House of Commons
Tuesday 14 September 2010
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
London Local Authorities Bill [Lords]
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Wednesday 13 October.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The launch of direct talks is an important and welcome step in the search for lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians. The parties have been meeting again today in Sharm el Sheikh. We look to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to show the perseverance, commitment and courage needed in the weeks and months ahead to achieve a two-state solution.
The issue of settlements will come to the fore very rapidly again, because the immediate challenge is the expiry of the settlement moratorium at the end of this month, on 30 September. The road map makes it clear that Israel should freeze all settlement construction, including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts built since 2001. Our view is that all settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories is illegal and an obstacle to peace.
But if the Israelis defy President Obama and the Quartet by resuming settlement building on 26 September, is there not a serious danger that that would scupper the current peace talks and make future talks more difficult? Would there not also be a danger, because of the population growth among the Palestinians, of eventually ending Israel as the Jewish state that it proclaims itself to be? Given that the Jewish day of atonement comes before 26 September, will the Foreign Secretary urge the Israeli Government to observe their own religion and repent at this stage?
The right hon. Gentleman’s question encapsulates why it is in Israel’s long-term interests to seek agreement on a two-state solution. He is quite right to say that there is a danger to the talks, and therefore to any subsequent talks, and it is vital that all the parties involved are able to get through the end of September with the talks alive. We therefore look to the Government of Israel to take all the steps necessary to renew the settlement moratorium; we have made that quite clear to them. If they were able to do that, it would no doubt contribute enormously to the talks being able to proceed further.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the recent statement by the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States that the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran would constitute such a threat to the security of all the states of the middle east that all options—including, if necessary, military options—must be considered if it became necessary to prevent such a situation from arising?
I have always argued that all options should be kept on the table, and that the option of military action should not be withdrawn from the table. I have also always stressed that we are not calling for that or advocating it. We do not want to relieve any of the pressure that is currently on Iran, but I must emphasise that I am not advocating military action.
I am sure that we will all be relieved by what the Foreign Secretary has just said at the end of that response. I think it would merit at least an oral statement if he were going to advocate military action.
Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether it is true that Mr Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister, proposed to lead a delegation of European Foreign Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, to Israel and the occupied territories in the first half of September, but that the Israeli Government would not co-operate with such a visit?
No, it is not true. Mr Frattini proposed a visit by EU Foreign Ministers at the very beginning of September, but it turned out that it clashed with the direct talks that were starting on the other side of the Atlantic. The proposed trip was therefore abandoned. There has been no proposal for a trip by the EU Foreign Ministers since then. Such a proposal has been reported in one or two newspapers, but I am afraid that it is not accurate.
I am glad to hear that from the Foreign Secretary because the Foreign Office was not able to explain it yesterday. Of course the Israeli Government have said that European Foreign Ministers are standing on the sidelines at the moment, so the question is why a delegation of European Foreign Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, is not heading out to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as soon as possible. Prime Minister Netanhayu said on Sunday that Israel would not extend the moratorium on settlement building and Mr Abbas has threatened to quit the talks if construction resumes. Is it not true that there is a real danger of having an absent Foreign Secretary and not an active Foreign Secretary when the people of the middle east most need an active one?
No. I know we have little soundbites before the Labour leadership election—we are bound to have them—but in a way this is too serious an issue for things like that. Neither EU Foreign Ministers nor the UK Government are in any way on the sidelines. We have played an important role—a supporting role—to the United States, which has shown such leadership on this issue, in getting these direct talks going. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was, I think, held to be instrumental in that through the telephone calls he undertook in the summer with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. I am in close touch with the talks through Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Mitchell; indeed, we are in constant touch with all involved. We play a strong supporting role, as do many other EU countries, in the continuation of these direct talks. As the right hon. Gentleman can see from the answers I have given, we are emphatic about what needs to be done next.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the middle east is the outrages committed by Hamas, which represents such a threat that we need to bolster the moderate ranks of the Palestinians to ensure that a proper two-state solution comes about? If he does agree, what action is the Foreign Office taking to ensure that the moderate elements of the Palestinian cause are promoted?
We give a great deal of support to those moderate Palestinians and my hon. Friend will be aware of the aid that goes in from here and from the rest of the European Union to help the Palestinian Authority. He is right about Hamas. The terrorist outrage of two weeks ago was specifically designed, in my view, to disrupt the start of these direct talks. Hamas does not want to see these talks succeed and that fact should redouble the determination of all involved to make sure that they do succeed.
Sri Lanka (Detainees)
I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka on 16 June and again this morning about a variety of issues, including human rights and access to former combatants. We hope to continue the dialogue with the Foreign Minister when he comes to London in October.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he outline the role he believes the international community should play with respect to this issue, as we repeatedly hear concerns about the treatment of detainees and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka? Does he support the call for an international inquiry, particularly into the abuses in the final week leading up to the end of the war in May 2009?
Let us separate the two issues. As to detainees, I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that the International Organisation for Migration does have access to the camps. The Sri Lanka Minister told me this morning that negotiations continue on giving the Red Cross access, which we would certainly support. As far as allegations about what happened during the end of the conflict are concerned, we have repeatedly called upon Sri Lanka to make sure that there is a full, independent and credible inquiry so that these past allegations can be raised transparently. That would be in the interest of reconciliation in the future.
Will my hon. Friend take up with the high commissioner the issue of why, in my role as the chairman of the all-party Tamils group, I am receiving reports that people who have returned to their homes are still being intimidated, singled out for abuse and are not being treated with the respect that they should be given? Can this issue please be raised with the high commissioner?
The number of internally displaced people who have been returned has grown significantly since the end of the conflict, but we remain concerned about reports of abuses of freedom, lack of freedom of expression and continued problems in the north. These issues are raised quite regularly with the Sri Lanka Government and the high commissioner, and the next time I see him, I will certainly make sure that my hon. Friend’s concerns are pressed.
Human rights are at the core of our foreign policy. FCO posts overseas monitor and raise human rights concerns wherever and whenever they arise without compromise. I will ensure they continue this excellent work, tackling these challenges in the most effective manner. There will be further improvements in how we monitor human rights, which I plan to announce in a written statement in the coming days.
I think we are all very glad to hear of the Government’s U-turn on the scrapping of the Foreign Secretary’s Department’s annual report on human rights and to learn that it is not being sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction, but can the Foreign Secretary give us some assurances about the substance of the report? Can he tell us when it is likely to be published, and whether it will be as substantial as the report from the last Government?
Yes, it will be substantial. There has been no U-turn, only an inaccurate report about what the Government may do. The position is as I described it to the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House last week. The report will take the form of a Command Paper, and it will be detailed and authoritative. I intend it to be laid before Parliament in about March, in line with the practice of the last Government, but it will be accompanied throughout the year by up-to-date online reporting and evaluation of our human rights work and concerns. I hope that, overall, that will provide Parliament with a better service than has been provided in the past.
While I understand the importance of the monitoring of human rights, does the Foreign Secretary accept that their promotion is just as, if not more, important? What steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking with regard to the promotion of the human right of sanctity of life, particularly in connection with countries that appear to be hellbent on barbaric ways of taking people’s lives?
We intervene against the death penalty at every opportunity, in line with long-standing practice in this country. My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the strong protests that we have made recently about, for instance, sentences of stoning in Iran, an absolutely barbaric punishment that has no place whatsoever in the modern world. The strong stand that this country has taken on those issues will continue to be maintained.
We have seen U-turns on the scrapping of the annual human rights report and on the BBC World Service pulling out of Burma, not as a result of pressure from the Liberal Democrats but as a result of the Opposition’s highlighting the intentions of the coalition Government. That raises serious questions about whether the Government’s commitment to human rights is at the heart of British foreign policy.
May I ask the Foreign Secretary a very specific question? We have already seen £560,000 removed from the Foreign Office human rights and democracy budget this year, and not in terms of future spending review decisions. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that there will be no further reduction in funding for that part of the Foreign Office budget this year?
One would not think that the hon. Gentleman had been a member of a Government who reduced funding for human rights and democracy projects in Iran, Sudan, Zambia, Russia and central Asia, all in the course of the last year. There have been no U-turns on any of those subjects. I do not think that having to correct what appears in The Guardian now and again constitutes a U-turn brought about by the Opposition. As for future spending commitments, they will of course be set out in the future, once we have the results of the comprehensive spending review.
South-east Asia includes some of the world’s most important emerging powers, and offers huge opportunities for the United Kingdom. The Government enjoy excellent relations with most countries in the region. Burma is the exception, but we continue to work for democratic change so that its people can realise their potential.
Does the Minister not agree that our relationship has been uniquely enhanced by the recent visit by a trade delegation to the Indian subcontinent, and also by the fact that the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of alleviating the floods and stress facing the Pakistani population?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the subject of the Prime Minister’s recent visit to India. It was a huge success, and has greatly enhanced our bilateral relationship. In particular, I warmly welcome the broadly based trade and investment agreement between India and the European Union. As for the Pakistani floods, our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the victims, but I am pleased to say that the Department for International Development has responded very positively by providing £64 million of aid.
I do not regard deciding to attack Pakistan when in India as a great foreign policy triumph, particularly on the part of a Prime Minister of this country.
When we were in government, we took every opportunity to highlight and campaign against the horrendous human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese regime, to demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 political prisoners, and to apply maximum pressure on the international community to challenge that regime. May I ask the Minister what his Government are doing to put pressure on the Burmese regime? Does he accept that the November elections were entirely illegitimate, and that there is a flawed constitution? Can he tell us what progress is being made on an arms embargo against the Burmese regime, and will he guarantee no dilution of the BBC’s World Service output in Burma?
