. The TUC flip-flopped right over from being critical and sceptical about Europe to being enthusiastic. Subsequently, however, judgments have been made by the European Court against trade unions and in favour of employers, because it thinks that they interfere with how the market should operate. The trade unions, and even John Monks, a great enthusiast for the European Union, are becoming more sceptical.
May I mention again the extremely important paper written by Professor Roland Vaubel of Manheim university on the raising of rivals’ costs? Much of that is to do with labour regulation. I shall give the hon. Gentleman a copy, as it demonstrates how regulatory collusion can create disadvantages for certain countries.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I take a slightly different view on some of these things because I think that trade union rights should be decided though the democratic governance of member states.
International involvement comes through the International Labour Organisation, with its minimum standards for labour regulation. That is where we should stand, but we fall below those standards. I want us to move forward and restore trade union and worker rights at least to the ILO standards, in many ways going back to the sort of regime we had in the past. That would not be agreeable to the Government, no doubt; and other countries, too, might choose another approach. However, that is the approach that I would like to see, and I would like to see it voted on by the working people of Britain, who I hope would support the election of a Labour Government committed to re-establishing trade union and worker rights. It is another example of democracy. I do not want to see the European Union telling me or other trade unionists or socialists that we cannot legislate in a particular way. We should decide our trade union rights, not the EU.
The EU and its ultra-federalists have over-reached themselves. It is time to roll back the EU, and restore sovereignty and democracy to member states. Member states may choose to go down a socialist road or a non-socialist road, but the direction should be down to them and to their electorates and peoples. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important subject, and I hope that my brief comments are helpful.
I apologise, Mr Streeter, for having missed the opening of the debate and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).
I see this debate as being divided into two sections. Sovereignty of Parliament is questioned—indeed, threatened—by the development of the European Union. That may be so if custom and usage has a part in it; sovereignty of Parliament is the profound constitutional doctrine that has determined the course of our development over nearly three centuries. I do not see that concept being threatened for as long as the judges apply it.
The conflict that arises with the European Union is entirely of Parliament’s making. If there is a conflict, it is because Parliament assents to each and every dreadful transfer of powers—powers of initiation, and powers of legislation—to the EU. The conflict lies with Parliament asserting—contrary, I would argue, to the will of the people—that all these transfers and mechanisms used by the EU are appropriate. That will doubtless be the Government’s position today; they will fudge along, arguing that we are, of course, taking strong measures to protect our sovereignty. However, there is no need to protect our sovereignty if we in Parliament are clear about its relationship with the people.
I have argued during my time as a Member of the House of Commons that it is not the sovereignty of Parliament in the current age but the sovereignty of the British people that matters, and that for as long as Governments are not prepared to refer the issues involved in that concept to the people themselves, then the question of legitimacy arises. Those are the issues that I think thread through the problem.
Anyone who has experienced modern British government knows the tyranny of the majority; the sovereignty of Parliament can indeed assert itself and, as a raw concept, be a great tyranny. Instead of the old traditions, with Governments attempting to win arguments to pursue their policies, they now resort to sheer, simple, straightforward majoritarianism. It is evidenced, of course, in the proceedings of the House, where guillotines are the order of the day. No one can say, in a proper and reliable sense, that the sovereignty of Parliament rests upon consent, in the sense that due and proper process, the seeking of an argument and the ability to develop an argument, is scrupulously observed by Parliament.
In respect of the European Union, one speech on what was happening was perhaps the best that I ever heard. Leaving aside all the manoeuvrings, it was an observation made on 28 February 1992, when I was moving my Referendum Bill on Maastricht, that it was incredible that what will now be two generations of those who had run our country’s affairs were prepared to surrender that thing which this island, this nation, had believed was among its crown jewels—self-government. That is what this conflict is about.
In my lifetime, Governments of both parties have, since the referendum, pursued the giving away of whole areas of self-government. The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) referred to the right of others to determine our employment laws and the relationship with the trade union movement. Such matters were brought up by Peter Shore, whom we remember as the author of Gaitskell’s “a thousand years of history” speech. That was not a rabid anti-European Community measure, or the Common Market as it was then called, but a speech made in the absence of knowing what this would lead to—cautious, intelligent and well worth reading today.
Why have the two generations who have run our public policy pursued a policy that undermines the very sense of sovereignty of the British people, and done so often contrary to the wishes of the parties—it destroyed Major—and the people, as regularly diagnosed by public opinion polls? Those who make the laws are accountable. That is what self-government is about in a democratic age. They are accountable to the people, in our instance; hence, I call it the sovereignty of the people. What in those relationships makes the European Union, to which we have outsourced the making of our laws, accountable to the British people? Of course it is not accountable, nor was it ever intended to be. The biography of Edward Heath was mentioned; his regard for the wholehearted consent of the British people was contemptuously disregarded. It took Mr Wilson and a split Labour Cabinet to give a “sort of” referendum to the British people on something of which Mr Gaitskell would have said, “We do not know where this leads”. And we did not know where it led.
I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Stone for initiating this wide-reaching debate about where we are and the significance of what we should be. I stand, as does my hon. Friend, for the British people in this argument. In the end, those who give cast-iron guarantees on referendums, or otherwise, destroy faith and trust in themselves and in our system. This debate gives us a way forward to show that our political parties believe in their people, their nation and the trust conferred when they make a pledge.
It is a great pleasure to see you chairing the debate, Mr Streeter. Following the contributions this morning, I think the Minister and I will be the more pro-European contributors, which is perhaps ironic. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on securing the debate and on his consistency, constancy and determination. I am sure he will apply as much rigour to his scrutiny of the new Minister for Europe as he did to that of the previous one; indeed, if anything I suspect his scrutiny will increase slightly. I am sure he will look forward to that. I, too, pass on my condolences to the hon. Gentleman; he spoke movingly about his father and mother. Many of the positions we adopt on European matters spring not only from an intellectual position but from an emotive argument that has sustained itself in our hearts. I do not say it is a bad thing; it is an entirely laudable one.
One area on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman is European scrutiny: we still do not do it properly—not only in this House but across Parliament. It tends to be done by a very small number of people who could perhaps be described as obsessives or anoraks—I include the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and myself in that category—and we need to find a means of doing it better. The hon. Gentleman is right: we rarely vote on European matters and that ought to change. I have never understood why European affairs debates have to be on the motion for the Adjournment or a general debate. I do not know why they cannot be on a substantive motion before the House, which might encourage the Whips to take a greater interest in ensuring that more people attend such debates, and might extend the range of issues that we discuss. The focus is often narrow—on what is going on in the European Union—rather than broad.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North and I both nominated the same person for leadership of our party, but we may end up voting for different candidates. I say gently that I also believe in democratic socialism, but I do not believe that it can be built in one country alone. We have to strive for it internationally, because the rights and principles that one adheres to apply to all.
Which shows what a generous soul I am.
It is good to see the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) in his place. He pointed out that Parliament consistently assents to such measures, which relates to the point I made earlier about the European Union and scrutiny in this House. Parliament assented originally in the European Communities Act 1972, and we continue to assent every time we choose not to have a vote, and every time we choose to do so and vote in favour. In a sense, therefore, the nub of the question about sovereignty is rather different.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind I will not give way, which means I will shut up sooner. He spoke for some time and we want to hear from the new Minister.
There are some significant paradoxes and problems facing the Union. We all rightly fight for fiscal autonomy for each of the member states, but also know that we are economically interdependent. If the euro collapsed it would be bad for the British economy, not least because to all intents and purposes, in many regards we are Europe’s banker. We want the rest of Europe to shoulder more of the security burden around the world, particularly in Afghanistan. At the same time, the only way we can achieve that is by cajoling and persuading. We want Europe to punch its weight in relation to the emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China and so on—but we rely on self-discipline to achieve that and often, self-discipline does not work when Russia holds out its paw with an enormous financial offer.
We want better protection—for instance, for British people who have chosen to live in Spain and whose houses are being pulled down—but we are not prepared to ensure that Europe has the enforcement powers when rights are not being protected. We want better EU regulations so that financial services organisations in Cyprus, for instance, do a better and more legitimate job, but at the same time we want to ensure the autonomy of the UK financial services industry. We want Romania and Bulgaria to be members of the Union, but at the moment I can see no prospect of allowing Romanians and Bulgarians to work in the UK. I suspect that the same might be true of Croatia and the other countries we hope will become members of the European Union in the near future, such as the western Balkan countries. We want them to join, but I suspect that the Government want a derogation so that those nationals cannot enjoy freedom of employment in the UK from day one; perhaps the Minister will clarify that point later.
Likewise, I have always considered the operation of the common agricultural policy immoral in many ways, as other countries are unable to compete because we subsidise so much. At the same time, if there was not a common agricultural policy there would be a French, Italian, German or Greek one, which could be considerably worse. There is a constant clash at the heart of Europe between subsidiarity and collective action, and now is a key moment in European politics to decide how to reconcile such issues. I suspect that such a reconciliation will happen at a dinner on Wednesday evening when Angela Merkel and President Sarkozy meet up. Let me say gently to the Minister that I hope he ends up joining the European People’s party, because it is easier to do business sitting at the table when the decisions are being made, rather than waiting for the moment after the decisions have been made by the big players.
The hon. Member for Stone did not refer much to his or the Government’s sovereignty of Parliament Bill. I have expressed views on the matter before, so I will not bore the Chamber with them again. Suffice it to say that it will either mean nothing because Parliament is already sovereign—it could, if it wanted to, withdraw from the European Communities Act 1972, it could repeal the Act or decide that the legislation no longer applies—or it will mean something, in which case this House can say, “We don’t care what has been decided through the co-decision process; we simply disagree.” It could say, “I don’t care whether the Government have signed up to it; we disagree and we are going to strike down that legislation.” Such a move, however, is potentially very dangerous because it puts us on course for leaving the Union.
I have a few questions for the Minister. He told us that there would be a new Europe Committee—a Cabinet Sub-Committee. Has it met yet and is it to meet in public? It will be fascinating to see the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary publicly debating Europe. Will the Committee include Members from the devolved Administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? Some of the issues that come up at such meetings are devolved responsibilities, so there might be a particular value in including those Members. I have similar questions about the committee on parliamentary sovereignty. Who will chair it and who will be on it? When will it meet and what resources will it have? Will it effectively be a parliamentary commission, and if not how will it conduct its business; and when will it complete its work? Finally, what is its precise position on whether Britain and countries outside the euro should be required to present their budgets to the Commission? It seems bizarre that the European Union or the Commission—in whatever format—should be able to have sight of a British Budget before the British Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on securing this debate, and also express my sincere condolences to him on the recent death of his mother. He clearly set out his views on sovereignty. In the last Parliament, he championed the United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill to allow for further debate and consideration of such matters. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are now considering a United Kingdom sovereignty Bill, and the programme for government agreed by both parties in the coalition states:
“We will examine the case for a Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority remains with Parliament.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) pointed out, the common law is clear; Parliament is sovereign. European Union law takes effect in this country only by virtue of an Act of Parliament. The European Communities Act 1972 states that European Union law should have primacy. That means national laws, including Acts of Parliament, must be interpreted in such a way as to comply with EU rules. Where the two are incompatible, UK law is disapplied. The 1972 Act, therefore, gives EU law primacy over UK law for so long as that Act remains in force. However, as successive Governments and the courts have recognised, such measures do not impact on sovereignty, because it is always open to Parliament to amend or repeal an Act; it is Parliament’s choice that EU law has primacy, and it can, if it chooses, change its mind. I do not want to underplay the enormous political consequences that would flow from such a decision, but those are the constitutional facts, and they were confirmed in the most trenchant language in the metric martyrs’ case in 2002 when the courts ruled that
“Parliament cannot bind its successors by stipulating against repeal, wholly or partly, of the [1972 Act]…there is nothing in the [1972 Act] which allows the Court of Justice, or any other institutions of the EU, to touch or qualify the conditions of Parliament’s legislative supremacy in the United Kingdom. Not because the legislature chose not to allow it; because by our law it could not allow it…being sovereign, it cannot abandon its sovereignty.”
The Government are now exploring how they can ensure that the fundamental principle of parliamentary sovereignty is upheld. They want to assess whether the common law provides sufficient ongoing and unassailable protection for that principle. It is an important process, and it is only right that sufficient time is allowed for discussions within Government and for appropriate advice to be taken. Once the Government have decided on whether there should be a Bill to reinforce the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, we will make an appropriate statement to the House.
My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have spoken on both this subject and the metric martyrs’ case on many occasions. Does he not accept that we voted against the Lisbon treaty, which is a consolidating treaty and incorporates all the treaties? In addition to that, the issue of primacy is already clearly stated in Costa v. ENEL and in other cases. They say that the European Court of Justice asserts its primacy over our constitution. I hope that the Minister will come on to that, because that is where a big problem starts to get even worse.
My hon. Friend will have to forgive me if I say that the kind of questions that he asks are precisely those that the Government will wish to consider in the exercise that I have just described—when they come to a view as to whether we should introduce primary legislation to reinforce the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. So far, as he knows, the British courts have upheld the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. We want to ensure that such a principle is unassailable and ongoing.
Before the Minister’s speech, we were told by the Government that a committee will be set up to do such work. Now, however, he seems to be saying that there will not be a committee, but just a general process of cogitation, regurgitation and general thinking. Does he describe that as the backburner or the long grass?
It is certainly not the long grass. The work has already started, but it requires proper consideration. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s impatience and eagerness for an outcome to this exercise, but given that we are only a month into the new Administration, he will have to bear with us a little longer before we come to a conclusion. I can assure him that as soon as a decision is taken, we will make a statement to Parliament, so that he and other hon. Members can question and challenge us on the outcome of that debate within Government.
The Government have been clear about what we intend to propose in legislation at the earliest opportunity. We have agreed that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers from the United Kingdom to the EU over the course of this Parliament, and that commitment is written into the coalition programme. The Government are also committed to increasing democratic and parliamentary control, scrutiny and accountability in relation to EU decision-making. We will introduce a Bill to ensure that the British Parliament and the British people have more of a say, and that will increase the democratic accountability of the European Union. The Bill that was listed in the Gracious Speech has two main elements: a referendum lock and greater parliamentary control over the use of the so-called passerelle or ratchet clauses in the Lisbon treaty.
Let me describe briefly what we propose in terms of a referendum lock, although my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and the House will appreciate that very detailed work is now going on to determine the precise language of the Bill. Any proposed future treaty that transferred competences or areas of power from the UK to the EU would be subject to a referendum. No Government would be able to pass more powers to the EU unless the British people had agreed that they should be able to do so and no Government would be able to join the euro unless the British people had agreed that they should do so.
My hon. Friend said that there might be an attempt to bring about treaty change to create some form of economic governance in light of the current financial crisis. I can say to him that there is no consensus so far even in the euro area that there should be a further treaty. Any EU treaty, even one that applied only to the euro area, would need the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states, including the UK. Each of those 27 member states would have a veto. Even in the case of a hypothetical treaty that the British Government were prepared to endorse, the fact remains that any treaty that proposed to transfer powers from the UK to the institutions of the EU would require a referendum for ratification, under the terms of the programme for Government that the coalition has set out.
