House of Commons
Monday 7 March 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government have pledged to break the link between temporary migration and permanent settlement. Settling in Britain should be a privilege to be earned, not an automatic add-on to a temporary way in. We have already announced that we will introduce a new permanent limit on non-EU economic migrants, with a reduction in the number of visas in the next financial year from 28,000 to 21,700, a fall of over 20%. The Government will consult later this year on breaking the link between work and settlement.
My constituents are largely concerned not about people who work here temporarily, but about people who work here for a short time and then can settle permanently. Is there not a case for a review of the criteria for permanent settlement, to try to avoid this kind of practice?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her supplementary question. We will review the entire question of permanent settlement including the criteria for it as part of our review of the whole immigration system. We will make announcements on that shortly, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have already tightened the settlement criteria in April, by introducing, for example, a new criminality threshold so all applicants must be clear of unspent convictions when applying, a new income requirement for skilled and highly skilled migrants applying for settlement, and reform of the English language requirements.
I understand where the hon. Gentleman is trying to lead his question. Of course there are rules on that offence in relation to exclusions from the United Kingdom. Decisions on exclusions are taken by the Home Secretary on the basis of evidence put forward by the UK Border Agency.
On temporary residence, is it not clear that under the Government’s plans students are welcome to come and study in this country, and, indeed, should be made welcome? However, is it not part of the inheritance of this Government that large numbers of people have used the study route as a means of coming to the country to work, rather than to study? Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that this Government will bear down on bogus students and bogus colleges who abuse the system?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I am happy to give him precisely that assurance in relation to the stance this Government are taking. It is perfectly clear from the figures that, sadly, all too many people have used the student visa route as a means simply of coming to the UK to work. There are some very good examples of colleges that exist in name only, such as the college that had two lecturers covering 940 students. I hope there is cross-House agreement that that sort of abuse must be stopped, but we do want to ensure that legitimate students wanting to study legitimate courses at legitimate institutions come here.
Local Crime and Policing Website
3. What representations she has received from members of the public on the local crime and policing website. (44042)
Since its launch on 31 January, our street level crime mapping website police.uk has received almost 400 million hits. The website is a strong example of this Government’s commitment to greater transparency in public services, by giving communities the information they need to hold their local police to account.
Yes, the Government intend to build on the information currently given. There are six trailblazing police forces looking at how this can be done, including Lincolnshire police and West Yorkshire police, who are looking at how we might supply sentencing outcome information so the public know not only that the crime was committed, but what happened afterwards in the criminal justice system.
In the interest of transparency, will the Minister consider adding to the value of the mapping crimes website by including figures on the dozens of police who will not be on the streets because of the huge cuts his Government are imposing on our police forces?
Oh dear, the hon. Gentleman has missed the point. If he looks at the website police.uk, he will see that the neighbourhood policing teams are shown alongside the area in which the individual lives. Every force up and down the country is committed to protecting neighbourhood policing, and those officers will remain on the streets for the public as savings are made in the back and middle offices.
The Government recently launched a consultation on reforming the toolkit for dealing with antisocial behaviour. The proposals will reduce the bureaucracy, delay and cost that hamper the police and their partners. We are also working to help police forces improve their service to victims by, for example, supporting eight police forces in trialling a new approach to handling calls on antisocial behaviour.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The nature of antisocial behaviour means that the main emphasis in tackling it lies with the police, because much of this behaviour is crime, but other partners, such as community safety partnerships, play an essential role. We support that and it is recognised in the toolkit for civil orders. We have stripped away some of the bureaucracy that got in the way of getting those partners to do the job that they are needed to do.
May I encourage my hon. Friend to liaise with police authorities about deploying safer neighbourhood teams on the basis of places, not artificial ward boundaries, as such an approach would allow coverage to extend into the crucial evening period, when a lot of antisocial behaviour takes place?
There are certainly operational issues associated with the tasking of safer neighbourhood teams. I know from my hon. Friend’s constituency the importance and emphasis that the Mayor of London places on those teams. I am sure that he will have heard clearly the message that my hon. Friend has sent about the importance of discretion at the operational level.
The issue relating to young people and antisocial behaviour is important. It is also worth recognising that most victims of antisocial behaviour are young people themselves. The Government are focused on intervening early: the early intervention grant, which is worth about £2.2 billion, will support activities to help young people start off in a positive way. Clearly, young people can be victims of antisocial behaviour, which is why it is important that we take action early to prevent it in their communities.
Does the Minister accept that in dealing with adults involved in neighbourhood nuisance, low-level violence and intimidation, antisocial behaviour orders have been an invaluable part of the toolkit? Will he give an assurance that they will continue to be available to police and local authorities seeking to reduce antisocial behaviour?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are consulting on a new toolkit, whereby the tools are reduced in number to five core ones. The problem is that ASBOs have been used less and less and the number of breaches has increased. We are clear about the need for civil orders, which is why we are consulting on the new powers. They are better tailored and will ensure that the civil standard of proof is used to make the orders easier to obtain. They will also be able to put in place positive requirements to break patterns that may lead to antisocial behaviour and crime.