The Prime Minister recently met the Foreign Secretaries of India and China to express our concern about Burma and to urge them to use their good offices to push for change. I certainly agree with the shadow Minister, because for elections to take place on 7 November and to be credible in any way Aung San Suu Kyi must be released, as well as 2,100 other political prisoners.
I refer my hon. Friend to my written statement yesterday. The Government are clear that there should be no further transfers of competence or powers from the UK to the EU in this Parliament, and we will introduce legislation to ensure that any subsequent future treaty that proposes to transfer such competence or powers would be subject to a referendum of the British people before it could be ratified by this country.
The legislation will be drafted to make clear those aspects of the European Union treaties on which the Government would expect to require a referendum were there to be a proposal for change. It will, of course, be possible for people to use judicial review if they wish to challenge a Minister’s decision. I think that is likely only in cases where a Minister were for some extraordinary reason—no Minister in the current Government would do this—to wish to deny the people the right to have their say.
The Minister seemed to get his ratchets in a bit of a twist in his written ministerial statement yesterday. First he said that all ratchet clauses would be subject to primary legislation, then that major ratchet clauses would be subject to a referendum, and then, towards the end of his written ministerial statement, he confessed that there is no agreed definition of what a ratchet clause is at all, so his legislation is a pile of nonsense really. Does he not accept that the real danger here is that, effectively, what he is doing is asking the courts to decide when there will be a referendum or when there has to be primary legislation, because they will be deciding what is a ratchet clause? Some of us would like the Government to opt in rather more frequently, not least to the directive on human trafficking.
When the hon. Gentleman sees the Bill, I think he will find that we have very clearly defined those articles of the treaties where a referendum would be required and those where primary legislation would be required. I only wish that the Minister had it in him to welcome the fact—[Hon. Members: “Minister?”] Old habits die hard, I am afraid. I wish the hon. Gentleman would have the grace to recognise that whereas in the Government in which he served decisions to cede powers to the European Union took place on the sofa in No. 10 Downing street, we are ensuring that under this Government it is the British people who will have the final say before any further powers are transferred to Brussels. It will be up to the people, and I wish the hon. Gentleman had as much confidence in democracy and the will of the people as we on this side of the House have.
Has the Minister read last week’s interesting and very long speech—a state of the Union address—of the President of the European Commission, Mr Barroso? He calls for own resources to be raised by the European Union. What is the Government’s view and will this be subject to the referendum lock?
The President of the Commission made his comments in the context of the forthcoming negotiations about the new financial perspectives. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will be leading the Government in our approach to those negotiations, has made it clear that we will seek cuts in the European Union budget for the protection of the British rebate and no new European-level taxes.
It is not for the United Kingdom Government either to prescribe, or mediate in, a solution to the situation in Kashmir. It is the long-standing policy of the British Government that this is a matter for the Indian and Pakistan Governments, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
I hear the sentiment from my hon. Friend. I must say that the British Government work on, and devote resources to, assisting with conflict resolution in Kashmir, tackling human rights concerns and helping to build confidence on both sides of the line of control. With that confidence, we then continue to ensure that there is a dialogue with the Indian and Pakistan Governments, because the resolution of this long-standing situation is for them, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
I recall that the last time I raised the issue of Kashmir on the Floor of the House the Secretary of State was going to refresh his memory on the British Government’s position on Kashmir. I hope not only that he has had an opportunity to do that but, given the further increased violence in the region of late, he will consider that it is the position of the British Government to mediate where there are conflict areas, particularly given the historical impact that Britain has had on that region; indeed, it has possibly caused some of the problems there. Will he or his Minister commit to thinking carefully about whether the British Government’s position can be changed slightly to ensure that we can mediate in that area?
It has been a difficult summer. The television pictures of yesterday’s violence in Kashmir shine a spotlight on the situation, but they emphasise, yet again, how important it is for a long-standing resolution to be achieved. It should be, and the long-standing position of the British Government has been, that this resolution has got to be achieved through dialogue between the Governments of India and Pakistan, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. What the events of the summer and of yesterday have shown is that there is increasing concern, and that should increase the emphasis that the Governments should place on finding a resolution to the situation.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been in regular contact with senior political figures in the Maldives during a difficult summer there and, in particular, during the recent political crisis; I last spoke to members of the Opposition and of the Government in the Maldives on 16 August. We continue to urge parties there to get over their difficulties and their conflicts with each other and not to lose the gains that have been made in democracy since the reforms of 2008.
As well as the informal contacts between parliamentarians, which I am sure bolster a great deal of support in the Maldives, we give practical support through our bilateral programme. We give support to police reform, to civic and electoral voter advice, to media training and to counter-radicalisation work. The Commonwealth is also interested in providing support for judicial and constitutional reform. It may assist stability in the Maldives if a lengthy fact-finding visit were made by a British Minister and, reluctantly, I am prepared to put myself forward for that, should the occasion arise.
EU External Action Programmes
I recently stressed to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton, the importance of delivering greater efficiency savings from the merger of European institutions with a view to achieving the agreed goal of budget neutrality. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I will continue to press this point strongly during our contacts in Brussels and with our European colleagues in other capitals.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He refers to budget neutrality, but I understood from an earlier question that we were talking about budget cuts in the EU. Surely my hon. Friend will accept that nothing is going to be acceptable to people in this country except budget cuts in the EU while we have to make severe cuts to our own British diplomatic service.
We believe that the External Action Service should operate only in those areas of policy where collective action at European Union level can genuinely add value to the work already being done by national diplomatic services. We will certainly be looking for economy, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would want to see the secondment of national diplomats, including those from the United Kingdom, to the European External Action Service and not to rely entirely on people transferred in from existing European institutions. That will require a short-term spike in expenditure for the EEAS. The High Representative has committed herself to bringing that down as soon as possible and to seeking 10% cuts in her budget as a first priority.
Does the Minister not agree that it would be totally unacceptable if the UK’s contribution to the EU budget were to rise? Given the fact that we are facing massive cuts in all areas across the board domestically, it must be the case that in this area—and across the board—this country’s contribution to the EU must be cut.
I think it is important that we seek the greatest possible value for money and economy in expenditure in every aspect of European Union spending, whether that is in one of the relatively small items of expenditure, such as external action, or in one of the large items, such as agriculture.
Is the Minister aware of the enormous cost to the British taxpayer of the United Kingdom’s remaining outside the EU’s Schengen agreement? Is he aware, for example, that this year there will be four times more Chinese tourists going to Germany than to the UK because of the additional complications that this absence creates? Will he stand up for tourism businesses in the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and other tourist venues in the UK and look to engage with Schengen in a more appropriate manner?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who leads for us on these matters, is very clear that the priority for the people of the United Kingdom should be the maintenance of our own domestic controls over our borders and not giving control of immigration policy to European institutions.
I am amazed to find out that Schengen has anything to do with the External Action Service. I certainly welcome the Minister’s balanced approach to this matter. In fact, is it not true that in other parts of the EU the complaint is that there is far too much British influence in the diplomatic corps of the European External Action Service? Surely we must commend that, because it will bring a UK perspective to the actions in the EEAS that we should welcome.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that complaint is frequently heard in Brussels and in other European capitals. What I would say to those Members of the House, on both sides, who, like me—I freely admit it—voted against the establishment of the EEAS is that now that this body exists we should do all that is within our power to help shape it so that it can be used to give greater leverage to British influence throughout the world.
We are aware of, and we share, the concerns about the case of Ebrahim Hamidi. I last raised the issue with the Iranian ambassador on 18 August.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but he must be aware that the great injustice that Ebrahim Hamidi has suffered brings into question Iran’s human rights record. I urge my hon. Friend—and through him, the British Government—to do everything he can for this young man and to press Iran to honour its international obligations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. A number of hon. Members have raised this case with me by letter in the past few weeks. The European Union and the United Kingdom have raised the subject of human rights with Iran some 70 times in the last year. We continue to press Iran to live up to its obligations under the international covenant on civil and political rights. We have joined the international condemnation in the case of Sakineh Ashtiani and of the death sentence against her. We continue to make it clear to Iran that its human rights record is a barrier to its relationship with other nations and that the sooner it moves on this, the better for all of us.
We are doing all we can to support the aspirations of the Zimbabwean people to a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Zimbabwe. We will go on working with reformers in Zimbabwe and in the region to maximise the prospects of achieving the reforms needed for properly conducted elections.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that despite the progress that has been made through the inclusive Government, the situation in Zimbabwe remains critical and it is vital to continue all moves towards free and fair elections? What role can he play, working with the Department for International Development and others in the region, in bringing that day closer?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning DFID, because its aid budget to Zimbabwe, at £60 million, is the largest it has ever been. All DFID bilateral funds continue to go through the UN and non-governmental organisations, and regular monitoring and robust processes are in place to ensure that those funds go where they are meant to go. None of the funds go directly to Zimbabwean Government Departments.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Our Government are doing all they possibly can, working with the Southern African Development Community, front-line countries, the UN and the EU. I agree entirely with him: two important polls are coming up next year—the referendum on the constitution and the presidential and parliamentary elections—and it is vital that monitors and observers are in place early on. We must learn the lessons of the 2008 election. They need to be in place early and after polling day they need to monitor the count as well.
The Minister will, I am sure, join me in welcoming the fact that the BBC World Service has recently been able to have a correspondent back in Zimbabwe. Given the important aspects of accountability and information that the BBC World Service brings to Zimbabwe and other parts of the world, what assurances can he give that it will continue to be supported by the Foreign Office?
There are currently no proposals to close any language service. Any such proposal requires ministerial approval and no such approval has been sought or given as yet. There was an article in The Guardian that was wholly inaccurate and pure speculation. Discussions are ongoing and there will be a robust discussion involving the Foreign Office about the World Service’s £272 million annual direct grant, but no decisions have been taken. I stress that any closure of a language service requires ministerial approval.