We also plan to change the law so that any Government would be required to pass primary legislation before they could give final agreement to any of the so-called ratchet clauses. There is a variety of those clauses; there is no easy definition of a ratchet clause. Some provide for modification of the treaties without using the ordinary revision procedure and some are one-way options that are already in the treaties, whereby EU member states can decide together to exercise those options, and which allow existing EU powers to expand. There are options, for example, in the common foreign and security policy, in justice and home affairs, and in environment policy. Besides the provisions on primary legislation, in our Bill we will also ensure that the use of any major ratchet clause that amounts to the transfer of an area of power from the UK to the EU would be subject to a referendum.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone and the hon. Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) spoke about the inadequacy of our current system of parliamentary scrutiny of European legislation. The Government plan to improve the scrutiny of EU decision making, and getting the scrutiny system right is a very high priority for us. I am currently examining ways of strengthening the existing system of parliamentary scrutiny and I am keen to discuss proposals with the new Scrutiny Committees of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, once they are formed. I hope that they will be formed in the very near future.
There has been an honest division of view about how parliamentary scrutiny should be reformed. The hon. Member for Stone talked about having all the debates on scrutiny open. I took the other view, because we receive very valuable advice from Officers of this House—honest and frank advice, which I may say is often sympathetic to my view as well—and the Officers would not be able to provide such advice if the debates on scrutiny were carried out in public.
The hon. Gentleman makes a clear point that we in Government and the House as a whole will want to bear in mind when it comes to taking decisions about the scrutiny process. It is also important that we look at the practice of scrutiny in other EU member states. I had a meeting last week with the chairman of the Swedish scrutiny committee, and we are exploring the models of scrutiny that are in use elsewhere in the EU, to see whether there are any aspects of those processes that we might usefully adapt for our own purposes here.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I sensitively suggest to him that most other member states conduct scrutiny remarkably worse than we do, which is quite a thing to be able to say.
In addition, all I would say to the Minister is that we still do not have the European Scrutiny Committee set up. For the life of me, I cannot see why the chairmanship of that Committee was not established when the other Select Committees that we have already elected were established. Also, I hope that a new scrutiny reserve resolution will be tabled fairly soon. I urge the hon. Gentleman to try and make this issue as much a matter for the House as for the Foreign Office, because it should be a matter for the whole of the House to decide on.
I take very seriously the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. He also asked me about the new Cabinet Committee on European Affairs. That Committee is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and the deputy chairman is the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. It has met; it met for the first time last week. However, I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman by saying that it does not meet, and does not intend to meet, in public. There is no difference in that regard to the system for any Cabinet Committee. Members of the devolved Administrations are not members of the Cabinet Committee on European Affairs but they continue to meet under the aegis of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, to prepare for the European Councils each year.
The hon. Gentleman says that, but we want to make our relationships with the devolved Administrations work a lot better than they used to during his time in office; that is one of the differences that the new Government intend to make. We want to turn not only those formal meetings but our regular contacts with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations into something that informs the development of our approach to European affairs. Now, having said that, I must press on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone asked questions about a number of detailed issues and I want to reply very quickly to those questions. So far, there are no proposals at all on the table that would require the UK or any other member state to submit its budget plans to the Commission in advance of informing Parliament, and my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor have all made it clear that we would be utterly opposed to any such proposal.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of some of the current proposals on financial services, which are with the European institutions now. In particular, the de Larosière package on financial supervision is a matter of primary importance to the interests of this country. Yesterday, in both the formal proceedings of the General Affairs Council and in bilateral conversations with some of my counterparts from other countries, I said that we wanted to see the unanimous agreement that was reached on the proposal at ECOFIN in December 2009 maintained in any future drafts of that proposal.
The hon. Member for Luton North asked about agricultural policy reform. The Government remain committed to a policy of common agricultural policy reform that would see an end to the direct subsidy of production, a reduction in the external tariffs on foodstuffs, bringing them down to the same level of external tariffs that apply on other goods, and an end to the practice of dumping EU produce on the markets of developing countries, which undercuts those countries’ own farmers.
A number of hon. Members spoke about excess EU regulation. I know that both the Cabinet Committee on European Affairs, which I am a member of, and the Regulatory Sub-Committee of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs will be keeping a very close eye on that issue. Excess EU regulation comes not only from Europe itself. Too often, there is gold-plating in Whitehall of European legislation, which is something that we are also determined to guard against.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone said one thing that I will quarrel with him about—in a good-humoured manner—and it was about EU enlargement. I disagree with him on this issue. I think that the enlargement of the EU has entrenched political stability, the rule of law and democratic institutions in Spain, Portugal, Greece and in central and eastern Europe. It is actually a tremendous achievement on the part of the EU. If one contrasts the picture today in those parts of our continent with what we saw in those same countries in the 1920s and 1930s, I think that the advantages and the strengths of the EU’s approach are demonstrated.
My hon. Friend rightly said that many people in Europe are frightened, angry and disillusioned. That is why we need to push forward a positive British agenda, to get European people back to work, to free up markets, to enhance free trade with the rest of the world and to demonstrate an advance towards a cleaner and greener European economy. At the same time, we need to champion vigorously the interests of the UK within the EU, to increase accountability to the British people and to increase the democratic legitimacy of the decisions that Ministers take in Europe, ensuring that it is the people who can take the final decision on any future transfer of power from this country to European institutions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I appreciate that the whole House had an opportunity to debate the situation in the middle east yesterday, but I am sure that hon. Members will be tolerant of our having a debate today that concentrates specifically on issues affecting Gaza, given that they have been of so much concern in the past few weeks.
The crisis in Gaza is central to the broader crisis between Israel and Palestine, and that conflict, in turn, is one of the most important in global political terms. It is crucial that British parliamentarians and the UK Government, along with the European Union, the United Nations and the Quartet partners, redouble our efforts to ensure that the blockade of Gaza is lifted. However, that is simply the most immediate step towards a lasting peace settlement, without which we are doomed to see repeats of the present situation. Not least because this point is often misrepresented, it is essential to restate that Israel has entirely legitimate security needs that must be met; but that can happen only if the Palestinian people have the right to a viable and secure state within sovereign borders.
As we are all aware, the latest crisis was triggered on 31 May, when Israeli forces boarded one of six vessels in the flotilla carrying aid to Gaza, killing nine Turkish nationals. Accounts of the event vary widely, of course, and have varied over time as different presentations of events have appeared in the media. From the footage that we have seen, there seems to be no doubt that Israeli soldiers were themselves subject to violent attack. However, Israel originally stated that its soldiers were fired on first—a claim for which no evidence has been provided—and that they were equipped with paintball guns, whereas the BBC’s “Newsnight” on 1 June showed that Israeli solders had been carrying lethal weapons from the beginning. Although we can draw some conclusions from the footage made available to date, we cannot yet be certain of all that happened on that day.
It is crucial that the inquiry into those events wins the confidence of the international community. Whether that can be true of an internal inquiry with foreign observers, as opposed to the independent investigation requested by the UN, is open to doubt at the very least. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s view of the robustness of the internal inquiry promised by Israel.
However grave the events involving the flotilla were, they also serve to draw attention to the wider predicament of Gaza.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As she is moving on from the events involving the flotilla, may I take this opportunity to ask what her response is to the experience of one of my constituents, Theresa McDermott, who was on one of the other boats in the flotilla? Although live weapons were, fortunately, not involved, Theresa McDermott experienced what can only be described as brutality by Israeli forces, who fired sound grenades directly at people, tasered them and so on. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is another reason why an independent inquiry into what happened on the flotilla is needed, and that it would also be in Israel’s own interests to clear up what happened?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It is of course true that in discussing the flotilla, we have, perhaps understandably, concentrated on the terrible events that led to nine deaths, but there are certainly grave allegations about what happened on the other boats in the flotilla. It is in everyone’s interests—including Israel’s, in my view—that the inquiry is sufficiently independent to win confidence. That is so often the case with such inquiries.
I have visited Gaza twice in the past three years. I spent two days there in March as part of a parliamentary delegation. On both occasions, what I saw shocked and appalled me. As an important preamble, let me say that on my previous visit in late 2007—I was there with other hon. Friends here today—I was able to visit Sderot, one of the southern Israeli towns subjected to rocket attacks from within the Gaza strip. Although it should not be necessary, I restate that rocket attacks on the civilian population, such as those that rained down on Sderot, constitute war crimes. I have no doubt that everyone taking part in this and other debates condemns such attacks without reservation. Israeli civilians have a right to peace and security. It is right that reasonable steps should be taken to prevent the flow of weapons into Gaza and to expect that attacks on the civilian population should not take place from within Gaza.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. I am listening carefully to what she is saying. Does she agree that the key problem behind the current crisis is the fact that Hamas, which rules Gaza, refuses absolutely to recognise the existence of the state of Israel?
I have not instituted this debate in order to act as an apologist for Hamas. There is absolutely no doubt that Hamas is a critical player in the crisis in the middle east, and neither I nor, I am sure, other parliamentarians are here to defend its role. The conflict is deep and intractable and Hamas must take responsibility for its share. However, with that important caveat, it seems to me that the issue underlying the wider crisis in Palestine and the situation in Gaza is the proportionality of the response and the collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Surely there can be no excuse whatever for the acts of terrorism against the people of Israel, and the best way to stop the blockade is by Hamas stopping its terrorism so that people can live together in peace and harmony?
I am grateful for that intervention. I was not aware that I was in any way excusing acts of terrorism; I do not do that. However, although I do not want to be diverted into the chronology of recent events, it is also true that Hamas has instituted truces in the rocket attacks on any number of occasions, but that those truces have not led to the sort of response that would allow us to make progress. I am sure that colleagues seeking to participate in the debate will discuss that further. That is true in respect of both Gaza and settlement building in the west bank. The way forward to peace involves initiatives taken by both sides.
The general tone of the interventions so far seems to suggest that Palestinians have brought this upon themselves by electing a Hamas Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the political issues in the middle east, punishing the Palestinian people collectively for exercising their democratic right is entirely wrong?
I agree totally and that is the main thrust of my contribution today. There are issues of proportionality and collective punishment. The 1.5 million citizens of Gaza should not be subjected to the impact of the siege because of the Government that they chose—or, in many cases, did not choose—to elect.
Israel has stated frequently that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the withdrawal of 8,000 settlers. However, as it has at any time since 1967, Israel has remained firmly in control of Gaza’s sovereignty, controlling its borders, airspace and coastal waters and retaining the right to enter at will. Gaza is surrounded on three sides by a security fence, and a seam zone extending up to 1 km into the territory is enforced by snipers to prevent anyone from approaching the fence. Palestinian farmers entering the zone are liable to be shot at by border guards, while fishermen seeking to fish away from the highly polluted coastline are regularly fired on by the Israeli navy. Leaving aside the casualties of Operation Cast Lead in 2009, 31 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and 116 injured since the beginning of 2010 alone. On 7 June, six Palestinians were killed off the coast of Gaza.
Since 2007, the control of Gaza’s borders has tightened further, to the extent of its being an all-encompassing siege. The people of that grossly over-populated strip—measuring only 10 km from east to west—have been denied all freedom of movement, have extremely limited access to vital goods and services and, perhaps most crucial, have been denied access to construction materials needed to rebuild the many homes and facilities destroyed during Operation Cast Lead.
The agreement on movement and access stipulates that 15,500 trucks a month should be allowed to enter Gaza via the crossing points with Israel. Since June 2007, however, the actual volume has typically been about 20% of that number. Between May and June this year, only 400 trucks entered Gaza—one third of the pre-siege level. The trucks are supposed to contain everything that the 1.5 million people of Gaza need to survive, yet only 73 sanctioned items were permitted. Items that were blocked—there has been very recent movement on this—included pasta, powdered milk, jam, cooking oil, school books and textbooks and T-shirts.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Regarding imports and exports to Gaza, she is aware that one of my constituents, Ibrahim Musaji, travelled recently to the area with Bristol Gaza Link—the third time that that organisation has travelled with humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza. Does she agree that, given the heavy decline in both imports to and exports from Gaza, with 95% of private business in effect going bankrupt, life is no longer normal in Gaza? Restoring the normal pattern of trade and humanitarian aid into Gaza is a crucial element for helping the people of Gaza, but doing so while managing to exclude weapons from being transported there is a conundrum that we hope the Government might be able to help to resolve.
I absolutely agree. That point goes to the heart of everything that I am hoping to say in the debate.
I mentioned a very recent relaxation of the inventory of items permitted to enter Gaza. There are reports that the Israeli authorities have recently approved the entry of 11 new food and hygiene items to Gaza, including jam, halva, soda, juice, canned fruits, razor blades and paste, yet overall Gaza imports have declined by almost 26% compared with last week alone. This week’s figure constitutes 17% of the weekly average that entered during the first five months of 2007—2,807 truckloads of items—before the Hamas takeover. A relaxation of the inventory is certainly not reading across into a relaxation in the volume of vital goods. Diesel and petrol for general use have been delivered on only five occasions in the last 18 months. Industrial fuel for Gaza’s only power plant is also restricted. Between May and June, only one quarter of the quantity required to operate it at full capacity was allowed through.
Operation Cast Lead destroyed or damaged 50,000 Palestinian homes, 280 schools and a number of hospitals and medical facilities, which I and other hon. Members in the debate saw for ourselves in early March this year. However, concrete and steel have, broadly speaking, not been allowed into the strip, and glass was allowed in only for a very short period. The result has been an almost complete lack of reconstruction since the war. That is clearly not in line with UN Security Council resolution 1860, which during Operation Cast Lead called for the
“unimpeded provision…throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance, including food, fuel and medical treatment”.
The Goldstone report, arising from the UN fact-finding mission, further found that the blockade deprives Palestinians in the Gaza strip of their means of sustenance, housing and water, as well as denying them freedom of movement. The report found that Israel has specifically violated
“obligations it has as Occupying Power”
spelled out in the fourth Geneva convention, such as the duty to maintain medical and hospital establishments.
On 1 March, I and other parliamentarians present saw, during my second visit to the area, that sites continue to lie in ruins or badly damaged a year after Operation Cast Lead, including the American international school, which was destroyed by Israeli missiles in January 2009. Rubble has been cleared, but apart from some innovative “earth dwellings” to help the homeless, little reconstruction has taken place. In the southern town of Khan Younis, we visited some of the 2,600 housing units commissioned by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that have stood unfinished since the start of the siege. In total, $100 million-worth of UNRWA projects are on hold. Sewage treatment and the provision of safe drinking water are among the most urgent public health necessities, yet there too, materials are on hold for that crucial project.
I apologise for missing the first part of my hon. Friend’s speech. Did she also observe during her visit the psychological damage done, particularly to young people, by the sense of incarceration and imprisonment, lost ambitions and the inability to travel or see anything that the rest of us wish to see of this planet?