In Bristol, the police have made very good use of the antisocial behaviour legislation—the acceptable behaviour contracts and ASBOs—to tackle kerb crawling and on-street prostitution, which blights the lives of many residents of the Eastville area of my constituency. Can the Minister assure the House that any replacement for the current antisocial behaviour legislation will continue to give the police the powers to tackle this problem?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting that specific example and I hope that her community will take part in the ongoing consultation on the new toolkit, which will last until the middle of May. We are clear that the existing powers remain in place until such time as a new regime is introduced, but we are very focused on it being practical, supporting communities and having the effect that people want it to have in bearing down on antisocial behaviour and the crime that can lead from it.
Can the Minister confirm that more than 10,000 police officers, many of whom are in neighbourhood teams tackling antisocial behaviour, will be cut over the next two years? The Thames Valley police force, which covers the constituencies of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, said the following about possible local youth centre closures:
“the loss of those services would mean more opportunities for young people to get involved in crime and antisocial behaviour”.
So with cuts to front-line policing and youth services across the country, how exactly does the Minister expect his rebranded, weaker version of the ASBO to maintain progress in combating antisocial behaviour?
I do not accept that this is some sort of weaker tool. There is going to be a more effective suite of tools with which to bear down on antisocial behaviour. Let us not forget that it was the last Labour Home Secretary who suggested that the previous Government had in some way been coasting on antisocial behaviour. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has reminded me that Thames Valley police has said that it will be protecting neighbourhood response teams. It is also worth highlighting that the Mayor of London recognises the importance of safer neighbourhood and community teams and of delivering on the antisocial behaviour agenda.
I do not know whether the Minister has seen “Minority Report” in which precogs predict where and when serious crimes are going to occur, but will he assess a less futuristic and more practical technique that has been advocated by Peter Neyroud, the ex-chief of the National Policing Improvement Agency, and by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, which could cut reoffending and antisocial behaviour? The technique flags up the criminals who are most likely to reoffend, thereby allowing resources to be concentrated on them and halving prisoner numbers, saving money and improving public safety in the process.
I am not sure whether Philip K. Dick is bedtime reading for Peter Neyroud, but certainly the whole idea of prevention and acting earlier is very much at the heart of the consultation in which we are engaged on antisocial behaviour. I am certainly clear about the role of prevention and the need to act early in breaking patterns of offending before people become too engaged. I will certainly look at the research to which he refers.
UK Border Agency enforcement officers are continuing to crack down on immigration crime and remove illegal migrants. Our proposals to tackle abuse by foreign nationals using student visas to gain work in the UK, alongside new plans to toughen up marriage and family routes, will further tackle illegal migration into the UK.
As Members of Parliament, we are approached all the time by constituents who want to marry somebody from abroad and it is only humane and right that we should try to help them, but our job is made doubly, even trebly, difficult by the existence of sham marriages. What is my hon. Friend doing to tackle the problem without making the system so bureaucratic for everyone else?
My hon. Friend identifies one of the key loopholes that did exist in the immigration system. Last summer, I asked our enforcement teams to focus on sham marriages, and 53 sham marriage operations were undertaken, resulting in 126 arrests. Between November and January, a further 86 operations followed that up, focusing on sham marriages, with an additional 29 arrests. This has been one of the big loopholes in our immigration system, but we are becoming ever more effective in closing it.
In seeking to strike the right balance on student visas, will the Minister and the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that they will listen carefully to the representations of universities in the UK, including mine in Exeter, and of our reputable language schools, which say that the current proposals would be devastating to their sector and to the economy as a whole?
We are indeed speaking to many universities and listening to their representations, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has met the vice-chancellor of Exeter university. I am sure that when our proposals are put forward, universities will discover that they defend the rights of legitimate students to come here to study legitimately at legitimate institutions. At the same time, we will also crack down on the huge and widespread abuse of the student visa.
By definition, illegal immigrants do not go through the system, so it is quite difficult to give accurate figures about where they come from, but we know the main routes by which people come into the country, one of which is from Asia, through Turkey into Greece. We are working very hard with both the Greek and Turkish Governments to stop that route and minimise the problem. One of the most effective things we are doing is improving our border controls at Calais, which mean that the number of people who are identified as coming across illegally into Britain is now running at about a third of the level it was 18 months ago. That is a significant strengthening of our border defences.
Any action to control illegal immigration depends upon a properly staffed and effective border agency which can both detect and remove illegal immigrants. With cuts of 20% and job losses of 5,200 for the UK Border Agency, detection and enforcement officers are already warning that their work is being undermined. The Government are talking tough on illegal immigration. Is the Minister sure that the Home Secretary has given him the resources to deliver?
Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady will, of course, recognise that the reason there must be cuts in public services is the appalling state of the public finances that her Government left us with. We are confident that by using technology, better intelligence and flexible working, we can maintain and improve levels of border security with fewer staff. I invite her to consider the example of Calais. We can now check 1.5 million lorries a year, and in the past year we have found just over 9,700 individuals trying to cross illegally, compared to just over 29,000 in 2009, so the new system that we are operating does work.
Police Forces (Paperwork)
The Government are committed to reducing bureaucracy. We are scrapping the stop-and- account form, and reducing the amount of information to be recorded on the stop-and-search form. Doing those two things saves up to 800,000 man-hours a year. We are returning certain charging decisions to the police. That will save up to a further 50,000 man-hours per year. We are working with the police to sweep away a further range of the red tape that prevents officers doing what they and the public want them to do—getting out on the streets and cutting crime.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the past 14 months the Wiltshire police force has undergone four separate inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary lasting three working weeks and costing the force £60,000, and no meaningful recommendations have been made as a result? Does she intend to reform this box-ticking regime to cut the burdens of police bureaucracy and paperwork still further?
I was not aware of the specific figures for Wiltshire. I realise that this is an issue. That is why the Policing Minister has been working with HMIC on reducing the bureaucratic burdens of the inspection regime by ensuring that we maintain an effective inspection regime, and he will inform the House on this matter in due course.
I commend my right hon. Friend on her efforts to improve on the just 11% of time that the police are visible to the general public, but may I press her on what actions she will take to reduce the unnecessary amount of time that police officers spend in court, especially as delays continue to be endemic?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important issue. In looking at saving police time so that they can do the job that we want them to do, we need to look across the whole of the criminal justice system. That is what I am doing, together with the Justice Secretary, the Attorney-General and the Policing Minister, who is also a Minister in the Ministry of Justice.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s commitment to reducing police bureaucracy. As she knows, in October last year Jan Berry published her report and made 32 recommendations. How many of those recommendations have now been implemented? Will the Home Secretary continue Jan Berry’s term of office so that this is not just a one-off piece of research, but a continuing monitoring of the bureaucracy in our police service?
Jan Berry did a valuable piece of work looking at bureaucracy in policing. We have already implemented a number of the recommendations that came out of that. I have referred to the restoration of some charging decisions down to local police, the more proportionate approach to inspections, and revising the police performance development reviews. We are taking the work forward in a slightly different way. There is a programme board led by Chris Sims, the chief constable of west midlands, which is working with the Home Office and identifying further areas of bureaucracy that can be scrapped.
Police Numbers (Greater Manchester)
It is a matter for the chief constable and the police authority to determine the number of police officers that are deployed by Greater Manchester police within the available resource.
I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are also 4,000 police staff working in Greater Manchester police. There was a huge increase in the number of police staff employed by police forces under the previous Government. The chief constable of Greater Manchester police said in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that
“there was already a recognition, certainly in Greater Manchester Police, that some of our headquarters operations had got too big.”
Forces can and must make savings in back and middle offices while protecting the front line.
The Minister has not really responded to the real issue on this. Will he tell the House unequivocally—and repeat his view—that when we see the number of police officers reduced in Greater Manchester, as we will, it will have no impact on crime?
We are absolutely determined to maintain efficient and effective forces, and every chief constable I meet, including the chief constable of Greater Manchester, makes the same point. The chief constable said last week, after being misquoted on the matter:
“We need to have an intelligent debate about the cuts and see the opportunities, not just the threats.”
The Government insist that it is possible to cut 10,000 police posts nationally, and up to 1,500 in Manchester. I should point out to the Minister that they also plan to cut nearly 1,600 back-office staff. We know from an answer that Baroness Neville-Jones gave in the House of Lords that there is no formally agreed definition of front-line police services. If those are not cuts to front-line police services, we would like to know what they are. Can the Minister get to the Dispatch Box and tell us exactly what the definition of police front-line service is, because if he cannot, how can he protect them?
I have defined it on a number of occasions, including in a written answer. Let me repeat it for the hon. Gentleman: front-line policing
“includes neighbourhood policing, response policing and criminal investigation.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 194W.]
There can be savings in the back and middle offices, as at least a third of all spending is in those areas. If he thinks that there is no definition of front-line policing, how can he be so confident that there will be cuts in the front line? His position is nonsense.
Immigration Bail Conditions
The Government see no need to review the range of bail conditions that may be imposed in immigration cases. We will continue to seek bail conditions that enable us to manage the threat posed by the individual. These will vary from case to case.
I hear that answer, but how can it be right that the Special Immigration Appeals Commission is able to impose conditions on people, perhaps those who have been granted indefinite leave to remain, on charges that are not disclosed to them, that restrict their communications and movement and force relocation, conditions that the Government say are unacceptable in control orders? How can that be right for people in those circumstances?