We would welcome improved relations with Iran. Improved relations will come with the Iranian Government engaging in good faith with the E3 plus 3 on their nuclear programme and on improving their increasingly poor human rights record.
Iran claims that criticism of attacks on Camp Ashraf refugees and the stoning to death of Sakineh Ashtiani are part of a soft war that the west is waging on Iran. Are we engaged in a soft war, and does more need to be done now to confront that regime’s intolerable human rights agenda?
We are not engaged in a war of any kind, but we want legitimate expressions of opinion to be heard and we want the human rights record of the Iranian Government to be seen for what it is throughout the world, because it is utterly unacceptable to anyone who cares about basic human rights anywhere on earth. I do not call that a war, but certainly, we want those things. The most important thing that we seek is for Iran to negotiate on its nuclear programme with the E3 plus 3—the three leading European nations and the other members of the UN Security Council—so that the danger of nuclear proliferation in the middle east can be addressed.
I hope, Mr Speaker, that I dealt with that in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). I stress that we are taking a twin-track approach to the Iranian nuclear programme. One of those tracks is sanctions, and we agreed in the European Union at the end of July a strong and wide-ranging set of sanctions that puts additional pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. The other track is to remain open to negotiations about that nuclear programme. It is on that twin track that we must concentrate now.
Detention Camps (Sri Lanka)
There are still some 25,000 Tamils as internally displaced persons in camps. We maintain a regular dialogue with a variety of NGOs, including UNHCR, about their condition. As I indicated in answer to an earlier question, we also maintain a dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka in relation to the issue.
My question was specific. It asked what recent discussions there had been, and it asked about the situation of Tamils in those detention camps. I do not believe I got an answer to either of those elements of the question, and I therefore ask the Minister to respond specifically—when, where, what, and what is going to be done?
The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in his pursuance of Tamil constituents’ concerns and he has raised these issues before. I indicated that there is a regular and constant dialogue between the Government’s representatives in Colombo and UNHCR, and I meant exactly that—it is regular and ongoing. The United Kingdom Government have spent about £13.5 million to support internally displaced persons. We are concerned and our most recent discussions revealed the concerns about the clampdowns on NGO activity with those in the camps. So in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s probing about the conditions, we remain concerned. I raised the matter with the Foreign Minister this morning and he is aware of people’s concerns. We will continue to do so because if the Government of Sri Lanka are serious about their attempts at reconciliation, these matters must be cleared up and dealt with. The hon. Gentleman is right.
The Minister’s word “reconciliation” is right after 25 years of appalling civil strife. In addition to the Tamils who are kept in such dreadful conditions in the camps, is he aware that quite a number of Sri Lankans in Colombo and elsewhere who were thought to be vaguely sympathetic towards the Tamils are also in detention without trial? There is huge human rights abuse there as well. Is my hon. Friend addressing that with the new Government?
Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. Human rights issues, particularly freedom of expression and concerns about the media, have been raised. There is no doubt that conditions have changed in Sri Lanka and have improved to a degree after the conflict, but the issue, as he says, is just how far that goes. That is why we are pressing the Government of Sri Lanka. If they meant what they said about reconciliation at the end of the conflict, we all have to see that in practice on the ground, rather than just words.
Given the widespread allegations of war crimes during the civil war in Sri Lanka, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Sri Lankan Government are being unreasonably provocative in appointing as their new high commissioner and deputy high commissioner two of their most senior military leaders, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Major General Paranna Silva, who were responsible for some of the most brutal fighting during the conflict? If he agrees with me, what do the Government intend to do?
I am not aware that any representations have been made to the United Kingdom Government in relation to a position of high commissioner. I am aware of the position in relation to the defence attaché. It would be difficult to conceive of a defence attaché without a military background, and that appointment is understood. I have not heard anything about the other position, but the hon. Lady certainly raises an issue. If reconciliation is to be the watchword of the Sri Lankan Government, every appointment that they make will be looked at in those terms. Accordingly, appointments that are conciliatory and go some way towards remedying the tragedy of the conflict are surely rather better, for them and for the rest of the world, than anything else, but these appointments are a matter for the Sri Lankan Government in the first place.
Iran's Nuclear Programme
Iran’s nuclear programme threatens global security. Iran continues to develop its programme in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and with a lack of transparency with the International Atomic Energy Agency, both of which are pillars of the international security framework.
At the risk of being repetitious, but for the benefit specifically of the Iranian Government, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that our Government are prepared to meet them at any place, any time in order to resolve peacefully the issue of nuclear proliferation?
The specific offer on the table is for Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative, to meet representatives of the Iranian Government on behalf of the E3—Britain, France and Germany—and, indeed, on behalf of the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. Of course, all the countries involved are happy to assist in those negotiations, but that is what we would now like the Iranians to do.
His Holiness Pope Benedict will visit the United Kingdom this week, the first such official papal visit to our country and an event of great significance to many people in Britain. It will be a time to celebrate the role of faith groups in our communities and to make common cause with the Holy See on tackling poverty and climate change.
Britain plays an active role in ways that I described in previous questions. In particular, we played an energetic role in encouraging Israelis and Palestinians into those direct talks. We now remain in close touch with what is happening in them—ready to assist in any way—as do so many other European nations.
We are major contributors of aid to Palestinians, and one of our concerns is that there should be a greater flow of goods into Gaza. We welcome the statements that Israel has made, since the Gaza flotilla incident, about improving access to Gaza, but we now want to see that really happen in practice.
T3. Will the Foreign Secretary please outline his plans to reinvigorate the Commonwealth? In particular, bearing in mind the historical links between our many countries, will he support the idea of projects, such as one in my constituency of South Northamptonshire, to twin schools in this country and in Uganda? (14871)
Yes. Such decisions are for each locality, but I strongly welcome them. Part of this Government’s plan is certainly to reinvigorate, as my hon. Friend says, our approach to the Commonwealth, a subject and organisation that was rather neglected under the previous Government, and I am glad to say that the Commonwealth is now convening an eminent persons group—and even more glad to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is one member of that group. We look forward to its report early next year, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia.
We have not yet discussed Afghanistan, and, given that 10,000 of our fellow citizens are serving there, it is right that we do so.
The Foreign Secretary has said that he recognises the importance of political reconciliation to end the war in Afghanistan. Does he accept that, almost two months after the conference that he attended in Kabul, Afghan officials are still bickering over who should be in charge of the high peace council that the Foreign Secretary lauded when he came to the House in July? Will he confirm that only a few hundred Taliban fighters have come in from the cold over the last six months? What is the Foreign Secretary going to do to pour drive, energy and effort into an initiative that, as The New York Times rightly said on 12 September, “has badly faltered”?
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise Afghanistan, which ought to be discussed at every Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions. He is right to refer to the extent of our deployment there and the very hard work that our troops continue to do. I think that he and I agree—I think we are agreed across the Floor of the House—that the political process is of huge importance, as well as the military progress that has been made.
A political reconciliation was what President Karzai received the support of the peace jirga to carry out. It is very important that that should be an Afghan-led process, so the United Kingdom and the United States are very active in supporting the Afghans in leading that process. Has it yet produced results? Well, it has not, but it would be surprising if it had produced results at this stage. The reintegration programme has just begun and the opportunity for political reconciliation now exists. It would be quite wrong to judge the possible outcome of that process from what has happened in just the last few weeks.
T4. I am sure that the Minister will be aware of—and, like me, very much value—this country’s strong links with the Caribbean. He will also be aware that during the economic downturn the Caribbean has struggled as a result of the effect on its tourist revenue and revenue from its financial services industry. That may well affect the Caribbean’s ability to police the international drugs trade. What steps will the Minister be taking to support the Caribbean in that policing activity, with specific regard to the overseas territories? (14872)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter as I share his grave concerns about drug trafficking in the Caribbean. A staggering 30% of the cocaine on the UK streets passes through the Caribbean. I am pleased to tell him that the Serious Organised Crime Agency is working with Caribbean countries and our overseas territories on both training and mentoring. It is making very good progress.
T2. On 2 September, Karel De Gucht, the European Commissioner for Trade, told a Belgian radio station that there was little point in trying to engage in rational argument with Jews and that peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians were doomed to failure because of the power of the Jewish lobby. Is the Foreign Secretary surprised to hear those sentiments and has he heard them before? (14870)
I have not heard them before. I totally disagree with those sentiments. I think that the direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians now represent a genuine opportunity. There is a long way to go, and one should not artificially raise expectations about the results of those talks, but they have begun in a very good atmosphere. If the quote that the hon. Lady gives from the European Commissioner is correct, I flatly disagree with it.
There are hopeful signs, I am glad to say. I visited Belgrade two weeks ago to ask Serbia to join a common European Union resolution in the UN General Assembly, rather than sponsoring a resolution of its own. The resolution asked the EU High Representative to facilitate practical talks and a constructive dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. I am glad to say that, because of pressure from across the European Union, Serbia agreed to do that, and the resolution was carried unanimously in the General Assembly last week. At last, there can now be the beginnings of a dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo—an important step to bringing peace and security to the Balkans.