I did indeed. We hear a great deal about the public health impact of the siege, and there is clear evidence that a shortage of minerals and vitamins in the diet of children is leading to very serious bone and dental health problems and broader public health problems, but mental health is of critical importance. It is of critical political importance as well. It is hard to measure and often people do not see mental health problems as representative of a traditional humanitarian crisis, of the type that we saw in the days after the Haiti earthquake, but it is arguable that a graver problem is being stored up, not just for the people of Palestine and Gaza, but for the Israeli people and for the future benefits of the peace process. Half the population of Gaza is under 18. Some 900,000 children and young people are trapped in an open prison. What that is doing to them and to the next generations of political leaders does not bear thinking about.
That is one of the reasons why I feel so sad. It seems that, again and again, we see a behaviour that is not necessarily in Israel’s own best interests and is really counter-productive. The other example of that is the destruction, referred to in an intervention, of the private economy as a consequence of the siege. We have seen the virtual total destruction of private commercial enterprise in Gaza. That, of course, has contributed to poverty because it contributes to unemployment, but it has also—this is a perverse consequence—strengthened Hamas in important ways.
The siege has contributed to the thriving tunnel operation—the means used for smuggling on a massive scale from Egypt into Gaza. We saw for ourselves some of the estimated 1,200 or so tunnels under the border, which permit about 4,000 items to enter Gaza, from cars and satellite dishes to the fabled lion that was brought into Gaza zoo and even basic medicines and food. That further disrupts the operation of the economy. The tunnels take a significant toll in human life. Some might say, “That’s the price you pay for what is in effect a criminal operation,” but it is seen as a lifeline—a way of breaking some of the most destructive elements of the siege. Because it provides revenue in the form of taxation on the smuggling operation, it strengthens Hamas’s hold on the economy, which is surely not what critics of the Hamas regime want.
Steps to close the tunnels, which are now being executed, will deprive Hamas of revenue, but tighten the screws still further on the siege of 1.5 million people. No doubt Israel is worried—I understand why—that a lifting of the blockade would be claimed by Hamas as a victory, yet it is hard to see a viable alternative strategy, unless it is believed that sheer desperation will lead the people of Gaza to punish Hamas in favour of a more moderate strategy, which they have yet to see will read across into an effective political solution, as we have seen with the settlement building on the west bank. I suggest that anyone holding such a belief is doomed to be disappointed.
I hope that the Minister will give us his assessment of the independent inquiry into the events on the Gaza flotilla. I hope that he will report back from the EU Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels and advise us on what progress the EU can make, by itself and in discussions with other Quartet members, to lift the blockade urgently. Does he believe that any easing of restrictions will not merely ease the humanitarian situation, but underpin a strategy of reconstruction and the rebuilding of the private economy? Will the British Government do all that they can to strengthen the accountability of all parties in this conflict for war crimes and transgressions of international law leading up to, during and subsequent to Operation Cast Lead?
I shall conclude now, because many other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate. I remain convinced that, whatever the larger politics of the situation in Gaza and the middle east, we must act with the utmost urgency to resolve the crisis afflicting 1.5 million civilians in Gaza—one of the gravest in the world today. Britain’s longstanding connection with the area should be used even more effectively to achieve a resolution.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I thank the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who regularly does this House a service by choosing topical issues, which she has done again. I hope that the way in which she spoke—her carefulness and informed contribution—will commend her comments to all parties.
I welcome you to the chair, Mr Streeter, not only because you are a good chair, but because you, with the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I, co-chaired the all-party group on conflict issues in the previous Parliament. If there is one strategy that we as a Parliament and the new Government need to deploy, it is to use our skill in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. In that context, I also welcome my very good friend the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) to his new ministerial responsibilities. He was sensitive when participating in the debate on the middle east yesterday in the House, and I know that he and his colleagues come to the subject with huge understanding and dedication.
To make a passing comment to link those words, those of us of the Jewish, Muslim or Christian faith—of course, other people in the House have other faiths or have no religious faith—should have a particular responsibility in this matter. If followers of the three great world faiths, for whom the part of the world that we are discussing is so important, cannot understand that the logic of our faith is that we should seek to accommodate followers of other faiths who share the same belief in the same God, not much of an example is set to the rest of the world when we seek to preach to them.
I have always described myself as both a friend of Palestine and a friend of Israel. I have been actively supporting the case for a Palestinian state since I was a teenager and have always argued that Israel has a right to exist with secure boundaries. I have had the privilege of visiting the area on several occasions, and although I have yet to have the opportunity to go to Gaza, I have frequently visited the west bank.
Let me make some brief comments following the worthwhile contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) to yesterday’s debate. First, we all hope that what Tony Blair said publicly yesterday will soon come to pass. The work done by the Quartet to bring about an end of the blockade, either wholly or significantly, is hugely welcome. Achieving such an end will be great progress, not least because the current situation is clearly nonsense, in the sense that although it is a terrible imposition on the people of Gaza by virtue of the tunnels and other things, it is a blockade with a conniving exemption. The whole thing has become a sort of international fiction, and the sooner we achieve orderly relations between people on either side of the border, the better.
Regarding the Government of Gaza, people must be allowed to choose their own Governments. They are not always comfortable choices, but the world must understand that it does not help by alienating those Governments entirely. I understand the difficulty. The Government of Gaza, Hamas, must understand—as they were moving to do—that the renunciation of violence and acceptance of the right of the state of Israel to exist have to be preconditions for international acceptance. However, that cannot mean that the people of Gaza or the west bank are not allowed to choose Hamas as their Government. The reason why they do so, as I understand it, is that that party stands strongly for the welfare of the people whom it seeks to represent. In many ways, it has done that more effectively than the other parties in the west bank. We must understand that. We must also understand that we may well have to deal with Hamas for a long time to come. I know that there are forces of enlightenment in the Government that want to make progress, and other Governments are helping them to do that. May we please be clear that precluding Hamas from being participants in the future is not a realistic option?
Israel is a democracy. As colleagues made clear in the House yesterday, it should be praised for being a democracy, although I share the view that certain forms of proportional representation are not helpful and that the Israeli system with a single chamber of Parliament might be one of them. The implication of a democracy is that the country respects international law. It cannot have it both ways. It cannot say, “We uphold democracy at home,” as it does, “and an enlightened social and other policy,” but then deny international law outside its own territorial waters or abroad.
I have talked to Israeli Ministers and officials about such matters. They really have to understand that international law has to apply to us all or it is discredited. When an inquiry such as the Goldstone report takes place, Israel cannot just then cast it aside because it does not like the findings. The eminent Judge Goldstone clearly did his job appropriately and properly. I heard the cautious words of the Minister yesterday; the Israeli Government must understand that their credibility regarding the events on the flotilla at the end of May will be established only if there is an international inquiry rather than just an Israeli Government inquiry with some international observers. I really believe that.
I and others have met constituents who were on the flotilla. I have heard vivid accounts of how they saw Israeli troops in large numbers—for example, 400 troops on the sixth boat—descend on the fighting. There is video footage and recordings, so there is no shortage of evidence. I just ask the Israeli Government to reconsider their limited willingness to hold an inquiry and for it to be conducted only by them. I want it to be done in a way that they find acceptable, but under the UN’s authority, as it has requested.
In that context, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West referred yesterday to the motion of the executive of Liberal International, the organisation that represents all Liberal parties throughout the world, which met on Sunday in Berlin. To summarise, it
“Deplores the use of force by Israel commandos”
on that occasion. It
“Deplores the violence caused by some activists on board the flotilla”.
The executive expressed
“shock at the resultant deaths and injuries”
“Demands the restoration of liberty of the Israeli Arabs who have been on board the flotilla”.
“Supports the UN Security Council’s call for a prompt, impartial, credible and transparent inquiry”
examining the actions of all parties, and
“Strongly calls on the Middle East quartet, and the US government in particular, to urge all parties to return to the Road Map and observe international law.”
Let me make one last point about the future. Gaza has a very difficult future. It is a small enclave surrounded by other countries, as the hon. Member for Westminster North rightly described. The history of enclaves in international law is not happy. Berlin is the last one that springs to mind—separate from the rest of its country with a corridor established. I understand the policy of both my party, and that of the Government. The traditional policy of countries such as ours is to accept a two-state solution: a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. That might be right but, just as there will need to be an imaginative solution to the future of Jerusalem, which will have to be the capital of both countries if there is to be lasting peace, so there needs to be an imaginative solution to how Gaza is linked with the west bank.
To have simply two separate territories without connection will not be an adequate way forward. There might have to be a special and protected connecting strip. There might have to be a renegotiation of land settlements that would include those settlements that are illegal as part of the package, as well as a return to old boundaries. There may have to be in the long term a United Nations presence to give security on what was mandated territory for us between the ‘20s and the ‘40s, and other international friends to support it. We, as a country, may have to play a significant role with the Quartet and other countries in guaranteeing the territories, the boundaries and the peace of Israel and Palestine if we are to persuade both Governments to feel confident about the future. I hope that my friend the Minister and his colleagues will be positive and think laterally about the way in which a solution might work, as well as work enthusiastically to make sure that the matter is one of the highest foreign policy priorities of the Government in the days and months ahead.
I rise to my feet as a friend of Palestine, and much to the furious incomprehension of a large number of my constituents, I do so as a steadfast friend of Israel, despite the provocation. Last summer, I sponsored an Adjournment debate on the Spirit of Humanity—a boat carrying humanitarian supplies that was trying to break the siege of Gaza. On that occasion, Israeli forces intercepted the boat—we presume in international waters, although the Israeli Government refused to provide details of the boat’s position, despite requests from British Ministers—but thankfully there was no violence. In the light of that and other previous incidents, should not the British Government have been alert to possible problems with the latest flotilla? Given that the Israeli media reported threats from the Israeli defence forces, making it clear that the ships were likely to be attacked, what actions, if any, had the British Government taken to avert those attacks, particularly knowing that British citizens were on board?
My constituent, Alex Harrison, was on board the Spirit of Humanity last year, and undeterred by that experience, she was also a passenger on the Challenger 1 ship, which formed part of the flotilla that was attacked again by Israeli forces on 31 May. Could the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the legality of the Israeli attack on the humanitarian convoy? What assurances has he had from the Government of Israel about whether there will be any more attacks in international waters on boats carrying British citizens?
Over the weekend, we heard more detail about the inquiry that is to be set up by Israel. We understand that it will include a foreign element and observers such as David Trimble. Will the international community have full confidence in that inquiry and its findings? Will it be independent and transparent? Will the Israelis, the Palestinians and, perhaps most importantly, the people of Turkey have full confidence in its findings? As Cathy Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union put it in The Times yesterday, will that inquiry be “credible, rigorous and impartial”?
In the debate yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) stated the obvious: there have been inquiries in the past on Israel, and perhaps one need go no further than to ask Tom Hurndall’s family about their experience of Israeli inquiries to explain why some people might be slightly cynical about an Israeli inquiry. Another issue is just how wide that inquiry will be and who will be questioned.. Will Alex Harrison be asked about her experience on that boat?
In preparation for this debate, I spoke to Alex. As I said, she was on board Challenger 1. It was flagged in the United States. She would like me to highlight the illegality of the Israeli action. The men who were killed were on the Marmora, which was registered in the Comoros islands, which are off Madagascar. It is her view, and that of many others, that the seizing and killing of the flotilla’s passengers while in international waters is nothing less than piracy. She says that they were some 80 miles away from Israel and were sailing away from Israel when they were boarded.
The Israeli action on 31 May may constitute breaches of international law that could be tried in the International Criminal Court. Alex was one of the boat’s crew. She told me that the Israeli forces came on to the boat, firing plastic bullets. All the glass on the boat broke. People were then pushed to the ground on to the glass. She was the last to be stopped, as she was on the bridge. Two members of the Israeli defence forces came up. Two Australian journalists—Kate and Paul from The Sydney Morning Herald—were with her, and they identified themselves. In response, they were tasered. It was a completely terrifying experience.
There was no violence from Alex’s boat towards the Israeli defence forces, yet those on board were treated with huge violence. She says that she has hand marks on her arms and legs from when she was picked up and carried from the boat. Once they were carried from the boat, all their items were bagged up and labelled. They have not had them back. The Israelis now say that they do not know where they are. She was told that she would be deported to Turkey. She had the clothes she stood up in. She had no passport and no money. She had not been to Turkey—she had come from Greece—and yet the Israelis said that they would deport her to Turkey.
Alex refused to go and so was one of the last to be deported. She was in a pen with 15 other women, and she witnessed some women next to her being hit about the head. They were not treated as badly as the men. She saw some men at the airport who were badly beaten, including Ken O’Keefe, who was so badly injured that he was not able to board the plane. She was some 5 yards away from an Irishman called Fiachra O’Luain as he was beaten around the head—she saw that going on. She also saw Turkish men, who had been injured and come out of hospital, being put on to the plane. Well, to say that they were put on to the plane is inaccurate—they were walking on to the plane as best they could. Some had been shot in the feet and were on crutches. There were no wheelchairs. She was not allowed to assist the men. If any attempt to try and assist them was made, people were hit again. Although she had experienced brutality from a distance in the past, she had never experienced such face-to-face, one-to-one brutality over such a sustained period. She said that they were sworn at, abused and laughed at throughout. That was unnecessary—gratuitous, in her view—and she certainly would like to give evidence to any inquiry. If necessary, she would like the matter to be taken to the International Criminal Court. One can understand why, given her experiences.
May I put it on the record that the constituent whom I referred to was also one of the protestors on the Challenger 1? She reports a similar account of what happened on the boat and in Israeli custody. Her account illustrates the real issues being raised by a number of credible people from the UK, and I hope that the Government will respond to them in the positive way that my hon. Friend requests.
Many hon. Members have constituents who have been on the flotillas. I suspect that we have many constituents who will be on them again. Alex Harrison has said that she will go back.
The terrible events of 31 May have brought the eyes of the world back to what has been going on in Gaza, highlighting the suffering of its people. The three-year blockade of Gaza has been compared to a mediaeval siege. There are some similarities: there is no free movement of people; no goods can leave Gaza, leading to the complete collapse of most businesses; no building materials have been allowed in to repair the damage caused by the Israeli attack of December 2008; one in 10 babies in Gaza are malnourished; one third of babies have anaemia; and a large proportion of the population is food insecure. However, the big difference between a mediaeval siege and the siege of Gaza is that the third crusade, when besieging Acre for two years, was intended to topple the garrison and not to behave in such a way that actually bolstered the garrison. That is effectively what has been happening. Instead of undermining the regime—which they seek to do—the Israelis are, by their actions, bolstering Hamas. Israel has got this fundamentally wrong. It is incumbent on those of us who are genuine friends of Israel to tell the truth: this is wrong, and to continue to behave in that way towards Gaza and Hamas undermines the security of Israel.
Does my hon. Friend accept that approximately 15,000 tonnes of goods a week have gone into Gaza, although that is clearly inadequate? Does she agree that if the European Union and the Palestinian Authority had been able to carry out their responsibilities in manning the crossings, goods could have gone into Gaza at a much faster rate?