SIAC deals primarily with cases where an individual poses a threat to national security, so we must take all the issues surrounding those individual cases extremely seriously. As such, SIAC sets bail conditions that it considers necessary to control any risk of absconding and the threat posed to national security, whether or not the individual absconds. I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that SIAC has enormous responsibilities and takes them very seriously in each individual case.
I agree with the question from the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). Will the Minister go one step further than is being suggested and make both immigration bail conditions and the conditions for control orders more like regular bail conditions?
My hon. Friend will recognise what I have just said about SIAC, which you will be pleased to hear that I will not repeat, Mr Speaker. The conditions for immigration bail and for control orders, and for the regime that will replace control orders, have rather different surrounding contexts than the setting of normal bail conditions, so it is entirely reasonable for SIAC to come to different conclusions and have different powers.
We are considering the responses we received following closure of the recent consultation on reform of the student immigration system, which closed on 31 January. We are concluding our analysis of responses and will announce future plans for the student system in due course.
I thank the Minister for his reply. May I press him to reassure legitimate English language schools, such as the Winchester School of English in my constituency, which he has visited, and higher education institutions, including the university of Winchester, that new B2 English entry level requirements will not wipe out a critical source of their respective revenues?
My hon. Friend is right: I have visited that language school in his constituency and admired its work. One proposal in the consultation was to raise the English language requirement from B1 to B2, because we believe it is right that students should have a good command of English to complete their course. In responses to the consultation, universities and others have expressed concern about that proposal, and we are considering those representations as well as the many others that we have received.
I recognise, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does, that we need to strike the right balance so that the brightest and best students can come to this country and benefit it both in the short and the long term. At the same time, however, we recognise that we need to crack down on the many abuses of the student visa system under the previous Government, which have led to the widespread lack of confidence in our immigration system. Of course we need to strike a balance between those two demands, and we are confident that we will do so.
May I suggest to the Minister that all he has to do to deal with the unintended consequences of the proposals is to look at the findings and recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament? All problems would be dealt with.
It is a universal truth that reading Home Affairs Committee reports always leads to greater enlightenment. I have read the relevant report, and I always absorb the Committee’s reports, but I will redouble my efforts to ensure that I am familiar with every last detail of every report.
We all agree with the Home Secretary that bogus colleges should be closed, and most seem to be in the private sector. She and the Immigration Minister will know that further education colleges’ fee income from foreign students is £42 million, with a contribution to the economy of £80 million. We have 184 colleges that are registered as highly trusted sponsors, with more than 20,000 international students. When can they expect to know what will happen about non-degree courses? It does and will affect the budgets not only of colleges, but of universities.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the main abuse that we have found has been in private sector colleges at below-degree level, which is why one principal proposal on which we have consulted is that nobody will be able to offer a course at below-degree level unless they become a highly trusted sponsor. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, on the whole, public sector bodies that apply for highly trusted sponsorship obtain it successfully, but many private sector bodies do not have such status, and that is one key distinction that we need to maintain—that only people whom we can trust to do the job properly should be enabled to bring foreign students to this country.
The police complaints statistics for 2009-10, published by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, show an 8% increase in recorded complaints against the police in England and Wales over the previous year. It is right that citizens should feel able to hold the police to account for the service they provide, and improving police accountability is a top priority of this Government.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary. May I raise a matter that I have raised with the authorities before, which is about the practice of kettling, first, at the G20 demonstrations, then at the student demonstrations last autumn and, even, on new year’s eve, when dealing with crowd control? Does she have any further thoughts that she can share with the House on how the increasing number of complaints about the practice can be dealt with in an effective and long-term manner?
Of course, within the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, we are putting forward some proposals to enhance the complaints procedure against the police, and we have been doing that work in consultation and discussions with the IPCC. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will also be interested to know that the senior officer in the Metropolitan police with responsibility for public order has recently made several announcements about how containment will be dealt with in future, making it clear that, should containment take place, toilets and water will indeed be provided, and that an individual will be available on site to ensure that those who are vulnerable or wish to leave are able to leave such areas.
Combating human trafficking, including the sexual exploitation of women and girls, is a key priority for the Government. We are committed to tackling organised crime groups who profit from this human misery, and to protecting victims. We are due to publish our new strategy on human trafficking in the spring.
Will my hon. Friend make sure that the review deals with trafficked children who are placed in local authority care, where one would hope they would be safe, only to go missing and often to be re-trafficked? That is an appalling state of affairs. I hope that she can give me some reassurance that the review will deal with this very distressing aspect of trafficking in the United Kingdom.
Yes, the Government acknowledge the difficult and important issue of children going missing from local authorities. At a national level, we are strengthening the arrangements in place to support vulnerable young people by placing the national strategic policing responsibility for missing children within the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. In fact, its thematic review deals explicitly with the issue of trafficked children going missing from local authorities.