T7. As the Foreign Secretary will be aware, Chernobyl Children’s Life Line, the UK charity, provides support for child victims of the Chernobyl disaster. One way in which it does that is to bring children to the UK for recuperative breaks, including regularly to my constituency of Kilmarnock and Loudoun. Unfortunately, there increasingly seem to be problems in allowing safe and easy passage for children coming from Ukraine. Will the Minister agree to meet Her Majesty’s ambassador to Ukraine to discuss how some of those issues can be dealt with and ensure that the situation is ameliorated in the near future? (14875)
T6. As we heard earlier, many millions of people depend on the BBC’s World Service, which achieves its very impressive and impartial global reach on a budget that is roughly equivalent to that for three and half fighter jets. Will Ministers at least acknowledge the importance of this vital service to the United Kingdom as the comprehensive spending review nears its completion? (14874)
Yes, I completely agree with my hon. Friend—it is an absolutely vital service for the United Kingdom and an absolutely vital service to many parts of the world. I have often spoken about its great value to this country. Of course, in the current situation all parts of the public sector have to be scrutinised for value for money, and the BBC World Service itself believes that it is possible to make economies without necessarily affecting the services it provides. We are looking at that in the comprehensive spending review. However, my hon. Friend will find that I am a very strong supporter of the work of the World Service, so he should not believe some of the wilder rumours that fly around.
T9. Which of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy achievements is the Foreign Secretary most proud of—belittling Britain’s heroism during the second world war, destabilising the tense relationship between India and Pakistan, or enraging the Israelis by calling Gaza a prison camp? (14878)
I am proud of the fact that wherever the Prime Minister goes he forges very strong relationships with the countries that he and I visit, and they often find his diplomatic good sense, his openness and his ability to talk to people a very refreshing change from his predecessor.
T8. With the continuing focus on Afghanistan, we must not be distracted from the other countries where al-Qaeda is reported to be active. To that end, could the Minister update the House on the progress that might have been made with the Friends of Yemen initiative, which Britain is leading? (14876)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right: Yemen is increasingly important in concerns about counter-terrorism. The Friends of Yemen initiative has been rekindled since the current Government came to office, and there is an important meeting in New York on 24 September. This is a group of nations that has come together in order to support Yemen, recognising that it faces economic and security challenges. The United Kingdom is already doing effective work bilaterally, but we are also working increasingly with other nations to assist on economic reform and political reform and dialogue, and to give continuing support on counter-terrorist activity to ensure that al-Qaeda does not get a grip in that crucial region.
Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there are still very strong concerns about human rights abuses in Darfur and more widely in Sudan? Would he care to brief the House on the Government’s view of the current situation and what initiatives they might have taken?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have long-standing concerns about Darfur across the House. One of the things we are doing is to try to ensure that we retain a strong peacekeeping force in Darfur; the withdrawal of any of that threatens to make these problems even worse. We support, of course, the indictment that the International Court of Justice has put forward on the President of Sudan. We are doing a lot of work on the south of Sudan and the prospects for a referendum there, including all the arrangements for that and the controversy and political disputes that it may bring. Our ambassador in Khartoum is well engaged in all these matters, and we will continue to be very vigilant about them.
Given the Government’s support for Turkey’s membership of the EU, what assessment have they made of the extra budget contributions the UK will be asked to make, and the additional immigration that there will be into this country, if Turkey joins the EU—or are they in favour of Turkey’s membership of the EU at any price?
The issues that my hon. Friend mentions are obviously important ones that would have to be addressed in the course of Turkey’s accession negotiations. However, the fact that Turkey now has an economic growth rate of 5.5% per annum compared with just 1% per annum in the eurozone indicates that Turkey’s membership of the European Union would help to benefit the prosperity of the British people and help, in some measure at least, to assuage the understandable concern that he expresses about migration.
Palestinian and independent sources estimate that 50,000 settler homes are under construction in East Jerusalem, where the moratorium does not apply, and more than 2,500 in the west bank, where it supposedly does. If the Government believe that the freeze should be extended to East Jerusalem and beyond September, but the Secretary of State is not prepared to go to Israel to say that, what is he doing to ensure that those two things happen?
The Israeli Government are in no doubt about our views, which I stated at the beginning of Question Time. We regard all settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal, and we clearly want the moratorium on settlements to continue. No one can be in any doubt that that is the very emphatic view of the United Kingdom, which is regularly expressed to Israeli Ministers, and a view that I believe they will receive from most of the world. I hope that they take heed of it.
I welcome the Minister’s earlier remarks about political prisoners in Burma. Will he now use his good offices to seek to persuade our EU partners to back United States-United Kingdom calls for a UN commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma?
Obviously, we are not able directly to secure his release, but that matter is one of the deeply aggravating factors that mean that Gaza remains such an immense international problem. We have called repeatedly for the release of Gilad Shalit and will continue to do so, and the international community will continue to work towards that end. If Hamas and other forces in Gaza were remotely interested in a political settlement and in coming to terms with Israel and the rest of the international community, they would wish to do that.
Turning to Mexico, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the British Government’s support for the Mexican Government’s fight against narco-terrorism, human trafficking and drug trafficking. May I encourage him to liaise with the Mexican Congress to ensure that it amends the constitution so that the Mexican police structures are streamlined to become more effective and efficient and provide self-help for Mexico?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the whole EU has joined in very strong sanctions on Iran, backing up UN Security Council resolution 1929, which imposes obligations on all UN members to take various actions to prevent nuclear proliferation. The powers given under such UN resolutions include responsibilities and powers to interdict suspect shipping, and one or two instances of that have occurred. The UK takes part in that and will encourage other countries to do so. Nuclear proliferation is one of the biggest threats to the future peace of the world, and we take our responsibilities very seriously.
Billy Wright Inquiry
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement. Today I am publishing the report, which I received yesterday, of the Billy Wright inquiry, set up by the previous Government to investigate the death of Billy Wright in the Maze prison on 27 December 1997. I thank Lord MacLean and his panel for their work on the report.
The inquiry was established following the recommendation of Judge Cory that there was sufficient evidence of collusive acts by the Northern Ireland prison authorities to warrant the holding of a public inquiry. The inquiry was asked to determine whether the state facilitated, or attempted to facilitate, Billy Wright’s death, whether acts or omissions by the state were “intentional or negligent”, and “to make recommendations”.
The panel’s conclusions are clear and unequivocal on the central issue of collusion. There was no state collusion in the murder of Billy Wright. The panel finds that
“We were not…persuaded that in any instance there was evidence of collusive acts or collusive conduct.”
However, the panel concludes that
“some…actions did, in our opinion, facilitate his death.”
The report details a number of serious failings prior to Billy Wright’s death. The panel is clear that where failings are identified, they were the result of negligence rather than intentional acts.
The panel criticises specific decisions taken in relation to the prison. Specifically, the panel finds that
“the decision to allocate Billy Wright and the LVF faction to H Block 6 in April 1997 alongside the INLA prisoners was a wrongful act that directly facilitated”
The panel also makes a series of criticisms of the management and operational running of the Maze prison at the time. Wrongful omissions identified by the panel included the
“failure…to strengthen the roof defences…failing to ensure that the exercise yards…were secured and checked each night”
and the failure to carry out a “full risk assessment” before the Loyalist Volunteer Force prisoners were returned to H block 6 in October 1997. Overall the panel identified
“a serious failure on the part of the NIPS and its Chief Executive to deal with recognised management problems in HMP Maze in 1997.”
The Cory report covered a number of issues relating to the day of Billy Wright’s murder, including the malfunctioning of a camera and the standing down of a guard in the observation tower. With two exceptions, the panel conclude that
“none of these occurrences facilitated the murder of Billy Wright”.
In relation to Billy Wright being called by name for his visit, as was “the practice”, the panel
“do not draw any sinister conclusion from this fact but conclude that it did assist his murderers”.
The panel also finds that the
“cutting of the hole in the fence alongside A Wing prior to 27 December undoubtedly facilitated the murder of Billy Wright.”
The panel makes a number of conclusions relating to intelligence received prior to Billy Wright’s death, in particular that the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s failure to communicate a key piece of intelligence was a
“wrongful omission which facilitated the death of Billy Wright in a way that was negligent rather than intentional.”
The report is also critical of the failure to disclose, and in some cases the destruction of, documentary evidence by institutions and state agencies. Although the panel finds that the Northern Ireland Prison Service supplied
“the available documentary evidence which allowed the Inquiry to fulfil its Terms of Reference”,
it is clear that files were destroyed, for which the NIPS apologised unreservedly in its submissions to the inquiry. In relation to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the report notes
“the lack of adequate and effective systems for information management, dissemination and retention with the added element in certain cases of a suspicion that this amounted to deliberate malpractice”.
Those are serious and profound failings. The NIPS has already accepted negligence in the civil proceedings brought by the Wright family in 2002. The prison service told the inquiry in its closing submission that it was a matter of profound regret to the service and its employees that Billy Wright was murdered while in custody. It apologised to the Wright family for any failings that were exploited by the murderers. I reiterate that on behalf of the Government today. There was no collusion. But, as the panel makes clear, Billy Wright was in the
“protective custody of the state”
at the time of his death. Whatever horrendous crimes Billy Wright or the LVF committed, his murder in a high-security prison should never have happened. It was wrong and I am sincerely sorry that failings in the system facilitated his murder.
There are three recommendations in the panel’s report. They cover the retention of prison records, whether any relevant lessons can be learnt for HMP Maghaberry, and whether a process similar to the Patten reforms of the RUC should be established for the Northern Ireland Prison Service. As the House is aware, prisons in Northern Ireland are now in the main a devolved matter. I will meet Justice Minister David Ford on Monday to discuss these recommendations.
It is of course important to recognise the context to Billy Wright’s death and the conditions in the Maze at the time. The circumstances of the Maze were exceptional, with 500 extremely dangerous terrorists belonging to various rival paramilitary organisations housed within the prison. A large number of the prisoners were convicted of the most heinous crimes and, as the Minister who then had responsibility for prisons, Adam Ingram, said in 1998:
“The Maze is unique. There is no other prison anywhere in the democratic world that has such a concentration of terrorist murderers”.
There is no doubt that those charged with running and overseeing the prison faced an incredibly difficult challenge, and for the most part that challenge was met.