In the end, if Gaza were treated how it should be treated, the gates would be open and the tunnels would be closed. Yes, I fully understand. I have been to Sderot and have seen how Israeli children are terrified of incoming bombs that rain down on their town. I fully understand why it would be necessary to search trucks going in—to make sure that they do not have weapons in them. However, it is not a challenge to Israeli security to stop biscuits going into Gaza, and that is the fundamental point. Gaza is being treated completely differently and in a way that is fundamentally unfair. It is incumbent on us to say loudly and clearly that that is wrong.
The hon. Lady referred to biscuits. On the visit that I attended with the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), we saw the bombed biscuit factory that, ironically, produced goods for export to Israel. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in controlling the substances that are allowed into Gaza, Israel has been entirely arbitrary? Such substances change from week to week and include random items such as jam and pasta, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Westminster North. When we were there, we were told that nappies—or diapers, as they were called—were not being allowed in. The sole purpose of that seems to be to play with people’s minds and do psychological damage to the civilian population.
It goes further than psychological damage: the fact that there is not a steady stream of proper goods going into Gaza also undermines people’s health. Moreover, the fact that no exports are allowed out of Gaza means that the economy has been undermined and that the people are dependent on Hamas, which allows and taxes the tunnels. Civil society is therefore undermined even further and people become increasingly dependent upon Hamas. When a poor woman wakes up in the morning wondering how to feed her six children, she does not think to herself, “This is Hamas’s fault,” but, “This is Israel’s fault.” That continues to feed extremism and undermine the very security of Israel. Those of us who believe in a two-state solution are fundamentally worried about that and are very concerned about what is happening.
I will not go through all my examples—I am sure that hon. Members are aware of them—but Cadbury’s creme eggs somehow get through the tunnels and nobody can afford them. Some 12,000 buildings need to be rebuilt, and 44% of Gazans are unemployed and so on. The fundamental point, however, is that the siege of Gaza is not hurting Hamas; it is destroying the lives of thousands of ordinary Gazans. The EU is the largest donor to Palestine, but aid is not enough. It is also Israel’s largest trading partner, and we have some clout at EU level. We in the EU must be more confident and do more to put pressure on Israel to ensure that the people of Gaza are treated fairly. I very much hope that EU Foreign Ministers will adopt a united position and that Britain will fully support it. That may include questioning whether an internal Israeli investigation of what happened to the flotilla on 31 May is sufficient.
It is also important for us to be more active diplomatically in the middle east. The problem is not going away—we must address it. We must end the blockade, which is morally outrageous and politically self-defeating, and as I said here last summer, we must open the gates and close the tunnels. Many organisations based in my constituency—such as Medical Aid for Palestinians, Save the Children, UNICEF and Merlin—work very hard to support the people of Gaza; but, ultimately, their good work simply gives us the space to exert moral and political courage to ensure a two-state solution and peace for everyone.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I apologise for missing the start of the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing it. It is extremely important.
I have had the good fortune to visit Gaza on five occasions over the past 10 to 12 years, and I was last there with many of my colleagues as part of a European delegation led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), during which we saw for ourselves what the situation was like in Gaza. As I said in an intervention, we saw the people of Gaza’s sense of imprisonment and its psychological effect on young people. I also noticed for the first time—I had never seen it before—a sense of youth disaffection, with higher levels of drug taking, vandalism and antisocial behaviour, which was never previously a factor in the life of Gaza.
Gaza has a very young population. Teenagers and young people often have a good education—the UN schools are pretty good—and there are high levels of university education. Palestine has the highest level of graduation of any country in the region, but people have no possibility of employment unless they can get a job with the UN, a non-governmental organisation, or the Government of Gaza. NGOs clearly require sufficient resources, because the private and business sectors have virtually completely collapsed. The two basic ingredients for running a small business or a store are customers and goods to sell. In Gaza, there are no customers, because they have no money, and there are no goods to sell, because they cannot be got in. One therefore walks down streets and streets of boarded-up stores and shops, and there is a sense of deep depression in the environment.
During our visit, we had a lengthy meeting with members of all parties of the Palestinian Parliament in Gaza in the bombed-out ruins of the Parliament building. What possible purpose was there in Operation Cast Lead specifically bombing the debating chamber of the Palestinian Parliament? What kind of message was that trying to give? Why were mortar shells fired through the upper floors of a school? The last time I had been in that school was as an election observer the year before, when it was teeming with people queuing up to vote. The school was bombed, which was clearly gratuitously insulting to the people of Gaza. There was no point or purpose to it whatsoever. There was no possible military objective; nor was there in the destruction of many homes, among other things.
As we left Gaza on our way to the Rafah crossing back into Egypt, our bus was filled with an unbelievable stench from the sewage works. They had been damaged and bombed and no chemicals had been allowed through to operate the sewage treatment system. The result was tens of thousands of tonnes of raw sewage being pumped into the Mediterranean. At some point, that sewage will start polluting the beaches of Israel when presumably public opinion in Israel will say something should be done to allow equipment in to repair the sewage works in Gaza. That kind of gratuitously insulting behaviour makes people so angry and is utterly counter-productive.
I have spoken to many people who were on the flotilla the week before last, and listened to their descriptions, including that of Alex Harrison, the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). The way in which the Israeli soldiers behaved was disgusting: people were shot, imprisoned and denied access to phones, legal advice and, particularly in the case of older people, food and water.
I was at a meeting last week when an al-Jazeera journalist, who had been on the vessel, described in excruciating detail what he had observed. He clearly has a vivid and photographic memory. That account needs to be told because it was of an incident taking place on the high seas in international waters. An inquiry headed by a series of Israeli judges—with all due respect to David Trimble, the only international observer—is not good enough. We want an international inquiry from the United Nations with an international committee of jurists. I guess Israel would not be happy about that because the last international observation of Israel’s behaviour was the Goldstone commission on Operation Cast Lead. I would be grateful if the Minister could let us know what progress has been made on the Goldstone commission and its process through the UN Security Council.
I do not want to go on too long because many others want to speak. In reality, the situation is simple: Palestine is under occupation. In the case of the west bank, it is under occupation through checkpoints, endless military intervention, targeted assassinations, the construction of the wall, denial of water, trade and ordinary life, and the sense of collective fear of many people living on the west bank. In the case of Gaza, it is encircled by walls, barbed wire, aerial buzzing—including targeted bombings—and by Israeli naval vessels off the coast to prevent fishermen going further out and the flotilla and aid vessels getting in.
Although public opinion in Israel undoubtedly supports what the Government are trying to do, a significant number of people argue, demonstrate and act collectively to say that the strategy is complete madness, collective punishment and illegal, and creates a sense of isolation in Israel. Israel is now more isolated in world opinion than it has ever been. It broke the law, in my view, in the case of the flotilla. The Goldstone commissioners reported on Operation Cast Lead. British and other passports were used in the Dubai assassination. There are numerous examples of how UN law and resolutions have been flouted by the state of Israel. So we come to the conclusion: what do we do about the situation?
First, we send all the aid that we possibly can to the people of Palestine to allow them to survive. I was at a fund-raising event last week for medical aid for Palestine. The organisation, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury, does fantastic work. Many of us have also supported many other charities. Why do we have to send medical aid to Palestine? Why do we have to send aid at all? The people of Palestine and Gaza are suffering not from a tsunami, an earthquake, a volcano, a hurricane or a tropical storm but from something specifically designed to punish, to hurt and to damage people’s lives. That is what the occupation and imprisonment of the people of Gaza are all about.
Why, then, do we not impose some kind of sanction against Israel for its constant illegal behaviour? Why do we not suspend the EU-Israel association agreement by which Israel survives so well economically? Why does the US continue to pour aid into Israel, including military aid and a new missile defence system, other than because it sees Israel as an extension of its own foreign policy in the region? If we want a nuclear-free middle east and peace in the middle east, the siege must end. The blockade must be lifted, and the people of Palestine and their legitimate right to live peacefully and to survive must be recognised.
I sat down with the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and others at several lengthy meetings during our visits with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the Arab League, the Hamas Government and parliamentarians in Gaza. The one thing that came across in the last two meetings with the Hamas Government and the other parties was that they want to be part of the process. They want to be part of the future, and of a settlement. Isolation, ignorance, occupation, killing and murdering, which is what it is, are not making things better. They are making the situation worse, and we look to the Government to be assertive in their policies towards Israel’s ending the blockade.
Order. Colleagues, winding-up speeches will begin at 10 minutes past 12, so we have 18 minutes to go. I have two colleagues on my list and two new Members have just indicated that they would like to speak, and we will try to get everyone in. You can do the maths yourselves.
It is important that we discuss the shocking events of 31 May, but it is also important that we discuss the context in which they occurred, even though some of the facts about that context disturb a number of people. There may be things that they would rather not hear or know about. However, the facts are that Israeli settlers left Gaza in 2005, but that was followed not by Palestinians and the people of Gaza trying to build a new society and attract international investment. It was followed by the violence of Hamas overthrowing Fatah and engaging in a civil war with it, and by Hamas continuing to state its absolute opposition to the very existence of Israel.
Hamas’s charter is readily available. It constantly puzzles me why people who are legitimately and genuinely concerned about social justice wilfully ignore the contents of that charter in a way that they would not if it belonged to any other organisation. The charter includes statements about killing the Jews. It says that the day of judgment will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews. It says that there is no way except jihad, and that peace conferences and negotiations are a waste of time. It talks about the protocols of the elders of Zion, and the false allegation that Jews run the world. It claims that Jews are responsible for all revolutions, including the French and Russian revolutions. Indeed, the charter goes beyond being anti-Israeli: it is clearly anti-Semitic, and when it is combined with Hamas’s actions in targeting rockets at Israeli civilians, is it surprising that Israelis are genuinely concerned about their security?
There is increasing concern about the involvement of Iran with Hamas in Gaza. That concern was intensified when, last November, a vessel was intercepted off the coast of Cyprus, filled with armaments coming from Iran on their way to Gaza. Those weapons were aimed not only at Sderot, which has suffered too much and for too long, but at Tel Aviv. Israel’s concerns about security are real.
Something needs to be done about the crossings and the current state of affairs. Last June, the European Union said it was willing to contribute to post-conflict arrangements, yet what has happened? Very little. Egypt was also involved in addressing what was happening with the crossings, but it has withdrawn. I hope the statement made by Tony Blair yesterday about new proposals will become a reality, so that the long-suffering people of Gaza can have their needs addressed.
Disturbing questions must be asked about the events of 31 May. Six vessels were involved, and it must be asked why five of those six vessels landed at Ashdod as requested and unloaded their humanitarian aid, while on the sixth vessel something was very different. When those five vessels landed their humanitarian aid at Ashdod, Hamas refused to allow that aid to be delivered to Gaza. That is deplorable, and I do not hear cries of concern and criticism directed at Hamas for taking that action.
My hon. Friend is aiming her fire at something nobody in the debate has sought to defend. Why does the picture that she paints of Gaza appear to be so different from the weekly reports given by the United Nations and other agencies about the situation, and about the causes of that situation and Israel’s responsibility for it? Those agencies are there, so why does she think they have got it so dreadfully wrong? I suggest that it might be a good idea for her—and a number of other hon. Members—to visit Gaza and talk to people there and get their views on their situation.
The reality is that Gaza is run by Hamas, an Islamist organisation that is proscribed by the EU, the USA and Canada as a terrorist organisation. Its regime has led to this dreadful situation for the people of Gaza. That cannot be ignored; it is a fact. More questions need to be asked about that flotilla, focusing on that sixth vessel. What is the role of the Turkish IHH—again, a charitable organisation linked to Hamas and other terrorist organisations? What about the recording that was made in relation to that sixth vessel, showing that when the Israelis repeatedly asked it to land at Ashdod, the reply came back, “Go back to Auschwitz”? What about the fact that people on that sixth vessel were armed with metal rods with knives, and that a lynching of Israelis was attempted? I have no doubt that the majority of people on those vessels were genuine peace activists, but were they infiltrated by somebody else with other ideas?
What about the reports that we have seen since those events in the Turkish media? Families of people who were regrettably killed on that vessel have stated that their partner—the husband in one case—said that he wanted to be a martyr. Even more damning, what about the broadcast that was made on Hamas TV on 30 May, the day before the incident happened, when a university lecturer said that the participants in that flotilla wanted to die as martyrs even more than they wanted to reach Gaza? What a condemnation.
My hon. Friend is repeating the information—if I can call it that—put out by the Israeli authorities in the immediate aftermath of the incident, for which no evidence has been produced. Is she seriously saying that, because Israeli forces normally get away with abseiling heavily armed on to ships in the middle of the night, when, on one occasion, people resist and nine of them are shot dead, they had it coming to them? My hon. Friend should consider the language she uses, even in putting forward her case so strongly.
[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
The detail of what happened on the ship will come from the inquiries, but the information that I have brought to this debate—I think very damning condemnation of what happened—does not come from Israeli sources. It comes from the Turkish media and what has been shown on Hamas TV. Those facts might be very inconvenient for people who do not want to know about them, but they are there and they are part of the picture.
I understand the strength of feeling of my hon. Friend and her view on the issue, but does she agree that the differing accounts that are being given are themselves a good reason why the inquiry into the incident should be seen as genuinely independent and international, and as having credibility on all sides? Will she at least agree that that would perhaps provide some way forward from that unhappy incident?
There are indeed differing accounts of what happened, and that is to be expected in an exceedingly fraught and tragic situation such as the one that occurred. That is why I agree that it is important that inquiries should take place; but it is not possible to ignore the facts that I have stated: what happened on that flotilla, what was involved in its planning, the statements that have been made on the TV, the information that has been in the Turkish media, and the context in which Gaza is run, by an organisation with a charter that is simply genocidal.
There is a way forward. The statements made by Tony Blair, the middle east envoy, point a way forward to dealing with the issue of the crossings, but more than that must be done. The most constructive thing would be for Hamas to review its situation, withdraw its charter and state its agreement to accepting the existence of the state of Israel, and join Fatah in negotiations to secure a two-state solution to this tragic problem.
To pick up a comment from one of my hon. Friends about going to Gaza, I have been there—a long time ago, in 1967, just after the six-day war. That was certainly not a golden age for the people of Gaza, which had at that time been administered by Egypt under the armistice agreements of 1949. The people of Gaza were deeply distressed and dissatisfied with the rule of Egypt. They were in poverty and distress. After that war it was hoped that there might be a negotiated solution to the whole conflict, but the Khartoum conference, where the Arab states said clearly “No recognition, no negotiation, no peace” put an end to that. I hope that, whatever our different perspectives on why we are in the current position, we can all make a new start and there can be a negotiated peace on the basis of two states living together in peace and security.
Before what I hope will be brief remarks, I point out by way of a declaration of interest that my constituency party has received donations from individuals and organisations supporting the rights of Palestinians, and I made several visits to Palestine, Gaza and the west bank in the previous Parliament.