But does the Minister agree that if we were to adopt the European directive on human trafficking, which specifically provides for a guardian for trafficked children, that would be a real step in protecting the children to whom the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) referred?
At the moment, local authorities are, in particular, employing good practice around the use of interpreters and making sure that the places where children are placed are kept secret. As I may have mentioned before in this House, we are looking closely at the text of the European directive and considering its merits, and if we conclude that opting into it would benefit the UK, we will apply to do so.
Police Numbers (Crime Levels)
The Government believe that police forces can make savings while protecting the front line. We do not accept that reducing costs will cause an increase in crime. What matters is how resources are used and how officers are deployed.
The Minister will know that in south Wales we have already seen the announcement that 250 front-line police officers will lose their jobs. When I attended a meeting a couple of weeks ago with our police authority, it warned that a further 320 front-line officers could lose out as a result of the cuts. Is the Minister seriously telling the people of Wales that crime will not increase as a result of that enormous loss in front-line policing capacity?
I do not accept that the reductions in head count in that police force or in any other will impact on the front line, and I very much doubt that the chief constable would agree with that. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the Home Affairs Committee concluded in its recent report:
“We accept that there is no simple relationship between numbers of police officers and levels of crime. The reduction in the police workforce need not inevitably lead to a rise in crime.”
That is a cross-party Committee.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that this is about how police forces are deploying their officers. In North Yorkshire, we have a particular problem with rural crime. I would be most grateful if he would meet me and other rural Members to discuss this issue. Farms and farm property, in particular, are being trashed because we simply do not have enough cover in rural areas.
I would of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue. I understand the importance of dealing with crime in rural areas just as we must deal with crime elsewhere. The police cannot act alone, and it is very important that there are effective partnerships with, for instance, the farming community so that, where possible, there can be a concerted effort to deal with this problem.
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave some moments ago.
In September, in defending the Government’s failure to opt into the European Union directive, the Prime Minister said:
“We have put everything that is in the directive in place.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 873.]
At the same time, he implied that the directive is not in our national interest. Is it not the case that it is both squarely in our national interest and goes beyond the measures that we already have in place? Will she therefore take the opportunity of the 100th anniversary of international women’s day to commit to this House that the Government will sign up to the European directive when they get the opportunity?
The question refers to the date on which the new policy on human trafficking will be announced. I congratulate the Government on recognising the need to change the policy, but may I urge a big society solution? While the policy is being considered and drafted, perhaps the key non-governmental organisations could be involved in co-operating—not just consulted—so that the overall policy is a big-society solution.
I thank my hon. Friend. Indeed, the Minister for Immigration met those organisations recently and I have no doubt that we will take that forward. Our common-sense and extensive strategy will try to prevent trafficking in the country of origin, do more on the border to stop it coming in and, if it is in this country, do more with policing.
Asylum Improvement Project
The Home Secretary and I, and our officials, have discussed aspects of the asylum improvement project with a number of corporate partners. The National Asylum Stakeholder Forum, the Scottish Asylum Stakeholder Forum and the Still Human Still Here coalition have also discussed the project recently.
We have established a number of pilot schemes already. There is one in the north-west concentrating on using early intervention to help asylum claimants. We have set up the early legal advice project in the west midlands, and a project to attempt to improve the flow of decision making in London. If those pilots are successful, we will of course move them on to a national scale.
This morning, I met a young Chevening scholar from Iraq who is studying for an MSc in engineering and robotics at Sussex university. He is hoping to go back to his country to make a contribution when he has completed his degree course. Will my hon. Friend confirm that we want as many overseas students like that young man as possible to come to the UK, because they enrich our university life and take the skills and knowledge that they acquire back to their home countries when they complete their courses? Will he confirm that while seeking to achieve that, we also want to bear down on the abuses of sham institutions that have been set up to bring about immigration abuses?
As ever, I agree completely about the helpfulness of my hon. Friend’s question. He presents the House with an extremely good example of what should happen, in that a foreign student came here to learn on a high-quality course and to develop skills that he can take back to his country. As is crucial, he is planning to leave at the end of his course. That is precisely the sort of thing that benefits our university system and brings confidence in the immigration system. What does not do that is students coming here and simply staying. Published information shows that of the students who came here in 2004, more than 20% were still here five years later in 2009. That is the kind of thing that we must investigate, to establish whether those people are still genuine students or are just exploiting the system to work in this country.
Last week, the Minister for Universities and Science told the Home Affairs Committee that he wanted foreign students to come to this country, but admitted that he found Government policy in the area “fuzzy”. The Select Committee was told on the same day by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), that he wanted a cut in immigration but an increase in the number of students coming from Latin America. What exactly is the Government’s policy on the future of the student visa entry system?
Under the student visa scheme, we want good students to come here to study genuine courses at genuine institutions. Under the previous Government, of whom the hon. Gentleman was such a distinguished supporter for so long, the student visa system became the single biggest loophole in an already chaotic immigration system. That is why we are having to deal with it. It is significantly the biggest route of immigration into this country—about 60% of visas are issued for students. That is why it is so important that this Government get a grip on the failures of the previous Government.