The panel acknowledges the
“organisational and personal pressures and the valiant way in which many staff responded.”
Any failings in the management of the Maze identified in this report should not detract from the enormous courage and sacrifice that members of the Northern Ireland Prison Service made during the troubles. Let us not forget that 29 members of that service were killed during the troubles for carrying out their duties. Many more were injured in the line of duty. And as the report states, many of the families of prison officers had
“to move home because of threats made against them.”
Nor should we forget that responsibility for Billy Wright’s death lies with the INLA and the three individuals convicted of his murder. I condemn their crimes absolutely. There was never any justification for the brutal terrorist campaigns that the INLA, the Loyalist Volunteer Force and others waged. I am acutely conscious of the enormous suffering that such terrorists have caused.
The House will be well aware of the controversies over the cost and length of public inquiries in Northern Ireland. This inquiry has cost more than £30 million and lasted more than five years. Our views on these matters are well documented. Let me reiterate to the House, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done, that there will be no more costly and open-ended public inquiries.
The report is a clear account of the shortcomings in the management and running of the Maze at the time of Billy Wright’s death. His murder should never have happened. But any allegations that the state colluded in this violent killing have now been examined and rejected. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for an early copy of his statement and join him in paying tribute to the inquiry chairman, Lord MacLean, his panel, the supporting law officers and officials. I also thank the Secretary of State for allowing hon. Members to read the report in advance of his statement.
We join the Secretary of State in putting on record our sincere thanks to the many brave men and women of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, many of whom gave their lives in the course of the troubles.
This has been an important inquiry. Whatever the context of the troubles, and whatever the crimes Billy Wright had committed—which led to his serving a custodial sentence—nothing should excuse or condone the terrible events two days after Christmas in 1997 that led to his murder while in the protective custody of a high-security prison. I share the Secretary of State’s expression of sorrow for the events and failings that happened.
Although the report addresses some of the so-called irregularities, we note Lord MacLean’s final paragraph:
“To our regret no explanation emerged in the evidence as to how the two firearms were introduced into the prison and put into the hands of his INLA murderers.”
The absence of an explanation is extremely serious. Furthermore, it has potential implications for current security policy in Maghaberry. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that all the lessons on security in prisons have been learned, especially given the events of the past 12 months?
In his recommendations, Lord MacLean observes that in 1997 the Maze was the sole prison in Northern Ireland holding the most dangerous terrorist prisoners. Given that today Maghaberry is the sole maximum security prison, can the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of the current policy for accommodation?
This inquiry, which, significantly, was converted to be held under the Inquiries Act 2005, and is therefore fundamental evidence of the good faith and efficacy of the Act, is extremely important to the family of Mr Wright. The inquiry needed to determine whether any wrongful act or omission by the prison authorities or other state agencies contributed or led to the murder of Billy Wright—or, as others have put it, whether there was collusion. The inquiry’s conclusion is very clear. Crucially, it was not persuaded by the evidence it was able to obtain
“that in any instance there was evidence of collusive acts or collusive conduct.”
The Secretary of State accepts this, and so do we.
In accepting the inquiry’s firm conclusion that there was no collusion, however, the Secretary of State will have noted Lord MacLean’s concern to qualify Judge Cory’s definition of the word “collusion”, expressing concern at the “wide definition” used by Judge Cory. How does the Secretary of State reconcile these different definitions, especially given the possibility that further inquiries might also qualify the definition, the consequences of which might allow some to draw contradictory interpretations, and even contradictory conclusions?
At Weston Park, the British and Irish Governments agreed to look into the possibility of public inquiries into several cases of alleged collusion. The inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane has not yet been established. The House will know that when I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, we made it clear that it would be in the public interest to make an urgent decision on how to proceed with the Finucane inquiry once, and as soon as, Lord Saville had produce his inquiry.
The Government handled the publication of the Saville inquiry with great dignity, sensitivity and skill. Three months have now passed. In his statement today, the Secretary of State quoted the Prime Minister’s words that there would be no more costly and open-ended public inquiries, but he missed out the qualification that the Prime Minister used in his statement on Lord Saville’s report. So in the light of the Secretary of State’s words today, is he effectively telling the Finucane family that they will not have an inquiry?
The Secretary of State rightly sets great store by the work of the Historical Enquiries Team. However, where we differ is in the belief that the HET can deal with all the problems of the past. He must appreciate from the inquiry published today that the HET would have neither the budget nor the resources to mount an investigation such as the one into Billy Wright’s murder. This inquiry alone would have exhausted the entire budget of the HET, which is now tasked with looking at several thousand unsolved deaths and murders.
That brings us to the nub of the issue. Most of the families of those who died in the troubles simply want to know the circumstances of the deaths of their loved ones, and so bring closure to terrible grief and tragedy. Northern Ireland cannot be held in the grip of its past, but it will not be released from that grip just because the British Government say so. Reconciliation will require a process—and a process for everyone—but one that must recognise that no one size can fit all. Closing down the inquiry route for all, without having established a proper alternative, resourced and adequately funded, would be to take a serious risk with the stability not just of the politics, but of the lasting peace of Northern Ireland. On that, the Secretary of State should be cautious. I urge him to reflect carefully.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his opening comments. He asked a number of questions. First, on the lessons for prisons, he played a huge part in ensuring that prisons were devolved. It is not for me to make judgments today about the comments in the tribunal’s report. I have a meeting with the devolved Minister, David Ford, on Monday, and I will go through those recommendations with him. The same applies to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about Maghaberry. There are 70 separated prisoners in Maghaberry at the moment, which is an enormous contrast with the concentration of 500 prisoners in the Maze in 1997. Again, however, if there are lessons to be drawn from today’s report, they are to be drawn by the devolved Minister and those who work under him, and then put into practice.
On collusion, the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly pointed out that there is a contrast between Judge Cory’s definition, which ran to 765 words, and the shorter version, which Lord MacLean came up with. For the benefit of the House, let me read the concise definition of collusion that Lord MacLean came up with in the report:
“For our part we consider that the essence of collusion is an agreement or arrangement between individuals or organisations, including government departments, to achieve an unlawful or improper purpose. The purpose may also be fraudulent or underhand”.
That is a good distillation of what Judge Cory was aiming at. We have to take the definition given by the tribunal in the report, and the report was quite clear: there was no collusion in this case.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Finucane case. As with the last time he raised the issue, I have written to the Finucane family. He wrestled with the problem when he was in office, and although I am fully aware of the difficulties and sensitivities associated with the case, it is right that I talk to the family first, before deciding how we proceed further.
The right hon. Gentleman then talked about the past. He quite rightly contrasted the £30 million spent on the one death that we are discussing today and the £34 million that was the original budget, over six years, for the HET, which is looking into 3,268 deaths. My view is that this asymmetrical approach to the past, with an extraordinary intensity of effort put into a small number of cases, is not fair and is invidious. I hope that we will get the same reaction today that we had to Saville—that it was an effort well spent—but for the future, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is no consensus on how we handle the past.
The right hon. Gentleman called for submissions reacting to the Eames-Bradley report, which he received in October and which, in fairness to us, we published in the summer. I am listening to parties in this House across the board, and the Minister of State and I are going round Northern Ireland talking to numerous people and groups. Sadly, however, as he saw from those replies to Eames-Bradley, there is just no consensus. It is not for us, as the Westminster Government, to impose one; rather, it is our task to try to find a way forward in close collaboration with local politicians and local groups. That is how we intend to approach the past.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and the report. While acknowledging the mistakes that have been made—mistakes that are highlighted in the report—I join him in paying tribute to the many prison officers who have worked against a background that has not been seen on the mainland or in many other countries. Indeed, 29 prison officers lost their lives—28 of them outside the prison, which shows the danger that they faced as they went about their work.
Does the Secretary of State agree that this report, and the Saville report on Bloody Sunday, highlight the waste involved in the years of the troubles, and the waste that terrorism brings in terms of lost lives and wasted opportunities? Does the report not point to the fact that the way forward for Northern Ireland must surely be through peace and democracy?
It is difficult to bring closure when there have been so many deaths in Northern Ireland, but relatives involved with Bloody Sunday, and now those involved with the Billy Wright report, have received some form of closure. There are, however, many crimes, including Omagh, that have not been properly investigated or been the subject of such a report. Will the Secretary of State tell us what he intends to do about that?
I thank the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for his comments, and commend the Committee for the work that it does for Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right to say that the more we go into the details of these cases, the more apparent the traumatic waste of the troubles becomes. We would like to work with him and his Committee as we seek a way forward on handling the past.
On the question of Omagh, I shall be having a meeting with the relatives affected by that appalling atrocity reasonably soon. As I said earlier, it is our intention to talk to as many people as we can over the coming months, to see whether we can find a means of handling the past that attracts broad support. Sadly, however, I am fully conscious that however hard we try, we will not come up with something that pleases everyone.
I thank the Secretary of State for this report and for his comments today. I want to pay tribute to Mr David Wright, Billy Wright’s father, who is one of my constituents; the family as a whole lived in my constituency. David Wright went the extra mile to try to find the truth of how his son died. No matter what his son was in prison for, he was the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government and the Northern Ireland Prison Service.
We got the report this morning. It contains 700-odd pages, and even Einstein could not have comprehended it all in the given time. It highlights to me, however, the difficulties that existed at that time in the prison. I pay tribute to the prison officers, who have done a sterling job down through the years, but the senior management of the Prison Service have some questions to answer. Will the Secretary of State tell us what confidence he can give to the people of Northern Ireland in relation to the Prison Service going into the future, and whether any of the senior management who are still alive will pay a price for this?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I endorse his feelings for his constituent, Mr David Wright, whom I met a couple of weeks ago. He has battled staunchly to try to find out how his son died. I also echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and those of the Chairman of the Select Committee, about those who work in the Prison Service, who were given great praise in the report.