As to the flotilla, about which we have heard quite a lot in the debate, we clearly have heard very different versions of what happened. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, perhaps for that reason more than any other, an independent inquiry—one that is seen to be independent—is demanded. The way the news came out was entirely predictable—an entire news blackout and suppression of information by the Israeli authorities for the first 48 hours. They gave their version of events, and with regret I must say that some of the highly partisan and unsupported accounts, blackening the name of people who were travelling on that flotilla by way of exonerating the Israeli actions, have been repeated in this debate and yesterday on the Floor of the House. That does not help, and nor does the way the Israeli information services deal with those matters.
I do not think that I have time to take interventions.
Travelling on that convoy were many independent, well-respected people, including an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset, Hanin Zoabi, and Henning Mankell, the respected Swedish author. All those people have given eye-witness testimony as to the brutality and violence of the Israeli forces, who wholly unnecessarily stormed the convoy in international waters in the middle of the night. No real explanation can be given as to why that was necessary. I have heard a number of those eye-witness accounts, which are compelling and have the ring of truth about them. However, the solution to the absolutely black-and-white situation that we have heard described by the two sides so far is an independent inquiry.
I have three sets of questions for the Minister. On the responsibilities of the British Government, the treatment of British citizens needs to be looked into. Issues include the violence and brutality that many of them allege the Israeli forces meted out to them over a prolonged period, and the confiscation of their belongings. There is also the refusal of consular access. There has been great criticism of the embassy in Tel Aviv for not pressing as hard as other countries’ embassies to get access to our citizens. All those matters require answers.
The second issue on which the Government should be prepared to act is the search for a more independent role for the inquiry. It would be useful to hear the Minister talk about the effectively tokenistic gesture of appointing Lord Trimble, who is known as a supporter of the boycott of Hamas and a friend of Israel, and who cannot be seen as impartial, and a judge who does not believe in an international element to the inquiry. That is not an independent inquiry; it is the basis for a whitewash, and it would be useful if the British Government asked for a genuine international inquiry.
Thirdly, the Minister was quoted as saying that he did not think that
“the British Government is talking about lifting the blockade”
on Gaza. That quotation, which was in The Guardian last Thursday, may be wrong, but it would be disappointing if it was correct. We need to lift the blockade on Gaza; we need not to ease the restrictions or simply to see a greater number of supplies going in, but to restore full commercial and civil life to Gaza. Again, that is something that the Government should strongly support.
We are talking not about factional organisations, but about organisations such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which have said clearly and in terms over the past few days not only that the blockade is “illegal” and a “humanitarian catastrophe”, but that it constitutes
“a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.”
I would like the British Government to make similar pronouncements and at last to put pressure on the Israelis to lift the wholly unjustifiable and inhuman punishment of 1.6 million civilians, which they have imposed simply because they have the ability to do so and because the rest of the world is not, at the moment, prepared to stand up to them.
The firing of rockets from Gaza into the south of Israel presents a menacing and deadly threat. It is completely wrong and it needs to stop because it is taking innocent lives. It is wrong because it provides the justification for Israel’s retaliation, although not for its disproportionate response, which is merciless at times.
The question that I am constantly asked in Bradford East is why the state of Israel is allowed to get away with this. People simply cannot comprehend why international action is not taken. The answer, I have to conclude, is that Israel can get away with it and regularly does. Yes, Hamas is proscribed, but why is the state of Israel not proscribed? Everyone says that a peaceful solution is necessary, but why on earth should the state of Israel agree to a peaceful solution when brutal force has achieved so much for it over such a long period? In my view, the two-state solution is almost an impossible dream. The situation has gone too far. I hope that that is not the case, but I fear that it is.
Why should we take a lead? We should do so because the British are up to our necks in responsibility for the situation in the Palestine region. From 1917 onwards, we gave away something that was not ours; we turned a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing that took place after the second world war; and now we are participating in the international acceptance of an apartheid state. People say that that would not be allowed anywhere else. In fact, it was not allowed anywhere else—certainly not in South Africa.
Unless things change, they stay the same. We must take a lead with our European partners, as has been said. We must go back to Obama, who started by making a very positive speech in Cairo. However, we must also consider boycotts, divestment and sanctions, because those were the only things that carried any weight in South Africa. Those policies must extend not only to weapons but to sport and academic boycotts as well. The United Nations has made a score or more resolutions. It is not resolutions we need; it is resolve—
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this debate and on her passionate, balanced and highly effective contribution, which was an extremely good start.
There is absolutely no doubt that the plight of the people of Gaza is both a humanitarian tragedy and a political crisis. The blockade of Gaza is unacceptable and unsustainable, and it is now essential to remove all obstacles not only to humanitarian assistance but to the materials and resources required to begin rebuilding homes, public infrastructure and the Gazan economy. However, that will happen only if Israel can be assured that systems are in place to ensure that arms and arms components cannot be smuggled or got in any way into Gaza. It is therefore essential that the Quartet and the Arab League work with Israelis and Palestinians to come up with a credible plan to end the blockade while meeting Israel’s legitimate security concerns, which is the basis of resolution 1860. The Opposition warmly welcomes the work of Tony Blair and Baroness Ashton on those matters.
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. What do the British Government believe should be the EU contribution to such a plan? How quickly can a plan be put in place? Neither in this debate nor in yesterday’s did anyone refer to the Egyptians putting in place security infrastructure to close the tunnels and prevent smuggling. Has that been done and, if so, what effect has it had on the tunnels?
On the Israel defence forces’ raid on the Gaza flotilla, I made it clear during last night’s debate that we welcome the Israeli Government’s decision to set up an inquiry with the involvement of two international observers. However, we will watch closely to ensure that the inquiry meets the tests of independence, transparency and credibility. My questions to the Minister about the flotilla relate to many of my hon. Friends’ contributions. Will British citizens who were on the flotilla have the opportunity to give evidence to the inquiry, and what efforts will the British Government make to facilitate that? What happened to the humanitarian assistance on the flotilla? We hear different accounts.
On aid, this country can be very proud of the aid that we provided to both the west bank and Gaza. The sad irony of this debate, for reasons that many hon. Members have raised, is the contrast between progress on the west bank and in Gaza. We should always pay tribute in such debates to the leadership of Prime Minister Fayyad and to President Abbas for the improvements in security and economic growth on the west bank. We should also continue to support the two-year plan launched by Prime Minister Fayyad towards Palestinian statehood.
I have some specific questions for the Minister. Will the new Government maintain our commitment to £210 million in aid over three years for the west bank and Gaza? Was the £19 million for UNRWA in Gaza announced by the Secretary of State for International Development last week new money, or part of the £210 million that was already committed?
Let me briefly raise the continued detention of Gilad Shalit. I think that all Members agree that his detention is unacceptable and that he should be released without delay or precondition. It was very moving for me to meet his father not that long ago and hear the human misery that the family is going through. What more does the Minister think that the UK and the EU can do to secure the release of Corporal Shalit, particularly in their dialogue and contact with Arab states?
I think that I dealt with that question last night, and my hon. Friend heard my answer then. He probably was not satisfied with it, but I give him the same answer now. Clearly, if people are being held without trial and without charge and there is no evidence that they have committed criminal offences, they should be released. If there is evidence of criminal offences, that evidence should be brought before the courts, and whatever the person’s status—we have recently had a debate about status and parliamentarians in this country—they should be charged. That is my very clear position.
Finally, I have some specific questions about Hamas for the Minister. Do the Government stand by the three conditions laid down by the Quartet that Hamas must meet to be brought into the political process? Are the Government reviewing Britain’s position on that issue, or is Britain arguing within the EU or the Quartet that that position should change? A question that is never sufficiently asked in these debates is whether we have an assessment of the treatment of Gazans in terms of human rights, and of Hamas’s attitude and behaviour towards UN agencies and non-governmental organisations in Gaza. What is the international community’s assessment of the people of Gaza’s experiences of the Hamas Government? How many rockets have been fired into Israel in the past 12 months? Can the Minister give an assessment of where we believe Hamas’s financial support comes from? Some hon. Members have referred to the relationship between Hamas and Iran; it would be useful to know what the British Government’s assessment is of the nature of that relationship.
I also wish to ask a question that nobody has asked for some considerable time. We, as a Government, were giving tremendous support to Egyptian efforts to reunify the Palestinian leadership. I think that we all accept that that would ultimately be in the best interests of a peace process. Things have gone very quiet, however, and it is not clear whether the Egyptians have stopped playing that facilitator role or whether the process is ongoing and the British Government continue to support the Egyptians in fulfilling that role.
In conclusion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North said at the start of the debate, what matters most is political progress towards two states. The current proximity talks are important, but until we move to direct talks on the comprehensive issues that will lead to a fair and just two-state solution, the vacuum is dangerous because it could lead to a return to serious violence. I hope that the British Government will continue to do everything in their power to support the move towards direct negotiations as quickly as possible.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I begin by echoing the thanks of the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) to the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington North—
None of us should forget that. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate and on the balanced way in which she put her case, marking out clearly what she believes, but also making due reference to the needs of Israel and its security on a number of occasions. All of us, I believe, appreciate the way in which she made her points. I also welcome the work that she has done with the all-party group and the report that she has produced, which illustrated her remarks.
I will do my best to cover as many questions as I can, but I will not go through all of them as there are many. It is quicker to ask questions than to answer them, but I will do what I can. I also appreciate the engagement of the hon. Member for Bury South with my office on the debate and the issues that he raised, about which he knows a great deal.
Yes, I remember. It is difficult for a while to stop, and the hon. Gentleman is clearly in that mode, but he is doing extremely well.
I shall remark on the incident itself and then say a little about the situation in Gaza. The Government unequivocally deplore the deaths of the nine people who lost their lives as the result of the recent events. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister were in touch with the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to offer our condolences, recognising that most of those who died were Turkish citizens. We have consistently made the following point clear to the Israeli Government, both in public and in private: we look to Israel to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of the unacceptable actions.
The hon. Member for Bury South asked about the United Kingdom’s role in the events and the investigation. The UK has played a key role, working closely with the international community, including the EU and the Quartet representative Tony Blair, to stress to Israel the importance of an investigation that ensures accountability, commands the confidence of the international community and includes international participation. The Government have discussed those matters with Israeli counterparts on a number of occasions, most recently on 13 June, when the Prime Minister spoke directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu just before Israel announced a public commission to investigate the incident.
It is important that the investigation ensures full accountability and commands the confidence of the international community. The announcement yesterday by the Israeli Government of a commission headed by a Supreme Court judge and including David Trimble and Ken Watkins, a Canadian, as international observers is an important step forward. We welcome the commission’s international membership and broad mandate. It is important that the inquiry is truly independent and the investigation is thorough. We will watch the progress and conduct of the inquiry before we make any further remarks.
I thank the Minister. Please forgive me, as it is my first time participating in such a debate, but I am a little concerned that we have not heard many details about the remit of the inquiry, particularly on the question of consular access, which was incredibly important to a number of people from Walthamstow, members of whose family were on the flotilla, and on the lack of information that we, as the British Government and as British MPs, were able to get hold of. It does not seem clear to me, as far as we have seen the remit of the inquiry, that the issues about how international citizens are treated in such kinds of incidents and what lessons can be learnt will be covered. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. Clearly, we are not responsible for the remit of the inquiry, but a number of Members have mentioned the consular problems that occurred. I will make some inquiries with the Israeli authorities on that matter. I would like to say a little about the consular problems, because a number of Members raised them.
No, because I have only six minutes.
The consular service is one of the most important aspects of the Foreign Office’s work. Our travel advice clearly advised people against travelling to Gaza, and we made that specifically clear in relation to the flotilla as well. I will meet those who were involved in the incident tomorrow. The meeting was set up at my request so that people could discuss their experiences both with me and other consular officials at the Foreign Office. I shall listen to them very carefully.
As far as I am aware, our consular staff in Israel worked tirelessly from the moment that they were alerted to the situation to ensure that they could get access to those involved and that people had everything they needed. We raised with the Israeli authorities the need for immediate consular access, and that was granted the following day. Our officials spent several hours visiting those who were in detention and in hospital before they were deported, and we had a large presence in Istanbul to meet those who arrived there. We are also aware that some people’s passports and luggage have not been returned. We will raise that issue with the Israeli authorities because such goods must be returned.
No, the inquiry meets the United Nations Security Council resolution requirement of an independent and impartial inquiry with an international element, but we will wait to see how it evolves. We believe that it has met the initial requirement set out by the international community, which was not for an international inquiry or a UN inquiry; it was exactly as the UN resolution delivered. The point is we should not be distracted by the remit or the structure of the inquiry. The important thing is what it looks at and what emerges from it to give some credibility to the assessment of what happened. We know that there are competing versions of events out there, and we know that the world will not be satisfied unless there is a process that gives everyone the chance to say what they saw and what conclusions they came to. The state of Israel understands that as well as anybody else, and we have made that point very clearly. We should not get hung up on the structure of the inquiry, because, in testament to those who died or who were involved, we should let the inquiry get on and see what emerges, and that is what we are concentrating on.
It is very important to see the incident not in isolation, but as part of the continuing misery and drama of Gaza. We and other members of the international community have underlined the need to lift current restrictions in United Nations Security Council resolution 1860. As for the blockade itself, the UK’s position is that there is a role for the EU, both diplomatically and as part of the Quartet, in dealing with the easing of the restrictions.
In terms of semantics, when I talked about not lifting the blockade last week, I meant not lifting the blockade to allow completely free access to Gaza of everything that anybody wants to bring in. No one is talking about that. If conventional wording means to allow the unfettered access of goods that are both humanitarian and necessary to help with the reconstruction of Gaza, but not including arms, that is what I meant, so there should be no disagreement between us there. We support the attempts that have been made to change the nature of the blockade and to get the right goods in.
As far as our support for the UN work is concerned, we announced £19 million for UNRWA’s work with Palestinian refugees across the region. That is part of the tranche of money that was already agreed. In relation to the question of the hon. Member for Bury South about continuing that flow of money, such a decision is subject to the same concerns about Government expenditure generally. None the less, I share his belief that that support is necessary and should continue. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Government’s commitment to international aid and development.
The position of Hamas was raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and a number of others. Hamas does play a part in the whole tragedy of Gaza; it is wrong to ignore it or to ignore its part in that tragedy. There is no suggestion that the United Kingdom will change its position in relation to contact with Hamas; we intend to keep that as it is.
The hon. Member for Bury South asked a number of questions about Hamas, but he also called for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit and asked what we can do about that. We in the Conservative party have also pressed for the unconditional release of Gilad Shalit for a number of years. As a Government, we will continue to do that—
I feel almost like a country parson reading the banns of marriage—“this being for the third time of asking”—given that this is the third time I have dragged a Minister to Westminster Hall to answer for the actions of the Government on the protection of the Lymington river.
Furthermore, as with the controversial actions of country parsons in respect of changing hymns and modern unpopular liturgies, I find that my own actions in my assiduous dedication to this task have proved equally unpopular. While I was going about my duties in Lymington on Friday, a charming but forceful lady took me aside and demanded to know why I was so “anti-ferry”. Actually, I am not “anti-ferry” at all. My starting point is that there is a critical need in both the Lymington and Yarmouth economies for the ferry service and I want to see that ferry service preserved. However, there are other interests that have to be balanced against those of the ferry service, not least the protection of the European Natura 2000 sites, the importance to the local economy of the yachting interest in Lymington, and indeed the long-term survival of Lymington as a harbour, which is protected by the local mud flats. The diminution of those mud flats poses a long-term threat to the future of Lymington. So, all those interests have to be balanced.