The Home Office is committed to protecting the public and to freeing up the police to fight crime more effectively and efficiently. The House will shortly consider the remaining stages of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which is aimed at empowering the public to hold the police to account for their role in cutting crime, before it moves to consideration in another place. Tomorrow, Tom Winsor will publish the first part of his independent review of police pay and conditions, which will help to ensure that police forces can protect jobs and keep officers on the streets.
Will the Secretary of State join me in praising Greater Manchester police, Rochdale council staff and community mediators who managed an English Defence League demonstration in Rochdale this weekend extremely effectively? It was clearly shown that Rochdale residents stayed away from the protest and that our town has no appetite for the EDL.
I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of the Greater Manchester police and the professionalism that they showed in dealing with the EDL march that took place in Rochdale at the weekend. It is in keeping with responses from police forces up and down the country to such marches. I understand that the policing operation was a success and that the demonstration took place with minimum disruption. I also join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of not only the local authority but the Rochdale community and the approach it took to ensure that the protest was largely peaceful and that there was co-operation, tolerance and restraint from community leaders.
T2. With many councils claiming cuts in their Supporting People grants, what action will the Government take to monitor the provision of vital services, and what leadership will they give in providing services nationally? (44066)
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Central Government have sent a clear message about the importance and vulnerability of the sector. To send that message and set an example, we have ring-fenced £28 million of funding for violence against women services. We hope and expect that councils will follow suit.
Last week, the Home Secretary confirmed to the House that under her new arrangements, someone who is barred from working with children could still get a job as a voluntary teaching assistant without the school or the parents knowing that they were barred. Now that she has had a few days to think about it and about how concerned parents will be, has she changed her mind?
I think what matters for parents is the decisions that are made about individuals who play any part in dealing with their children, in a school or any other setting. As I made clear to the right hon. Lady last week, information that informs the decisions on barring will be available as part of the check that I would expect employers to make in such circumstances. We have a simple view: employers must take some responsibility for ensuring that they make the appropriate checks and judgments about who should be involved in dealing with children.
The right hon. Lady said last week that employers would get “exactly the same information” as the barring authorities. However, Home Office officials have told some people in the charities something rather different. Will she therefore confirm whether employers will be given “exactly the same information” as the barring authorities? If so, why not give them the barring authorities’ expert recommendation about whether someone should be barred? Parents want to know that the teaching assistant in their child’s classroom has not been previously barred by the experts from working with children. Safeguarding children is too important to have such loopholes. I urge her to listen to the experts and think again.
Of course safeguarding children is important—we all have that as top priority. Of course, the regime that is in place will in future cover those who deal with vulnerable adults as well as children. That is important. The information that informs a decision on barring will be available as part of the check so that a decision can be made. However, as the right hon. Lady has raised a query about that, I am happy to write to her with the detail on it so that she will have that to inform her questions in future.
T3. On a similar theme, law-abiding volunteers and employees in Bedford and Kempston are quite fed up with having to get a new Criminal Records Bureau check each time they change jobs. Can the Home Secretary tell me how those checks will change to avoid that ridiculous duplication that so debilitates so many volunteers and employees? (44067)
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Many people write to me about the problem of having a new CRB check on each occasion. The new system will make the check portable. An employer will be able to go online to see whether an individual, who will have a unique number, ever had any information on them and whether anything has changed since they first had a check. That will make the whole system simple and quick, which will encourage volunteering, which is part of the purpose.
T4. Given media reports that police patrols are being scaled back because of the price of fuel and that Gwent police spend £4 million on their car fleet, including fuel, what action are the Government taking to help our local police officers to keep their patrols on the road? (44068)
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s question is about fuel prices, which are not a matter for me, or taxation, or patrols. I repeat, however, that we are committed to working with police forces to maintain, and indeed to improve, the visibility and availability of police officers on patrol by making savings elsewhere in police forces.
T8. At this difficult economic time, what steps is the Minister taking to make it as straightforward as possible for British businesses to take on highly skilled foreign workers, albeit under the auspices of the immigration cap? (44072)
As my hon. Friend knows, we are introducing a new system for tier 1 and tier 2 for work-based visas, and at the same time we are speeding up the visa both for businesses and for more general visitors. The biggest single complaint has been about the delays in the issuing of visas. I am happy to assure him that we are concerned about that. We are already beginning to see improvements, so that in many of the key markets where we need to operate our visa system is working better than ever before, and we are meeting our service standards.