As for the future of the Prison Service, that matter is now in local hands. It is down to the local Justice Minister, who is accountable to the Assembly and sits on the Executive. I will sit with him on Monday and we will go through the very serious failings that have emerged from the report—which are, of course, from another era—and through its recommendations. What happens next, however, is very much down to the local Minister, working with local politicians.
I too have met David Wright; unfortunately, I never met Billy Wright, but I too felt David Wright’s pain as a father. I have also met many victims of Billy Wright and the LVF. We remember them today, just as we should remember all the victims of all the terrorism of the INLA, who will have very mixed feelings on a day like today.
The Secretary of State has told us in the statement that the report emphatically rejects the idea of collusion. But does he not agree that that is partly because the report relies on the fact that the word “collusion” was not in the terms of reference for the inquiry and also because it specifically demurred from Judge Cory’s definition of collusion—a definition that was, of course, clearly embraced by the police ombudsman in the recent report about Claudy?
As for the findings, the report identified six wrongful omissions by the Northern Ireland Prison Service, which the panel say facilitated the murder or death of Billy Wright. Three further findings of wrongful omissions were identified that indirectly facilitated his murder, as well as two wrongful acts by the NIPS, one of which is held directly to have facilitated the murder, and one serious failure on the part of the Prison Service and its chief executive, involving a decision with ministerial knowledge, with conclusions attached to that to the effect that wrongful acts or omissions indirectly facilitated the murder. One Maze prison practice was concluded to have assisted the murder; one further prison failure undoubtedly facilitated the murder; and one wrongful omission by the Royal Ulster Constabulary that facilitated the murder was held to be negligent rather than intentional. In relation to the same issue, there was one most unfortunate conclusion against the security service. Yet all that adds up to “no collusion”, so what does it add up to?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have to remind him that we did not commission this inquiry and we did not set the terms. We received it yesterday afternoon and we have come straight to the House to publish it. The hon. Gentleman quite rightly lists the very severe criticisms of factors that led to the murder of Billy Wright in prison, which were serious failings that should not have happened to any British citizen in protective custody in a high-security prison. I have been open about that and I have sincerely apologised on behalf of the British Government. In fairness to ourselves, we have to take the report as commissioned and as it has been presented to us, and under those terms, the tribunal is quite clear that there has been no intent of collusion and no act that could be regarded as collusive either by commission or omission.
For a citizen to be murdered while in the protective custody of Her Majesty’s Government is shocking and disgraceful. When one considers that that person was murdered as a result of actions and omissions by agencies of the state, it is all the more shocking and disgraceful. Clearly, there are still unanswered questions, not least about how firearms came to be in possession of the killer. As to the missing and destroyed files and documents referred to—they were destroyed by both the PSNI and by the Northern Ireland Prison Service—to what extent is the lack of those documents and files a contributory factor in the inability to get to the truth of what really happened on that day?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point—that it is most regrettable that a large number of documents were destroyed. It is wrong, and the report goes into some detail to show that a large amount of documentation was destroyed or lost. The report goes on to say, however, that nothing was found to suggest anything “sinister” in the document destruction. We should not forget that this was an inquiry into whether there was collusion. Did the British state do something deliberate or not do something by omission that led to the murder of Billy Wright? Having looked at more than 30,000 pages and after 152 days of hearings, the inquiry’s conclusion was that there was no collusion. We have to take the report as it has been presented to us.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has said, none of us should forget the pain and suffering of many people at the hands of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland over the past 35 years. We must never forget the actions, either direct or indirect, of the late Mr Wright, which resulted in the loss of life in the general Portadown-Craigavon area, or his actions in relation to the whole Drumcree crisis. We must also not forget the pain and suffering of his father and his family, because those events resulted in his death, which should never have happened.
Will the Secretary of State outline the advice and recommendations that he will give Minister Ford when he meets him next week, with due reference to a possible commission to produce a root-and-branch review, and to the systemic failure of the management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service? There was no conjunction between policy and operation. Will the right hon. Gentleman also tell us what efforts he will make to assuage the fears of Mrs Finucane and her family, and the Ballymurphy families, who are also suffering at this time and who are seeking truth and justice in relation to the deaths and murders of their loved ones?
I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of the hon. Lady and her hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). People suffered at the hands of the INLA, the LVF and the Ulster Volunteer Force and I wholeheartedly condemn those who caused that suffering. We should not forget that it was terrorists who caused those deaths.
When I meet the Justice Minister on Monday, I will go through the recommendations in the report. However, they are not for me to impose. That is what devolution is all about. Devolution is in the hands of local Ministers. We will have a thorough and open discussion, because, as the hon. Lady says, the facts involved are shocking, but we should also bear in mind that those facts date from a long time ago, and concern an institution that has long since closed. What I have seen leads me to believe that there is no comparison between the Northern Ireland Prison Service today and the service that struggled to handle the extremely difficult circumstances of holding 500 determined murderers in the Maze.
The hon. Lady asked briefly about the Finucane and Ballymurphy cases. I am due to have meetings with those concerned, and I think it would be wrong for me to jump the gun before I have met them.
The Maze prison, where the murder occurred, is in my constituency. I well recall the events, and the subsequent inquiries and investigation by the police. I am concerned about the fact that the report does not identify how the weapons were brought into the prison. That remains a key issue. All the other failings were important, but it is doubtful whether the murder could have occurred had those weapons not been available to terrorists in what was reputedly the most high-security prison in Europe. I do not think that we can allow the report to pass without further inquiry into how the weapons came to be in the possession of the INLA terrorists.
There will also be doubts in many people’s minds today about the series of events leading up to the murder of Billy Wright. I condemn murder, whether by the LVF or by any other paramilitary or terrorist organisation. My thoughts are, of course, with the victims, but Billy Wright’s family are entitled to know the truth of what happened. In particular, his father, David Wright, is entitled to know what happened to his son. I do not believe that the report gives us that.
There are too many coincidences, too many happenstances, too many things that went wrong all at the same time, all of which contributed to the murder. Many of us are left with more questions than answers in our minds today.
I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not happy with the result of this report, after an investigation by a senior judge and his tribunal with its highly respected panel, and with more than 30,000 pages of evidence having been looked at. Obviously, it is also very regrettable that some of the details have not emerged. How the guns got into H block 6 is still not clear. That highlights one of the sad facts about trying to arrive at a system to look at the past: in some cases we just will not get to those final details. This may be one of those cases. After spending £30 million and following six years of investigation by some of the most experienced lawyers in the western world, we have not got to one of the key details: how the guns were smuggled into the H block. As we look ahead, I am afraid that we are going to have to accept that, in respect of some of these past cases, we simply will never know.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State will address a specific issue that was raised in a local Northern Ireland newspaper this morning. Was there any evidence at all that the RUC or MI5 had prior warning that the INLA intended to murder Billy Wright but failed to take action to prevent the murder? Was there any shred of evidence to support that contention?
I thank the Secretary of State for the statement. Does he not feel incredibly short-changed by this £30-million report that has certainly made lawyers extremely wealthy but has done very little to provide us with any more answers to questions than when this entire sorry saga commenced, and does he agree that if we accept his analysis that we will never actually get to the truth in all of this, all we can conclude about this report is that it is a whitewash?
We inherited a series of inquiries commissioned by the previous Government, and as the incoming Government all we can do is face up to them and publish them as swiftly as possible. In respect of this case, the inquiry was set the clear remit of looking into whether the British state colluded. It has run on at considerably more expense and for considerably longer than was originally planned, but we have immediately come forward and presented it to the House in the very narrow window of Parliament sitting for these two weeks in September, and the hon. Gentleman can therefore now read it at length and draw his own conclusions. I think we do have to separate the issue of process from the result, however, and I hope that some people will be reassured by this very detailed investigation of the case.
The Secretary of State clearly outlined the case, and he will understand the dissatisfaction that we Members from Northern Ireland have about it. The right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) mentioned one of our concerns: the guns problem. If there were no guns in the prison, there would be nobody dead today. Can you, Secretary of State, assure us today that you will carry out a further investigation to find out how those guns were smuggled in? Is it your intention to do that, or are you just going to drop the whole thing today and forget about it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I think I have just answered it, however. After £30 million and six years, I am not sure what more can be done, or for how much longer we can carry on looking into an individual case. It is very regrettable that the data to enable us to get to every fine detail of the case may not be available, but we also must recognise that 3,268 deaths are being looked at by the Historical Enquiries Team, and there must be some sense of balance. After a certain amount of time and effort has been expended, we have to accept that certain details may never emerge, but I think that an inquiry lasting six years, involving one of the top lawyers in the country and 30,000 pages of evidence, illustrates that an enormous amount of effort has gone into this case.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Sir, if you go out into the corridors around here, you will find closed circuit television cameras being installed in the Central Lobby and other corridors that are normally private to Members. Is this known to you? Some people say that it is just to do with the Pope’s visit, and that is perfectly reasonable, but if that is so, can we be sure that the cameras will be taken down? I love the surveillance society. I am not sure whether the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has an investment in making sure that we are all here and that we are going to our restaurants and coming out with the appropriate bills, but I do not like CCTV cameras in this our House of Commons.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I note what he says and am happy to look further into the matter if it is of notable interest to him and to others. In so far as the issue of security is concerned, however, I know that the right hon. Gentleman is an extremely experienced parliamentarian, so he will be aware that matters relating to security are not discussed on the Floor of the House. If there are no further points of order, we will come to the ten-minute rule motion. I call Catherine McKinnell.
Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require certain public procurement contracts let by public authorities to include a commitment by the contractor to provide apprenticeships and skills training; and for connected purposes.