It is the law that provides protection and balance. The fact that we are now having a third Adjournment debate on this issue and that we have had two spats in court, both of which the Government lost, is down to the failure to implement the law properly. The Government gave all sorts of commitments in signing up to the relevant European directives, but then failed properly to transpose those directives into English law.
I do not want to repeat the entire history of this subject; those who are interested in it can read the Official Report of the two previous Adjournment debates. However, I shall give a potted history now. We have always been led to believe the received wisdom that the erosion of the Lymington salt marshes was an inevitable consequence of nature—“It’s the weather and there’s nothing we can do about it”. Of course, those salt marshes are vital to Lymington, and the Lymington harbour commissioners have come up with a plan worthy of our Victorian forebears in its engineering prowess. They are going to build a sea wall—a monument to King Canute—to hold back the waves and save at least some of the salt marsh. I am not qualified to say whether that plan will survive current economic realities or whether it will actually work.
However, as a consequence of this controversy, a number of studies have been carried out of bathymetric data—a subject on which I am uniquely unqualified to pontificate. I understand, however, that the findings of the Southampton university team who carried out one of those studies suggest that the salt marshes, if left to nature alone, would actually be accreting—growing and extending—and that it is only the introduction of the particular form of propulsion used by the Lymington ferry from the 1960s onwards that has led to the swift erosion of the salt marshes. That erosion has been even swifter since the introduction of the new “W”-class ferries, a development that has sparked the recent controversy.
These are issues well beyond my competence, as I said, but they are precisely those that must be clearly understood and examined in that appropriate assessment. A principal reason for the court’s determining that the new ferries had been unlawfully introduced on to the Lymington river was that Wightlink was its own competent authority for the determination of that appropriate assessment. Notwithstanding reams of assurances, in correspondence from Ministers and in parliamentary answers to my questions, that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency was the appropriate authority, when it came to the crunch it turned out that because the Government had been so cack-handed in implementing the habitats directive, Wightlink was its own competent authority. The judge said it had shown a complete disregard for its public responsibilities, separating them from its own commercial interests, and that as a consequence it was absolutely invalid.
The question is what to do next. Wightlink has said it will rerun the appropriate assessment and, in addition, do a full environmental impact assessment. The difficulty is that Wightlink remains its own competent authority. Wightlink will still be judge and jury in its own court. Wightlink has said, “No, no. We’re going to form a new company—Wightlink CA, or Wightlink competent authority—to judge the appropriate assessment.” Key questions arise. How will the commercial interests of Wightlink CA be different from the commercial interests of Wightlink itself? Will it have a different board of directors? There is a clear need in these assessments for an independent referee.
Wightlink has said it will carry out a full environmental impact assessment. That is a huge undertaking, involving public consultation. It must consider the whole environment, including the increase in heavy goods vehicles traffic through the Forest to take advantage of the greater capacity of the ferries, especially as the bridge restrictions at the mouth of Lymington at the Ampress site mean that those lorries have to travel through the sensitive parts of the national park. All those issues give rise to great local concern about the impartiality of Wightlink, because it already has form on this matter. Why should we trust it now, given that the court could not trust it earlier?
When Wightlink announced that it would do an environmental impact assessment, it set out the details of how it was to be achieved, including the setting up of Wightlink CA, in a letter from its solicitors. The letter concludes by saying what the outcome would be before the assessments have begun. It states:
“Natural England have advised on a rate of erosion of the existing habitat areas in the European Sites that can, in their view, be attributed to the operation of the ‘W’ class ferries. The mitigation works will prevent loss of an equivalent or greater area of habitat (than the loss attributable to the ferries) elsewhere in the European Sites.”
There it is: it has already concluded that the mitigation works it is to undertake will compensate for any erosion. Before the assessments are undertaken to establish the rate of erosion and other facts, we have the conclusion that the mitigation works will take care of it. The conclusion has been announced before the studies have even begun.
Wightlink goes on, in a most extraordinary piece worthy of Alice in Wonderland, to say:
“The effect of the mitigation works is therefore to prevent an adverse effect on the European Sites by reference to their conservation objectives. Consequently, adverse effects on the integrity of the European Sites are avoided and the tests and approach under article 6(4) (and regulation 62 of the Habitat Regulations 2010) are not engaged. The mitigation works will prevent the harm occurring and consequently the works are appropriately considered mitigation and not compensation.”
In plain English, that gobbledegook means, “Notwithstanding the damage we are doing to the Natura site, because we are compensating by dumping some mud somewhere else, no damage has occurred.” This is a most ridiculous interpretation. It did not fool the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. In a classic piece of English understatement, in its letter to me it says:
“We remain to be convinced that on a practical level the proposals have been sufficiently well considered and will deliver the habitat benefits that would be required to provide assurance that the introduction of the new ferries will not have an adverse effect on the integrity of the Natura 2000 site. We also continue to seek clarification as to whether the scheme is in fact compensation rather than mitigation.”
So we have this issue of compensation and mitigation. Natural England has already accepted a measure of damage and adverse effect on the sites. It tends to rather understate it. In its stakeholder response to the study carried out by Natural England, Wightlink says:
“The revised impact requiring mitigation is quantified by Natural England as increasing from 1.05 to 1.55 ha per decade (for explanation see Appendix 5). This predicted impact is still very small year on year (0.16 ha) only building to a more substantial impact and risk of adverse effect over several years.”
When people put things in newspeak, it is an attempt to confuse the general reader. I did not come across “ha”—whatever “ha” is—in my O-level maths, so one feels intimidated and does not ask the question but simply accepts the conclusion that it is very small. I suspect it is a hectare.
The Minister nods, so it is a hectare. So 0.16 of a hectare is 1,600 square metres, and that is the impact each year. I do not consider that to be very small at all.
Let me outline for the Minister what I think the law states should happen. For the purposes of the habitats directive one has a plan or a project. That was one of the first battles in court. Yes, it is a plan or a project. Will it have an adverse effect? In order to determine that, one needs an assessment. Whether one needs an appropriate assessment or a full environmental impact assessment in addition is a question of law, but one needs the assessments to answer the first question.
If the assessments suggest there is no adverse impact, one can go ahead with the project; if yes, stop. Then, ask the next question. Is there an alternative—a question that has been completely avoided by the current process? There are all sorts of other alternatives, including a smaller ferry with a different means of propulsion that is not so damaging to the river. Nevertheless, is there an alternative? If yes, take the alternative. If no, that is when it lands on the Minister’s desk.
If the answer is no then the Minister has to decide whether there is overwhelming public interest in the project proceeding, notwithstanding the damage it will do to the sites. That is where, if I were the Minister, I would probably take a step back and say, “Well actually, when it comes down to it, we do need the ferry.” But we have not been through that assessment yet; we have not reached that point. It is at that point, if the Minister decides there is an overwhelming public interest in the project proceeding, that he considers compensation and doing something else to build up the salt marshes elsewhere.
The process that has been undertaken in Lymington has put these elements in completely the wrong order. We are already talking about compensation, although an attempt is being made to say that it is actually mitigation: “Don’t mention the word ‘compensation’—it’s really mitigation—because of the implications that arise from that definition.” Clearly, however, that is the process that ought to be followed and I fear that if it is not, we will end up with another expensive spat in court.
Let me briefly describe to the Minister my desired end state. I hope that we end up with a viable ferry service between Lymington and Yarmouth, and that we can come to an accommodation on the basis of preserving the Natura sites and the yachting that is vital to Lymington’s economy. I fear that we will be presented with a fait accompli: regulators were asleep on the watch. Whatever the reason, we now have expensive ferries, built in Bulgaria, operating on the Lymington river and doing damage. How do we get round that? I hope that with some means of determining the compensation and the way forward, we can reach an agreement that Wightlink will go to some lengths to ensure that those ferries are, in a reasonable period, sold on for use elsewhere, or used on another of its routes, while an appropriate ferry for the conditions of the Lymington river is introduced as a replacement. In reality, this is a highly profitable route. It has one of the highest charges per passenger mile of any ferry in the world, a monopoly inherited from British Railways. The company ought to be able to make a go of it. There should be no question of any threat to the viability of the continued service.
I close by asking the Minister to reflect on this. Notwithstanding the failure of Government and the regulators to spot this on the horizon and deal with it effectively, and leaving aside the Adjournment debates that I held in order to raise the issue with Ministers, it has been a small number of local yachtsmen who have had to take the initiative and raise the huge sums of money to take the matter to court. I hope that they are not going to have to do so again.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) on, as he says, his third Adjournment debate, the first to which I have had the pleasure of responding. I know that he feels strongly about the issue. I think he is aware that the matter falls within the remit of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is responsible for marine issues, but unfortunately cannot be here today. I preface my remarks by saying that if, as I strongly suspect, I do not entirely allay all the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would be happy to meet him and go through them in more detail.
On the issue of biodiversity, I was astonished when reading the brief by the scale and significance of the salt flats to which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West referred so clearly. Lymington harbour is part of a complex of estuaries in the Solent which supports a diverse coastal ecology. Large parts of the area, as he has said, are designated under a number of directives because of the habitats and species there.
By way of background, for which my hon. Friend will understand the need, the sites designated under the habitats and birds directive enjoy a degree of protection commensurate with their biodiversity importance. Any plans or projects, as he rightly said, proposed in the area are subject to an initial screening to decide whether the plan or project may have a significant effect on the site. Unless a significant effect can be conclusively ruled out, the plan or project needs to be subject to a full assessment via a legal procedure set out in those regulations. That is known, as my hon. Friend said, as an “appropriate assessment” and responsibility for undertaking it rests with the “competent authority”, the identity of which is clearly one of his concerns. It is the body proposing to undertake, or give consent to, the plan or project. The purpose of the assessment is to ascertain whether the plan or project is likely to have an adverse impact on the integrity of a protected site. That assessment includes a detailed study of impacts and mitigation measures, and an assessment of alternatives. In carrying out an assessment, the competent authority is required to “have regard to” the advice of the appropriate statutory nature conservation body, which in this case is Natural England.
Having said that legal bit, I should say that I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concerns about Wightlink’s decision a year ago to introduce larger ferries on the route. I could argue with him about some of the issues to which he referred, although I would be arguing from almost the same position of lack of understanding to which he referred in other contexts. The Department is not aware of having lost two cases, as I think he suggested. There have been two cases in court, one was the judicial review, to which he referred, and the other was an application for an injunction to stop the ferries that was refused. We could debate the rights and wrongs of the issue, but they were fully aired at the hearing in December, which culminated in the judgment handed down in February that is now a matter of public record. I strongly endorse the point made at the outset of his remarks about the importance of the ferry and the commercial need for it in his local economy and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner). Ferries are crucial for both.
We now need to concentrate on the measures being taken to ensure that the protected sites suffer no adverse impacts from the new ferries so that the service can continue as intended. I do not want to open a debate into all the issues covered by the judicial review hearing, but two key points emerged from the judgment. First, the introduction of the type of larger ferry in question was, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West said, a plan or project under the terms of the habitats directive, and, secondly, the judgment confirmed that Wightlink is the competent authority responsible for assessing the impact of the ferries. Although DEFRA has a role to oversee the implementation of the directive in the UK, the court agreed that it would not be appropriate for the Department to assume the role of competent authority, which I think is what my hon. Friend was suggesting, nor did the court suggest that the fact that Wightlink is a private company disqualifies it from discharging its duties as a statutory harbour authority.
Some of the faults that my hon. Friend described, and his desired final outcome, are issues that Wightlink itself, as the competent authority, should take into account, particularly the consideration of alternatives. I fully understand his desire for those alternatives to be considered. Since the judgment, Wightlink and Natural England have worked very closely to assess the potential impacts of the new ferries and to consider what mitigation works would be needed to avoid any adverse impacts. Both parties have invested considerable time and money in that process and used their own expert consultants. That assessment includes mapping evidence to assess changes to the navigational channel, consideration of sediment movement and a review of other influences on the navigation channel. The work also considered propulsion and ship wash modelling, and other likely effects from the increased size of the new ferries.
My hon. Friend referred to the damage that he believes has already been done by the ferries. My understanding is that the studies into the loss of the salt flats and salt marshes go back much longer; apparently, the Keyhaven marshes experienced a 50% loss between 1971 and 2001, and the Lymington marshes experienced a 63% loss between 1946 and 2001. No study to date has been conclusive on the cause of the loss. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern at those losses. Having grown up in a similar area on the east coast, I fully understand the importance of the salt marshes, but we need to have a sense of perspective and not necessarily to blame everything on what has happened recently.
My hon. Friend had a little tease about the meaning of the word “ha”, and I think he understands that it is, as he implied, a hectare. Natural England has quantified the predicted habitat loss and deterioration caused by the ferries and requiring mitigation as 1.6 hectares of inter-tidal habitat per decade. My hon. Friend suggested that the organisation had come to a decision before the assessment, and we can argue about the precise detail, but it is important that we start with a marker as to where we need to be on mitigation.
Wightlink and Natural England have had detailed discussions about mitigation works that Wightlink could undertake to ensure that the operation of the ferries has no adverse impact on the protected sites and can thus continue without breaching the Government’s obligations under the directive. A programme of work has been proposed that involves taking material acquired from the regular dredging of the local moorings and depositing it in an area of deteriorating and eroding salt marsh. That would prolong the life of the salt marsh and mudflat habitat and offset the possible increase in the erosion of the mudflat attributed to the ferries. That work will of course be undertaken and funded by Wightlink, and it will require the consent of other regulators. I understand that Wightlink intends to start the work next spring.
Let me address my hon. Friend’s point about whether the proposals comply with the habitats directive. I am satisfied that it is acceptable to take into account proposed mitigation works when coming to a conclusion about whether a plan or project would have an adverse impact on the integrity of a protected site. I am also satisfied that works intended to avoid an adverse impact should be regarded as mitigation rather than compensation. I understand that Wightlink and Natural England have taken counsel’s opinion on the issue.
Clearly, this is a complex area. Like my hon. Friend, I do not pretend to be an expert on it, but we need to look at what we can do to counter the risks. First, the ferries are being monitored. As he said, the Lymington harbour commissioners undertake regular bathymetric surveys, which will pick up any long-term erosion. Wightlink has also placed graduated stakes at various points to work out whether there is any evidence of ferry thrusters affecting the mudflats. So far, there is no evidence to suggest that the impacts will be different from those already predicted. However, we are clearly in an unknown area, and the science suggests that any erosion will be gradual and cumulative, so it may take several years to build a firm picture. That is why the monitoring is designed to give early warnings, which will enable us to move quickly if we need to.