T5. When responding to an earlier question on the trafficking strategy, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), said that it would include elements of prevention, action on the border and policing. Does she recognise that a very important element of any anti-trafficking strategy is victim care, and that victim care is usually provided by voluntary organisations? The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), the chair of the all-party group on human trafficking, spoke of a big society solution. Can we have a big society participation in the anti-trafficking strategy? (44069)
I think we would encourage the big society to get involved at all levels, but as the hon. Lady says, victim care is extremely important. We are providing accommodation and advocacy and all the things that are necessary to help the unfortunate victims of trafficking out of their terrible situation.
The previous Government’s figures demonstrate that only one hour in seven was spent on patrol by the average patrol officer. Given the Government’s anti-bureaucracy reforms, will the Home Secretary advise us on her view of the number of hours the average patrol officer will spend on the beat?
We are absolutely clear, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said in response to a previous question, that we want the visibility and availability of police officers to increase and improve. The latest figures from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary show that 11% of officers are visible and available at any one time—[Interruption.] Before we get chuntering from Opposition Members, that is not to say that other police officers are wasting their time—of course they are not—but visibility and availability need to improve.
T6. Hundreds of my constituents have signed a petition supporting the reopening to the public of Sowerby Bridge police station. Will the Minister urgently consider the matter, because it is at the very heart of the community and would play a huge role in preventing and tackling crime in the area? (44070)
We do not directly control whether police stations are open—that is a matter for the chief constable and the police authority—but there are other ways in which the police can improve their visibility to the public. For instance, they can set up bases in supermarkets. It is not just about buildings; they can also share facilities with other organisations. However, these are matters for chief constables to decide as they find effective ways to be visible in their communities.
In the past six weeks, the Minister for Immigration has answered about 50 statistical questions from Members, including me. I say “answered”, but in two thirds of these cases, it was not possible for him to provide sound information, either because the data were not recorded or because they were not quality assured and may not have withstood typical audit scrutiny. What assessment has he made of the quality of management information in the UK Border Agency?
I am not sure that my hon. Friend is exactly right. Where an answer makes it clear that the information is management information, it simply means that the data are not Office for National Statistics-quality statistics. However, those answers will include statistical information, even though it might be slightly rough and ready, precisely because I am determined, when we have the information available, to make it available to hon. Members as part of the Government’s commitment to transparency.
T7. Northumbria police force is losing more than 1,000 jobs, including 300 front-line police. As a result, young recruits promised a job last year have now been told that those jobs are no longer available. What guarantee, therefore, can the Secretary of State offer to the people of the north-east that crime will not rise as a result of the cuts? Furthermore, how can she reassure those who have worked so hard to win a job that they will be prioritised— (44071)
I refer the hon. Lady to the response given by the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to an earlier question on this matter. The Government have made it absolutely clear that there is no simple link between levels of crime and the number of police officers. Indeed, that view has been supported by a report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs.
Will the Minister responsible for antisocial behaviour assure me—in relation to the review he will be conducting—that when antisocial behaviour is aggravated by the victim’s disability, it will be taken into account when considering the severity of the disposal?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting this issue, which is at the heart of the call handling pilots launched at the start of the year to identify vulnerability, and to ensure that there is better join-up between the police, local authorities and the health service in order to ensure that where there are specific issues, they are identified more speedily and more effectively. Bullying and intimidation linked to disabilities are utterly reprehensible and unacceptable, and the system needs to improve to identify where these problems are occurring.
T9. Will the Minister inform the House of when his Department intends to review the current definition of an air weapon under the Firearms Act 1968? (44073)
Residents of Hastings and Rye warmly welcome the additional information from the crime and policing website, but is the Home Secretary aware of the additional service it provides to women who may be coming home late at night and might feel vulnerable? That is particularly important ahead of international women’s day tomorrow.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. I am pleased to tell her that I was able to join the Prime Minister in meeting a group of readers from Company magazine recently who were raising exactly the problems of women walking home at night. I was able to point them to the crime maps as a useful tool.
This morning I attended the opening of the Kingswood one-stop shop, which includes a fixed police presence. It is the first time that the police have had a base in Kingswood since the previous Government closed the local police station. Will the Minister commend South Gloucestershire council and Avon and Somerset police for their collaborative working to ensure that front-line services are protected, and further consider how police authorities and local councils can work together to ensure that services are shared for public benefit?
When asked to justify the cuts to policing in Greater Manchester, the Minister for Policing, and Criminal Justice said that cuts could be made to the back office. May I tell him that at least 1,600 police staff are being made redundant in Greater Manchester on top of the 1,377 uniformed officers? I ask him again how he can justify that.
We are looking to police forces first and foremost to take cuts in the back office, but that is not just about individuals; it is about improving procurement and collaborating with other forces to make savings. Significant sums of money—hundreds of millions of pounds—can be saved by better procurement, better IT services and collaboration between forces.
It is clear from my own experience of Leeds Rhinos and its legal firm Chadwick Lawrence that the current immigration system for foreign international sports people is inherently biased against rugby league players. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the Rugby Football League to look at the criteria, so that this problem—
Libya and the Middle East
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on developments in Libya and the middle east since the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday 28 February.