On Friday, I met 19-year-old Chris Haugh, who was starting his last day as an apprentice motor technician at Newcastle international airport in my constituency. He began his placement when he left school at the age of 16 and has earned himself a permanent position, which he started yesterday. During our chat, he described his three years’ training as the best time of his life, and he told me about the fantastic support he had received, the friends he had made and how he is looking forward to taking an active role in bringing on the next apprentice that the team takes on. Chris is one in a line of successful apprentices at Newcastle airport. I also spoke to his senior supervisor, Derek Morgan, who was the first apprentice ever taken on at the airport and he has worked there for more than 40 years.
At opposite stages of their working lives, both those individuals perfectly illustrate the benefits of apprenticeships and the reasons why I want to introduce this Bill. I am hopeful that the ideas I present today will meet with the support of hon. Members. My early-day motion 692 on the issue has been signed by 50 MPs, representing five different parties, and I am certain that the political will exists to tackle this subject. What I am proposing is a small legislative change that would make a big difference to the lives of millions, improving aspirations and offering training and high-quality careers.
The aim of the Bill is to introduce a requirement upon successful bidders for high-value public contracts to demonstrate a firm commitment to skills training and apprenticeships. Guidance published by the Office of Government Commerce in April 2009 aimed to encourage departments to address skills and apprenticeship issues through their procurement policies. The Bill aims to build on those guidelines, ensuring that organisations help to develop skills in their work force through these large-scale public contracts.
The economic case is clear. First, expanding access to apprenticeships will help to bridge the current employment and skills shortfall. That is particularly important in the current financial climate. Because it is the Government who award these prized contracts, they are uniquely placed to ensure that those profiting from public money are giving something back. With an annual expenditure in 2008-09 of £175 billion, public procurement is the ideal tool to encourage organisations to develop their apprenticeship plans.
This is a simple principle that draws strong and broad support. The TUC, Unite, the Federation of Small Businesses and many other groups have all publically stated their support. The FSB in the north-east has told me that it builds upon its work, pushing for the public sector to play a more strategic role in stimulating the growth of apprenticeships. In the words of Frances O’Grady, deputy general secretary of the TUC, these companies must “do their bit.” By their doing their bit, the financial investment required to expand training will be shared by the taxpayer and private firms making profits from public contracts, and that is a significant advantage. Government spending is declining, yet the need for jobs and training is higher than ever. According to Department for Business, Innovation and Skills figures, 240,000 apprenticeships were taken up in 2008-09, which demonstrates the high demand for apprenticeships. However, the current supply of quality apprenticeships is clearly not sufficient to meet demand and that was highlighted this year when BT received 24,000 applications for only 221 places on its apprenticeship programme.
The relatively small cost of training an apprentice can be contrasted with the clear financial benefits to both the firm and the individual over the longer term. A report commissioned by the then Department for Education and Skills in 2007 estimated that the added financial benefit to an apprentice over their lifetime of completing a level 3 apprenticeship is about £105,000 in higher wages and a significantly higher likelihood of employment. A separate report produced in 2008 by Warwick university also showed that the majority of employers recouped the cost of their investment within two to three years. As the report found that apprentices usually stay with the firms that trained them for far longer than that, those employers enjoy access to highly skilled employees who know their business and feel a personal commitment to its success. That improves efficiency and productivity as well as generating non-financial benefits such as increased morale and commitment to the organisation.
By expanding access to apprenticeships we can create a more tailor-made training system in which employers, who know their industries better than anyone, identify the skills that are needed and train their apprentices to suit them. That will lead to less surplus and shortage in the labour market, quicken our return to prosperity and ensure that Britain has the intelligently trained workers that we need for our recovery.
As well as being convinced by the economic case for the Bill, I also have personal experience of how apprenticeships change lives. Aside from meeting inspiring people such as Chris and Derek, I grew up with my grandfather’s building company and had the opportunity to see at first hand the human dimension of what it means for people to get into work. Yesterday, I met up with Tony Hall, who started as an apprentice with my grandfather in 1972. He now runs his own business and his son has just started, at 17, as an apprentice at a stainless steel fabricators—White Bros Ltd—in my constituency. The economic benefits really are only half the story of why this Bill matters.
Being in employment or training does not just mean that a person has a bit more money to spend. It changes the way people view themselves and gives them increased pride and self-esteem. Apprentices are perhaps the best means to tackle the increasing number of people who are not in employment, education or training and we have the perfect opportunity to use apprenticeships to show that in order to be successful, higher education is not a prerequisite, and that equal if not greater rewards can be gained through entering the workplace as an apprentice.
Although companies will be obliged under the Bill to demonstrate a general commitment to providing apprenticeships and training, steps will be taken to ensure that it is always proportionate and continues to guarantee value for money. Small businesses should not be adversely affected by the proposals due to limits on the size of the contract and the number of apprentices required by the Bill. More than this, the stipulation could not be enforced at the expense of discriminating against contractors from other EU states.
Increasing access to training and boosting the availability of apprenticeships are matters on which Labour in government made real strides and so I am pleased to see that they remain declared goals of the coalition Government. I was also pleased to read of the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning’s praise for apprenticeships during his recent visit to the Nissan car plant in Tyne and Wear. His declaration that “apprenticeships matter” gives, I am sure, hon. Members on both sides of the House great hopes for the direction of future policy in this respect.
There is a widely recognised need to increase apprenticeships and I am convinced that a simple way to do that is for those who profit from public contracts to do their bit. Given the support that has been expressed for the proposal not only in Parliament but by industry groups and trade unions, I ask hon. Members to support the small change brought in by this Bill and to play a part in making a statutory obligation on the public procurement process that will benefit individuals, businesses and the country. It is a long-overdue requirement that will create a comprehensive national apprenticeships programme, central to lower-cost, high-quality skills training in the UK. It is a small change that will make a big difference, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Catherine McKinnell, Mr Charles Kennedy, Ms Angela Eagle, John Healey, Tony Lloyd, Jack Dromey, John Cryer, Grahame M. Morris, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Tony Cunningham, Geraint Davies and Mr Iain Wright present the Bill.
Catherine McKinnell accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 February and to be printed (Bill 70).
Equitable Life (Payments) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Government want to see justice for Equitable Life’s policyholders and that is clearly reflected in the actions that we have taken since coming to office. In our programme for government, we pledged to implement the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s recommendation to make fair and transparent payments to Equitable Life policyholders. As a constituency MP and as the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I receive plenty of correspondence on this matter, I have answered a series of parliamentary questions about it and I have had a number of oral representations from colleagues on it, all of which have stressed the need for a fair resolution. I understand the strength of feeling and, given my role in the past five years in opposition and now in government, I hope that hon. Members will recognise my commitment to policyholders.
We need a swift resolution, but, vitally, one that is transparent and fair. I am pleased to report to the House that more progress has been made to address the plight of Equitable Life policyholders during the first few months of the coalition Government than was achieved over the past decade. We have published Sir John Chadwick’s independent report setting out his approach to calculating payments. I commissioned the first bottom-up estimates of losses suffered by policyholders, calculated at each individual stage of Sir John’s methodology, and published those estimates in July.
As one of the many people who signed the Equitable Life representatives’ pledge before the election, I am very concerned that there should be a fair settlement. Will the Minister comment on the statement by the parliamentary ombudsman in her letter to all MPs of 26 July that
“the Chadwick proposals seem to me to be an unsafe and unsound basis on which to proceed”?
My hon. Friend was one of a number of colleagues on both sides of the House, including me, who signed the pledge. I am determined to make sure that we honour the pledge and that justice is delivered to Equitable Life policyholders. I met the ombudsman yesterday to discuss her letter and her comments on Sir John’s report. That is one of a number of representations that I have received about the report. I shall talk about the others in more detail later, but let me say that the starting point of Sir John’s work is a basis for calculating external relative loss. That is the first such basis that has been proposed to us and we need to look at how it could work as a basis for calculating the losses. I am determined to make sure that in deciding the loss figure we should take into account all the representations that have been received, including those of the parliamentary ombudsman.
My hon. Friend is extremely generous in giving way a second time. Does he accept that whatever calculations are done, any outcome that results in only a small fraction of the relative loss being made good to the policyholders would be deemed unacceptable by the policyholders, and dishonourable behaviour by those of us who signed that pledge in good faith?
Before Opposition Members get to their feet, they should think about what happened over the past decade. The bill for the taxpayer would have been much less if rather than waiting till now, the matter had been resolved under the last Government. They had 10 years to resolve it. Nothing happened until the present Government took power.
I welcome the swift move to put right the injustice about which the Opposition did nothing for more than a decade. To reassure colleagues, will my hon. Friend confirm that there will be a discussion between the Chief Secretary representing the taxpayers, and himself or some other Minister representing the Equitable Life policyholders? There needs to be a balance and we look forward to a sensible balance being struck.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. There are two decisions to be taken. One is on the loss figure and the other is on the amount of compensation that the taxpayer can afford to pay. It is right that those decisions are made in the context of the spending review. That decision will be announced on 20 October.
Is not the point made by his right hon. and hon. Friends this: when on the Government Benches we accepted the recommendations in principle—[Laughter.] Both the Liberals and the Tories in opposition gave policyholders the impression that they would be far more generous. Are they not now going back on their word which they gave before the general election?
I should not have given way to the hon. Gentleman. He has identified the problem. The previous Government could have dealt with the matter, but it is left to the present Government. We have to sort out not just this mess, but the mess that Labour left behind in the state of the public finances. That is the problem that we have to face in dealing with the Equitable Life issue.
Might the state of the public finances guide the Chancellor in his autumn statement on the public spending review to advance a compensation pot that would be in line with the rest of the Government’s overview of public spending reductions, that being of the order of 25% for the majority of Departments, and nothing to do with the 90% reduction advanced by the Chadwick report?