That brings me to my last point, which relates to my hon. Friend’s question about what happens if Wightlink and Natural England have got things wrong. Ultimately, the most important safeguard is the Secretary of State’s power to control the operation of the ferries. If, at any stage, Natural England provides advice that there is evidence to suggest that the operation of the ferries is likely to damage the site, the Secretary of State has the power under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 to make a special nature conservation order and to serve a notice on Wightlink requiring it to stop any operation specified in the notice. I must repeat that Natural England predicts that the impact of the ferries is most likely to be gradual and cumulative. On that basis, it has advised that provided that Wightlink successfully delivers mitigation works starting next spring, it will avoid any adverse effect on the integrity of the protected sites. As things stand, therefore, we have no clear scientific basis on which to support a decision to stop or suspend the ferry operation at the moment.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject, because the debate opened my eyes to an issue with which I was not familiar. Clearly, our main priority is to comply with our obligations under the habitats directive and to protect these important habitats, and that is what we want to achieve. If we can do so while catering for the commercial needs to which my hon. Friend referred, that will satisfy us all. If he wishes to pursue the matter, he can talk to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. If all else fails, the Government ultimately have the power to stop the ferries, but I imagine that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West and I would like to think that we can work things out without having to do that.
Building Schools for the Future (Barking and Dagenham)
Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for giving me an opportunity to say a few words. I wish to make a few comments and raise a few questions about the future of the Building Schools for the Future programme in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. To begin with, I shall refer to a couple of recent statements emanating from the new coalition Government which imply that different positions on the future of the programme are being developed in the Department for Education.
First, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) at the first Prime Minister’s questions following the recent election, the Prime Minister said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 2 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 430.]
That was, of course, very good to hear and very welcome in our part of London.
Given that response, I was slightly unnerved to come across some recent press coverage which implies that a slightly different approach is being developed in a different part of the Government. I refer the Minister to a report in Building magazine of 4 June headlined “Government to halt BSF projects within weeks”. The article states:
“The government could announce a formal halt to the £55bn school building programme within weeks, amid growing pressure from contractors for clarity over the future of the scheme. It is understood that the Department for Education is likely to make an announcement alongside or before the Budget on 22 June in response to uncertainty about the status of projects under the Building Schools for the Future initiative…officials are preparing to put all schemes that have not reached preferred bidder stage on hold…These include about £2bn of projects approved by the previous government as far back as last July…It is understood that all projects that have received financial close and virtually all those at preferred bidder stage will progress as planned, although sources have warned there may be ‘some grey areas’.”
Since the report in Building and the Prime Minister’s welcome words a couple of weeks ago, the Department seems to have gone quiet on the subject. The only trace of formal comment I could find was a 10 June press release from the Department which was headlined “Department for Education statement on BSF”. It stated:
“The Department for Education has not taken any decisions on the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. The Department is reviewing BSF to ensure that when we build schools for the future, we do so in a more cost-effective and efficient fashion. Any future rollout decisions will be announced in due course.”
Therefore, today I search for a bit of clarity on the status of the programme, with specific reference to the situation in east London. This is a vital issue for all residents, parents and political representatives in the council and here in Parliament.
Before last month’s elections, Barking and Dagenham was due to receive some £275 million of capital investment in secondary schools through the BSF programme. The programme included £250 million for school buildings and £25 million for information and communications technology investment. The BSF programme will enable the council to modernise all its secondary schools, including Trinity special school, and to build a new secondary school that will include special school provision in Barking Riverside, which is a major regeneration site in east London. The programme includes the modernisation of all the ICT provision in schools, and two schools—Dagenham Park Church of England school and Sydney Russell school—are sample schools for the procurement process.
The outline business case was approved by Partnerships for Schools in July 2009. Since that date, the council has been involved in the procurement of a local education partnership—LEP—to build schools and provide facilities, and a managed ICT service provider partner, to provide a managed ICT service for the schools.
Contracts were advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union in August 2009, which named the London borough of Havering and Thurrock council in Essex as contracting authorities, as well as ourselves in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. That means that both those bodies can use our LEP when formed should they choose to do so, although they will fund their own developments. If they use the LEP, as shareholders in the LEP we would reap a shareholder return.
Let me mention a few specific points. On 8 June, the borough cabinet approved a recommendation for the ICT selected bidder. Yesterday, the cabinet approved the LEP selected bidder. Notwithstanding the fact that we do not yet know the Government’s position on the future of the BSF programme, and assuming that we are able to continue the process, we would expect to achieve financial close in late summer or early autumn—a matter of weeks away.
Given the press coverage that I alluded to earlier, we must assume from those reports that the £55 billion national BSF programme is under threat from the new coalition Government, as part of their public sector cost-cutting drive. If the Government decide to scrap the programme in the next few weeks—as has been rumoured—that will have a huge impact on Barking and Dagenham. Critically, if BSF is cancelled or significantly delayed, from 2012 there will be a significant and growing shortfall in school places in our borough.
Council projections suggest that the borough will need an additional 2,250 secondary school places by 2015, rising to 2,875 places by 2017. Perhaps the Minister is aware that this part of London has been subject to extraordinary demographic change over the last few years, much of it off the radar of the state because it has occurred since the 2001 census. Those changes should not be underestimated in terms of the sheer velocity of movement into the borough.
Local councillors are also worried that, in addition to BSF funding, the primary school capital programme could be hit by Government spending cuts in the near future. The number of primary school places needed is estimated to rise to 11,595 by 2017. Over the past few years, the rate of increase in births in the borough has led to a significant rise in the demand for school places. For example, in 2000-01 there were 2,380 births in the borough. By 2007-08 that number had risen by over 50% to 3,541. In addition to the extra pressure on school places due to the higher birth rate, the borough remains a significant area of economic regeneration. It has the lowest-cost housing market in Greater London, which has acted as a magnet for young families moving into the borough over the past few years. The housing represents good value and is attractive to young families, which in turn places additional pressures on our school places and buildings, and on the physical infrastructure across the borough.
The current coalition Government place great store in their new politics, in greater transparency in public policy making, and in ensuring that they give the public a major say in where the cuts should be made. I am sure that I speak for many parents in Barking and Dagenham by saying that one area where we do not want to see cuts is in money that is desperately needed to modernise our school buildings to make them fit for the 21st century.
If BSF funding is cut for the borough’s schools it will have huge implications, not only for our schools but for the regeneration agenda, which I touched on briefly. If we do not receive BSF investment, the knock-on lack of school places will have a big impact on housing development across London and at the heart of the Thames gateway. Without investment in our schools, we will not be able to meet demand. We will have a shortfall in school places which, in turn, will make the borough a less attractive place for young families to move to.
Last week, the council leadership wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to seek assurances on BSF funding. The council now intends to step up the campaign at local level to save funding for the borough’s schools by organising an online local residents petition to the Prime Minister. It is also urging local people to write to the Prime Minister, calling on his Government not to abandon BSF investment. I can fully understand both initiatives. The stakes, for BSF and local education provision, are high.
The possibility of major cuts to the BSF programme must be seen alongside other cuts at local government level. Following announcements in the past two weeks by the Chancellor and the Department for Communities and Local Government about the Government’s economic savings plan, local councils across the country are being required to find an extra £1.165 billion in savings, amounting to 20% of the Government’s £6.2 billion in cuts to public expenditure this year.
That means that the borough of Barking and Dagenham will have to find additional savings of between £4 million and £5.8 million in the next year, on top of savings of approximately £14 million this year to offset some of the losses, especially in the operation of the housing revenue account, which have put great pressure on the authority’s budgetary process.
The precise amount of the cuts will not be known until the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition reveals its full emergency Budget next week, but there are already worries that housing money and Government cash normally reserved for local authorities in charge of areas with significant deprivation will be cut.
There are also concerns at local level about the future of funding for the 18 children’s centres in our borough. I understand that the funding grant is secure until the next comprehensive spending review in March 2011, but the future is uncertain after that. Moreover, although BSF does not affect primary schools, a primary capital programme exists, and there is concern for the future of that funding string as well.
Overall, therefore, BSF is vital to the overhaul of the secondary schools in our borough to help us meet the extra demands created by the birth rate and patterns of migration in east London. BSF is a major investment programme that will totally modernise all schools in the authority, including our special school. Works will vary from major rebuilding, remodelling and refurbishment to combinations of the three. The only exception among the secondary schools is the recent new-build Jo Richardson community school, which will receive ICT investment.
The borough has a selected bidder for the ICT, as well as an LEP-selected bidder. We hope to finish the whole process by late summer, assuming no policy change at the national level. We therefore seek reassurance for the project as a whole. The BSF LEP-selected bidder has passed the various stages of the BSF LEP evaluation process. The BSF programme is a key element of improving the well-being of children in the borough, reducing inequalities and ensuring integrated children’s services, given the guidance that we received under the Childcare Act 2006.
BSF will bring many benefits to the borough, including extended schools, raised attainment and expanded education services as the school-age population in the borough grows. I therefore return to the two quotes that I reported at the beginning of my contribution. I welcome the commitment to the BSF programme that the Prime Minister made clear among his first parliamentary answers. I hope that the Minister can support the programme in Barking and Dagenham, not least because we have concluded the selected bidder part of the process and are nearing completion of the total process, which is why the report in Building magazine caused such concern locally. We seek reassurance that our scheme will not be put on hold. The magazine stated that
“all those at preferred bidder stage will progress as planned, although sources have warned there may be ‘some grey areas’.”
I simply seek reassurance that we will proceed as planned and that we are not one of the grey areas. The borough’s changing demographic profile, birth rates and existing pressures on the education sector combine uniquely, with the result that this capital programme is vital for our residents and children. I look forward to the Minister’s response and, hopefully, to some reassuring noises.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) on securing this important debate. He speaks eloquently on behalf of his constituents. He has emphasised the importance of the BSF programme to the borough of Barking and Dagenham, including its importance to issues such as extended schools and raising educational attainment. I pay tribute to him for his fight against extremism and the British National party and his commitment to campaigning against poverty.
I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, including his forecasts for secondary school places and a 50% increase in the birth rate, rising from 2,380 in 2000-01 to 3,541 in 2007-08. He is right to emphasise the importance of the fabric of a school building to the issue of raising attainment. Our ambition is to raise standards throughout the education sector, to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged, to restore confidence in our qualifications and exam systems, and to ensure that children leave school with the knowledge that they need to succeed in further education and the world of work. Our coalition agreement sets out a progressive programme of reform to achieve those aims, based on the fundamental principles of more freedom for teachers and professionals, more choice for parents, more help for the most disadvantaged, and less bureaucracy and process.
If we are to effect real change and recast Britain’s education system as one of the best in the world, our focus on raising standards in all schools, reforming the curriculum and securing the best and brightest for the teaching profession must be relentless. We must also retain a focus on the school estate, ensuring that schools provide an environment conducive to education, with high-quality technology and facilities, space that supports different types of education—from one-to-one tuition to whole-year groups—and, importantly, a pleasant environment where children want to be. I welcome the opportunity the hon. Gentleman has given us to debate the issue, and congratulate him again on securing the debate.
Building Schools for the Future was a flagship programme of the previous Government, who had high ambitions to rebuild or refurbish every school in the country by 2023. Of course, there are many schools that need to be rebuilt and many are in a very poor condition. With a rising birth rate in parts of the country, including, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, his constituency, we will need to make more places available, and both those issues will require capital spending. We shall clearly need to build schools in the future.
The hon. Gentleman rightly quoted the Prime Minister as saying that building schools for the future is something we shall continue to do. However, that does not mean that we must go through the bureaucratic and wasteful procedures that were the previous Government’s approach. I understand that the process in Barking and Dagenham started in 2007. Here we are in 2010 and the diggers have not yet moved in; £250 million was spent before a brick was laid or earth was moved. Of that, £60 million was spent on consultants or advisory costs. Let us be clear: the previous Government said they were spending money on schools; but in the seven years since the scheme was announced only 95 new schools have been built out of 3,500 secondary schools. In the current financial climate, where front-line services are under pressure to do more with less, we cannot afford to direct lavish amounts of money away from pupils, teachers and children’s services into the pockets of consultants and bureaucratic processes.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education stated in the debate on the Gracious Speech that for the remainder of the financial year there will be no cuts in front-line funding for schools, Sure Start and sixth forms. We have secured additional funding from outside the education budget to fund the pupil premium, which will ensure that more money reaches the most disadvantaged pupils, who already start out with a financial and knowledge deficit in comparison with their peers. Capital programmes and investment in the school estates are very important to the coalition Government, but we must ensure that those programmes represent good value for money.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out in his opening remarks, we are reviewing the Building Schools for the Future programme to ensure that we can build schools more effectively and cost-efficiently in the future. We definitely will not halt projects that have been started, where diggers have been engaged and holes have been dug in the ground, as the Labour Government did when the college building programme had to be put on hold because of “catastrophic mismanagement”. Many colleges stood to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds. Indeed, the Association of Colleges said that some stood to lose millions following the abrupt cancellation of projects. It said that 24 colleges stood to lose between £2 million and £5 million; indeed, 17 stood to lose more than £5 million.
I know that the hon. Gentleman was not part of the previous Government—indeed, he was an effective and constructive critic of them—so he cannot be blamed for what went wrong, and he is right to raise the issue of the Barking and Dagenham BSF plans today. However, he will appreciate the financial backdrop against which this debate is being held—an inherited budget deficit of £156 billion. As a result, the previous Government had already committed themselves to reducing capital spending across Departments by more than 50%, with a reduction of 17.5% in each of the next three years. The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), the former Secretary of State for Education and now shadow Education Secretary, admitted to the House that school capital spending was not protected in those plans. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman’s first port of call should be the shadow Secretary of State, in order to find out from him what he had planned to do if their party had won the last general election.
I want to put it on the record that we had this row about the BSF plans in Barking and Dagenham with the previous Government. There was a controversy in the first phase of the BSF programme, in that we were on the list and were taken off it because of some difficulties with the imposition of academies. So this is an argument we have had with Governments either side of the aisle.
I am grateful for that intervention and I will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said. He also gives me an opportunity to correct something I said earlier. I think that I gave a very disparaging view of the previous Government when I said they had completed only 95 schools in the seven years since the project began; they actually completed 97. So, for underestimating their great achievement in completing 97 schools out of 3,500, I apologise and set the record straight.
We will be looking extraordinarily sympathetically at two sets of circumstances as we review the BSF programme: deprivation and particular need. I know the projects in Barking and Dagenham are very important to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, and especially to the pupils and school staff who will be affected, but I am afraid that that is all I can say at this point; I cannot give specific guarantees at this time about particular projects. Nevertheless, I promise to keep in touch with the hon. Gentleman as we continue to review capital spending. I know that that will not be enough to satisfy him or his constituents, but I am afraid that that is all I can say at the moment.
I reiterate that capital programmes are important to our programme of school improvement, but they must be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively, and must also be focused on where spending is most needed and will have the most impact.