My hon. Friend will recognise that the spending review is not simply a linear process. Some projects will be scrapped completely; some will suffer a small cut. We need to look at each case on its merits, rather than assume that an across-the-board measure will apply to all spending bids in the spending review.
Without speculating what proportion of the £5 billion estimated losses will be compensated, does the Minister agree that, whatever payment is announced today, the Government will recognise that it is merely a first down-payment on returning the losses to policyholders, with a view to further payments being made in future years?
A number of hon. Friends have made that point, and a number of representations made to me put an alternative point of view—that what policyholders would like is rapid resolution and a swift payment scheme to bring closure to the matter. The spending review is to cover the lifetime of this Parliament, and the figure that is settled upon should reflect the coalition’s commitment to resolving the issue once and for all.
Nobody is keener than me for the Government to save money and get the finances back on track, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to give him some of my ideas about how we can do that. However, I hope that the Government, having made commitments to people while in opposition, will not use the argument that there is no money in order not to pay a fair settlement. After all, we all knew that there was no money when we were in opposition.
That is why, when the ombudsman published her report, we highlighted her recommendation that we need to consider the impact on the public purse of any compensation scheme. We made that point when she published her report, and it was in the Opposition day motions on which we voted prior to the election. It has been a consistent strand in our policy to recognise the impact on the public purse of this compensation pot.
I take the noise from Opposition Members with a great pinch of salt, given the way in which they behaved.
My hon. Friend rightly cited the ombudsman, and in the central recommendation of her report she set the following criterion:
“The aim of such a scheme should be to put those people who have suffered a relative loss back into the position that they would have been in had the maladministration not occurred.”
Does my hon. Friend believe that he can get there—or close?
That is not a matter for me to decide; it is part of the spending review. However, I remind my right hon. Friend what the ombudsman also said. In paragraph 9.38 of her report’s summary, she said:
“I am acutely conscious of the potential scale of what I have recommended and that acceptance of my central recommendation might entail opportunity costs elsewhere through the diversion of resources.”
She recognised the potential impact on public spending of her recommendations, and that public interest is a relevant consideration, stating that:
“it is appropriate to consider the potential impact on the public purse of any payment of compensation in this case.”
I therefore point out to my right hon. and hon. Friends, who rightly put great store by the ombudsman’s work, that her recommendations are strongly qualified by the question of affordability, and we need to bear that in mind. Of course, it would have been far easier if the matter had been resolved when she published her report in July 2008, rather than having to wait until now.
I thank the Minister for, at last, giving way. I have been a Member for some time and longer than he has, so I can tell him that this was an issue before 1997. The Conservatives, at that time in government, refused to pay any compensation to the Equitable Life pensioners. Under the terms that they now suggest, they will cut about £5 billion of the compensation that the ombudsman recommended for payment, but I heard the Minister in Westminster Hall say on many occasions that they, in government, would pay the pensioners in full. Why have they changed?
The hon. Gentleman should really direct his anger at his own Front Benchers, who for years blocked the investigation of Equitable Life by the ombudsman, who tried to delay her report and who took six months to respond to her findings. The real culprits are on the Opposition Front Bench, not on the Government Benches.
The Minister, in his opening remarks, spoke of justice. Where does justice lie—at 10% of losses, 100% of losses or some random figure in between?
My hon. Friend will know that the Public Administration Committee, which I now chair, issued in the previous Parliament two reports on the subject, and unless we make progress discussing the Bill itself, it seems that much of this debate will turn on what exactly the ombudsman meant in her report. May I advise my hon. Friend and, indeed, the House that my Committee intends to hold a further inquiry as soon as the House returns in October in order to elucidate the exact differences between the ombudsman’s recommendations, Sir John Chadwick’s report and what the Government’s view may be at that time? We will issue a report on what we believe the ombudsman actually intended, and I hope that the Government will honour that interpretation.
I would be delighted to appear in front of the Committee to give the Government’s view. It is important that there should be scrutiny through the Public Administration Committee. My hon. Friend was right to highlight the work done by the previous Committee; I particularly commend the former Chair, Dr Tony Wright, who did a great deal, with other Committee members, to keep the issue in the public debate. They published two reports that were very critical of the previous Government. I am happy to take part in that process.
The fact that this matter has not been resolved for so long is an absolute disgrace, and I congratulate the coalition on the fact that it will deal with it so swiftly. It is vital that the compensation given should be suitable and satisfactory to all the victims of Equitable Life. Going forward and looking at the bigger picture, we need to consider pensions as a whole. What does this issue say about how far the general public can have faith in any pension scheme?
Indeed; my hon. Friend makes an important point. I would like to say two things in response to her. First, any compensation has to be fair to both the policyholders and the taxpayers who will foot the bill. No one else will foot the bill—no one involved, such as the previous management of Equitable Life, will pick up the tab. The taxpayer will foot the bill. We need to make sure that compensation is fair for the taxpayer and policyholders.
Secondly, my hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of how we ensure that there is confidence for investors and savers in insurance and long-term saving in the future. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in June that we are going to reform financial regulation and set up a new consumer protection markets authority. That will strengthen the regulatory regime in this country.
We also need to make sure that we help improve financial capability for savers, so that they can understand some of the issues around the products that they take out. That is why we have proposed an annual financial health check, which will help savers understand some of those issues.
As we have heard, many of us have signed the Equitable Members Action Group pledge. There is a wide gap between what Sir John Chadwick and the ombudsman are saying. Does the Minister agree that it is our duty to bridge that gap in a satisfactory way? Otherwise, all the good will that he has achieved in the past few weeks will be spent and the victims of Equitable Life will end up feeling hard done by.
I, too, congratulate the Government on getting to this issue so quickly, in line with the promise that we made before the general election. Will the Minister comment on the case of two of my constituents who between them had an annuity of about £11,000 a year? It is now worth roughly £4,000 a year and will continue to reduce; that is a loss of more than 55%. I should be grateful for the Minister’s comments on what I am to say to them.
I am not familiar with the policies held by every single Equitable Life policyholder. There are 1 million policyholders with 1.5 million policies, and 30 million policy transactions went through during the period concerned. That is why it is important that Towers Watson, which has provided actuarial advice to the Treasury, should look at the calculation of losses.
I suspect that my hon. Friend’s constituents may be part of one group for whom there is a great deal of sympathy. They are the so-called “trapped annuitants”—people who bought with-profits annuities policies. I have raised that topic with Towers Watson, to try to understand the losses that people in that category of policyholder have suffered, so we can understand the right approach in terms of compensation. Many people from that group believe that they have suffered quite significant losses, and we need to ensure whether that is the case. At the moment, I am trying to do some more work to establish that.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have spoken up for Equitable Life members represented on both sides of the Chamber. One of the issues that concerns everyone is speed—when people are going to get some money paid out. I do not expect him to give a specific day, week or month, but can he give some indication of when policyholders might expect to see payments beginning? I suggested in an intervention a few weeks ago that it might be well into 2011; what does he think would be a reasonable time scale?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Speed is of the essence, and we want to make sure that payments start to be made as quickly as possible. There is quite a lot of work to be done before we get to that point; I will say a bit about that work later on.
If I can answer one intervention before I take the next, it would be helpful to all hon. Members.
We said in the statement on 22 July that we hope to start to make payments towards the middle of next year. I give way to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen).
The hon. Gentleman may recall that when he made his statement to the House I asked him about an appeals procedure. Once a payment is recommended and the person does not agree with it, what kind of mechanism will be in place for appeals? Will it be independent? Will the Bill give a time scale indicating the length of time for the appeals procedure so that people can be clear about that?
The appeals mechanism is not in the Bill. However, I took on board the point that hon. Gentleman made during the statement about the need for an appeals mechanism, and I have raised that with my officials. I agree, too, that it is important that any appeal is dealt with quickly, but of course that requires co-operation both on the part of the person making the appeal and the body adjudicating on the appeal. Part of the problem that we all face is that we are talking about premiums that were paid back in the early ’90s, so clearly for some of those making appeals there may be an issue about the availability of paperwork and documentation. I am very mindful of that point, and we will pursue it.
I would like to make a little progress. I have been very generous in taking interventions from Members on both sides of the House, and I will take a few more in due course.
We will announce in next month’s spending review how much we can afford to pay to policyholders. We have established an independent commission to assess how best to allocate compensation to policyholders, and we have announced our goal of making the first payments towards the middle of next year. Today’s Bill is another step on the long road to a fair resolution of this situation.
The independent commission has already started its work, and the chairman, Brian Pomeroy, recently invited all interested parties to submit their views. That invitation extends to Members in all parts of the House; I know that many people have strong opinions on how compensation should be paid to policyholders once the final amount has been determined. I am keen that the commission should work as quickly as possible and that its establishment should not unduly delay payments beginning to be made to policyholders. However, the independence of the design of the payments scheme is a key matter of concern to policyholders, especially to the Equitable Members Action Group, so it is important to guarantee transparency and openness. It is therefore right to give the commission the remit to do this work.
I am also mindful of the fact that we need a tight timetable—one that gives enough time to consider all the issues properly but recognises that many policyholders are elderly and should not be required to wait a minute longer than is necessary for justice. Today, we have taken the opportunity to take another important step forwards to achieving resolution. The Bill authorises the Treasury to incur expenditure and make payments to those adversely affected by the then Government’s maladministration of the regulation of the Equitable Life Assurance Society. This is why, regardless of how a future scheme will look, passing the Bill today is vital to enable payments to be made. I should make it clear that the Bill does not set the maximum amount that can be paid or dictate the design of the scheme, but simply gives the power to the Treasury to make those payments.