Constituency Boundaries (Islands)
First, I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), on his appointment as Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office. I have known him for many years. The Prime Minister quickly recognised the many qualities that I know he possesses, and the people of the Forest of Dean also knew a good thing when they saw it: they had the wisdom to elect him in 2005, and again last month with an increased majority. I know that he will bring common sense and good judgment to his office.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss constituency boundaries for islands. Not many of us are greatly affected by the issue, but it is extremely important to those of us who are. Islands come in many shapes and sizes. There are those with a tiny population, such as the Scillies with scarcely 2,000 residents. There are islands joined to the mainland by road or rail, such as Anglesey and Hayling island, and even Portsmouth. Most important for this debate is that there are islands with significant populations that remain isolated, with no physical link to the mainland. They include Na h-Eileanan an Iar—more commonly known as the Western Isles—Orkney and Shetland, and my own constituency of the Isle of Wight.
Last month’s election was fought on boundaries with average constituency sizes of 71,000 electors in England, 66,000 in Scotland, 56,500 in Wales and just over 63,000 in Northern Ireland. The UK average was 69,500. I agree wholeheartedly with the Minister that England as a whole is under-represented in the current system, particularly since devolution has introduced another layer of politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With roughly 110,000 electors, my constituency is the largest by quite a margin. The constituency of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), whom I am glad to see here today, has fewer than 23,000. His, at a fifth of the size of mine, is the smallest constituency, again by a significant margin.
The coalition Government intend to increase the size of constituencies generally, creating fewer, more evenly sized and, in the majority of cases, more populous ones. I understand that the aim is to have an average electorate of 77,000, which would reduce the number of MPs by 10% and cut the cost of politics. The principle of greater equality is good, the aim of reducing the cost of politics is laudable and, from experience, I know that it is perfectly possible to represent a large constituency. My noble Friend Lord Norton of Louth’s excellent report from the commission to strengthen Parliament found that larger constituencies may foster
“a closer, longer-term relationship between member and constituents”.
We must, however, remember and examine the practicalities.
We can learn from the wisdom of those who have looked at the issues in depth before us. The Boundary Commission last reported on the Isle of Wight constituency in 2007, using figures from 2000. The electorate in 2000 was 103,000, 33% larger than the average. The commission considered severing part of the island and putting it with a mainland constituency, but concluded that to do so would
“disregard the historic and unique geographical situation”
“create confusion and a feeling of the loss of identity”
for islanders. It also stated that
“communications would be difficult both for the electorate and the Member of Parliament.”
We were on the point, under the current system, of having two MPs, which I would have supported, but I understand that that proposition is no longer on the table.
If the island had one MP with 77,000 electors, 32,000 people or 12 electoral wards on the island would need to be included with a mainland seat. I have looked at all the possibilities. It could mean either a ferry from Ryde, with a hinterland from Wootton to Arreton to Bembridge, or a ferry from Yarmouth, with a hinterland from Cowes to Ventnor—the southern most point on the island—or from Cowes, East Cowes and Newport. I have to say that all of those proposals are barmy.
Experts from the Boundary Commission for Scotland have looked carefully over the years at the case for merging the Western Isles with Skye. The commission found in 1981 that that would be “unworkable or intolerably difficult”, and, in 2004, it came to the same conclusion, saying that the arguments against change
“remained as strong now as they were then.”
To get anywhere near an electorate of 77,000 would mean the Western Isles being lumped in with a huge part of the Scottish mainland. If including Skye in the constituency would prove “unworkable or intolerably difficult”, how on earth would merging the Western Isles with the mainland work in practice?
Such difficulties are even more acute in Orkney and Shetland, a constituency with a population of more than 32,000. Meeting the new quota would likely entail a union with the nearest mainland constituency, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Such a drawing of boundaries would result in a constituency that was hundreds of miles from end to end.
Part of the problem is geographical. The only access to the Isle of Wight is by sea. There is no tunnel, bridge or scheduled air service, and crossing the Solent can be expensive and time-consuming. The even bigger problem, however, is that islands and islanders are very different from the mainland and mainlanders. Those who live on islands are, by definition, more insular. The word “insular” means being of or pertaining to an island or islands, but it also means being detached, standing alone or isolated. It is clear to me why the word is used in both ways, but one must live on an island to really understand. Many people on the Isle of Wight travel to the mainland only rarely. The Solent is much more of a barrier, both physical and psychological, than any other English county boundary. If any part of the island were to be merged with the mainland, it would be reasonable for the mainland MP to live on the north island. After all, that is where the majority of his constituents—about 46,000—would live. He would not, however, be considered a part of the island community. I suspect that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar recognises that feeling in the communities that he represents. It would be a very sad outcome if people were made to feel more distant and remote from their elected representatives.
There are good reasons why both the largest and smallest UK constituencies are island constituencies, and those reasons should be respected. We should not simply disregard the work of those who have looked at the issues before, sacrificing workable and sensible proposals on the altar of principle, however good and well-intentioned that principle might be.
It might seem odd that I am arguing for more rather than less work than other Members of the House, while at the same time arguing for the continued existence of the smallest UK constituency. However, it is because I live on an island that I understand the unique nature of islands. They are very special communities and special places that need special consideration. I understand that these matters are still being deliberated and that final decisions have yet to be made about how the policy is to be implemented. Will the Minister please give me an assurance that, when the Government move forward with plans to equalise constituency sizes, they will recognise the unique nature of island electorates? I hope that his common sense and good judgment will applied in spades to this question.
Today, we see an alliance of islanders—an alliance that was perhaps created by the Daily Mail. During the election campaign, the newspaper sent one of its reporters, Mr Robert Hardman—perhaps all the reporters from the Daily Mail are hard men—to both Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight. Whether his aim was to create some mischief, I do not know—far be it from me to cast aspersions on such an august publication as the Daily Mail—but we were chosen because I represented the smallest constituency in terms of the number of voters, and the Isle of Wight is, of course, the constituency with the largest number of voters. The Daily Mail succeeded in uniting us in a common cause. The largest and the smallest numerical constituencies in the UK are of one mind: their islands are indeed special.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) spoke eloquently and forcefully for his constituency. I will confine my remarks to my constituency, other than to point out to the Minister that it is odd for a democracy to be looking to cut the elected element of Parliament while almost daily—certainly monthly—we have news of further appointments to the unelected portion of Parliament. Does that mean that, when the Government leave office, the percentage of Parliament elected by democratic means will be far smaller than when they entered office? Quite how that makes the UK look internationally, other than like a laughing stock, I am not certain. Quite how the Government feel about that, other than queasy, I shall not speculate.
My constituency is the length of Wales. The Prime Minister might want to give me a territory the size of the Yukon, but that would not serve voters well at all. Areas, of course, need coverage. When a population grows in an area, a constituency with a maximum headage is usually created, obviously with some sensible anomalies, such as the Isle of Wight. That is to ensure an equality of treatment so that all voters have the same kind of representation and access to their MP as voters have in a more urban and populated setting. I speak particularly from my own perspective in Na h-Eileanan an Iar.
To give the Minister a small example, last Friday I conducted what I consider to be a small surgery on part of one the islands in my constituency, on the west side of Lewis—actually, we went down to Harris for part of it. We had an ordinary day. We covered 279 miles that Friday—a distance just a little longer than that between Glasgow and Liverpool. That is what I have to do to serve people in a remote island rural setting. I mention that just to give an idea of what has perhaps not been considered when people look on a purely numerical headage basis.
I think that it is right that people in rural areas have the same services and access as those in an urban setting. In the islands, we are used to a poor broadband service—British Telecom has a number of exchanges in the area that it has not upgraded yet, although I hope that it will—and I would hate to see democracy and people’s expectations of democracy reach the same standards. In a democracy, everybody requires equality of treatment, representation and access to their MPs.
Finally, I wish to make a more political and perhaps more constitutional point. The Union is supposed to be a union between two nations; it does not mean having a 50:50 split of MPs between Scotland and England, as the Minister is no doubt aware. Obviously, as a Scottish National party Member, I would like there to be no MPs at Westminster who represent Scottish constituencies, but we live with the present situation and the way in which the cards have been dealt. In the meantime, I cannot allow what is proposed to proceed without protest and without making common cause with the Isle of Wight in the far south of England and alerting the Government to the dangers of exactly what the Prime Minister and his Liberal Democrat friends might do if they cut the representation of the highlands and islands.
I am sure that the Government will not do that. They will reflect, particularly on the strong arguments made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, and act with thought and consideration. They will make sure that Scotland does not lose any more MPs, because that would be a retrograde step for people in the highlands and islands and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out earlier, it would be almost impossible to represent the Western Isles and Skye. We hope that such a mistake is not made, that the Minister will listen and that the right decision is reached. In the meantime, until the day of independence, I shall continue to make common cause with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Sheridan, in my first outing on this side of the House—strange though it seems, but very welcome. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) for his generous opening remarks and for how he represents his constituency so ably. I want also to mention, in passing, how he pronounced the constituency of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) better than I just did. The hon. Gentleman will remember when I tried to pronounce his constituency in the House of Commons four years ago. I mangled it a bit then, but he gave me credit for at least trying rather than just copping out and calling it the Western Isles so I am sure that he will forgive me if I make a mess of it again.
When researching for the debate, I was interested to note that, before the Great Reform Act of 1832, the Isle of Wight was represented not as ably as it is now by my hon. Friend, but by more Members of Parliament. Indeed, eight Members of Parliament represented it in the House. The three boroughs of Newport, Newtown and Yarmouth each elected two Members of Parliament, and the rest of the island outside those boroughs was represented by the two county Members for Hampshire. The world has indeed moved on from a rather over-represented island to one that is probably under-represented given the number of Members of Parliament, but outweighed by the quality of its one Member of Parliament.
My hon. Friend is right that the Government have set out proposals for fewer and more equally sized constituencies. He is also right in saying that no decisions have been taken. He said that the Government were planning on having a quota of 77,000 electors with a 10% cut in the number of Members of Parliament. That was the policy set out by the Conservative party before the election, but Ministers are currently considering both the size of the House of Commons and the electoral quota that flows from it. As yet, no decisions have been taken by the coalition Government. I thought that it was worth putting that information on the record in case people assumed that the Conservative party’s proposals were being automatically rolled forward. My hon. Friend welcomed the general thrust of our proposals to reduce the number of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons and to reduce the cost of politics. He is a demonstration, as are other hon. Members who represent constituencies with larger than average electorates, that it is perfectly possible to represent them very ably in the House of Commons and make sure that they receive a good service.
It is now worth picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar about the unelected House of Lords. He is right that several peers were appointed to that House in the previous Government’s dissolution honours list and that more peers might be created. He will also know that that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has set up a cross-party Committee charged with bringing forward by the end of the year a draft Bill to introduce either a wholly or a mainly elected second Chamber, which will deal with the issue that he highlighted about the number of unelected Members in that House. Those proposals will be scrutinised by a Committee of both Houses and will be taken forward. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is real, but it is in hand.
It is also worth saying that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, the work on considering boundaries, setting the size of the House of Commons and deciding on the guidance that the boundary commissioners will have as they set about their work needs to be approached with great care. Many Members of Parliament have already been lobbying me on what they think the rules should be and making cases both in the House and privately for their own constituencies, and I am listening to them intently. However, we must balance against the concerns raised by my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman the fact that, at the moment, electors’ votes are worth different amounts depending on where they live. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said in the main Chamber, it is the ultimate postcode lottery that some electors’ votes are in effect worth more than others because it takes fewer of them to elect a Member of Parliament.
Surely the way to address that anomaly is through proportional representation and perhaps the single transferable vote. Even if there are numerically even constituencies, some voters will still be worth an awful lot more if they happen to be in a swing seat. In a safe seat, the power of the voter is not as great as it would be in an area or a country where the single transferable vote is used.
I am sure that you, Mr Sheridan, would not want me to be tempted into a discussion of the various electoral systems that we could have, so I will not be tempted by the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, when the Government introduce their Bill on the alternative vote and boundaries, there will be ample opportunity in the House, both on Second Reading and in a Committee of the whole House, to debate electoral systems. I am sure that he will take part in those debates with his normal vigour and good spirits, so we shall leave that question until then.
With regard to both the points that have been made, it is important, when we consider the rules and the framework that will be set for boundaries, to consider how Members of Parliament are able to do their jobs and the accessibility of their constituencies. I have looked carefully at the constituencies that are entirely constituted of islands and those that have significant islands as part of them, and it is worth saying that they do raise a number of issues, which my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman outlined clearly and which Ministers are considering carefully.
We will consider carefully how the process of the boundary reviews will be undertaken. We will listen to colleagues and, when we have published our proposals in a Bill, which we expect to introduce in the House before the summer recess, we will listen to colleagues’ representations in the Chamber. They can be assured that it is a constitutional measure, so it will have its Committee stage not in a Committee Room, but on the Floor of the House. Therefore, if hon. Members are not happy with the proposals when we have published them, they will of course have a full opportunity to debate them and raise them with Ministers on the Floor of the House.
No, there would be a Boundary Commission. The decisions for Ministers are on, first, the size of the House of Commons—the Government have yet to reach a decision on that; we are considering the matter carefully—and secondly the instructions and guidance that the Bill will set out for the four Boundary Commissions for the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom as they set about their work. That will be about the quota for the constituencies, the number of electors that each constituency should have; the amount by which the Boundary Commission can vary from that number—the margin, if I can put it like that; whether there are any other considerations, as there are now, that it can take into account; and the extent to which those other considerations, such as the island nature of constituencies and the geography, are allowed to override numerical equality. We are currently considering those matters, which we shall bring before the House.
May I extend an invitation to the Minister? If his mind is wavering and not fully made up and he would like to come on a fact-finding mission, he is more than welcome to be my guest in Na h-Eileanan an Iar. We could drive from my office to my house, which is a distance of about 150 miles, using two ferries, or we could get two flights. That would perhaps underline the issue of geography in the Minister’s mind, because when a person is pondering something on paper, it may not be understood as easily as it is during a five-hour drive or two flights.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me with his very generous invitation, and I will bear it in mind. None the less, I understand the issues. I have been to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight on a number of occasions, and I have grappled with the ferry, so I know how difficult it is to get to. One of the other island constituencies affected is Orkney and Shetland. I visited the Shetland islands a few years ago, and have spoke to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about the matter. I recognise the problems of constituencies that are accessible effectively only by air and at significant expense. Such points were made very ably by the hon. Gentleman, so I have an inkling of what the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar has to grapple with when he meets his constituents in surgeries and has to visit different parts of his constituency. I will bear in mind his very generous invitation, but he can rest assured that I have a pretty good idea of the issues involved because of the visits that I have made to other island constituencies. This will not just be a paper exercise that takes no account of the realities. The hon. Gentleman can also be reassured that Ministers considering the matter are constituency MPs who recognise the work that colleagues have to do when they represent their constituents. We will think about our own constituencies and how those challenges are magnified in the particular circumstances that were set out.
I hope that the two Members who have spoken will recognise that no decision has been taken. Their constituents can be satisfied that they have very ably set out the unique nature of island constituencies and some of the challenges that they face in representing them both in the House and outside. Ministers will listen very carefully to those arguments as we frame the legislation and as it is introduced on the Floor of the House. We will take these very delicate matters forward with great care and attention. I thank my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman for setting out those points and for giving the House the opportunity to consider them at an early stage.
Question put and agreed to.