Members on all sides of the House will be concerned by the violence in Libya. The Gaddafi regime is launching military counter-attacks against opposition forces. There has been intense fighting in the east and centre of the country along the coastal strip between the opposition-held Ras Lanuf and the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte. There are credible reports of the use of helicopter gunships against civilians by Government forces and unconfirmed reports of a helicopter and jet shot down over Ras Lanuf. There have also been serious attacks against the cities of Zawiyah and Misrata in the west by soldiers backed up by anti-aircraft guns and by tanks. Many of those taken to the city’s hospital, including a young boy of 10, have wounds to the head, neck and chest; and supplies of food, fuel and medicines have been all but cut off.
In Tripoli, there have been disturbing reports of hostage taking and large military deployments around the city designed to consolidate Gaddafi’s position and intimidate his opponents. His forces remain in control of Tripoli, Sabha and Sirte, but his authority is contested in large swathes of the country where local tribes have withdrawn their support. There is a clear risk of protracted conflict and an extremely dangerous and volatile situation in large parts of the country.
Our position is that Colonel Gaddafi must put an immediate stop to the use of armed force against civilians and hand over power without delay to a Government who recognise the aspirations of the Libyan people and are more representative and accountable.
On 5 March, opposition groups in the east formed an interim national council based in Benghazi. Ministers and FCO officials are in contact with members of this council, who welcomed the idea of a British diplomatic mission to Libya. This engagement is vital in gaining a better understanding of the political, military and humanitarian situation on the ground.
Last week, I authorised the dispatch of a small British diplomatic team to eastern Libya in uncertain circumstances, which we judged required protection, to build on these initial contacts and to assess the scope for closer diplomatic dialogue. I pay tribute to that team. It was withdrawn yesterday after a serious misunderstanding about its role, leading to its temporary detention. This situation was resolved and it was able to meet council president, Mr Abdul-Jalil. However, it was clearly better for this team to be withdrawn. We intend to send further diplomats to eastern Libya in due course.
The safety of British nationals in Libya remains an important priority. Since the Prime Minister’s statement, the UK military have undertaken a further two evacuation operations from the port of Benghazi, with HMS Cumberland and HMS York both evacuating British nationals and foreign citizens. In total, we have evacuated more than 600 British nationals from Libya, as well as nationals from many other countries. I hope that the House will join me in paying tribute to all those involved. We are aware of about 180 British nationals still in Libya, some of whom—including some journalists—have told us that they currently intend to stay. We continue to provide assistance and information for those who wish to leave. We are also working with other countries to isolate the regime, and to ensure that anyone responsible for abuses or contemplating further crimes knows that there will be a day of reckoning.
On Thursday, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced his investigation of alleged crimes in Libya, following referral by the UN Security Council. We welcome that swift action, and will do all that we can to assist. We also welcome the important decision by the UN General Assembly, following referral by the UN Human Rights Council, to suspend Libya’s membership of the council. European Union sanctions on Libya came into full force last Thursday. That was the quickest-ever delivery of an EU sanctions package, and it goes beyond the sanctions imposed by the UN. It includes an arms embargo on Libya, and an assets freeze and visa ban on Gaddafi and 25 of his associates—strong foundations on which we can build.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we are making contingency plans for all eventualities in Libya. NATO has been tasked to work on a range of options, including the possible establishment of a no-fly zone, the evacuation of civilians, international humanitarian assistance, and support for the international arms embargo. There will be further NATO meetings this week. At the UN Security Council, we are working closely with partners, on a contingency basis, on elements of a resolution on a no-fly zone, making clear the need for regional support, a clear trigger for such a resolution, and an appropriate legal basis.
My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary visited Tunisia on Friday to assess the humanitarian situation. The UK has flown in blankets for 38,000 people and tents for over 10,000 people, and has sent aeroplanes to repatriate more than 6,000 stranded Egyptians and 500 Bangladeshis. This remains primarily a logistical emergency, but it is essential that international agencies are provided with unfettered access to help to prevent the development of a humanitarian crisis. With our support, the UN’s emergency co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, convened a special meeting in Geneva today to call for unfettered humanitarian access inside Libya. HMS York has also delivered 1.3 tonnes of Swedish medical supplies to Benghazi.
The Prime Minister will attend an emergency meeting of the European Council on 11 March, this Friday. We will use the Council to press for further action in response to the situation in Libya, and—as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in Brussels last week—we will also urge the European Union to change radically its thinking about its neighbourhood. As I agreed with the French Foreign Minister in Paris on Thursday, it is time for European nations to be bold and ambitious, and to show that while Europe will not seek to dictate how these countries should run their affairs, we will always be the lasting friend of those who put in place the building blocks of strong civil societies, economic openness and political freedom. We must give every incentive to countries in the region to make decisions that bring freedom and prosperity. At the Council meeting, the Prime Minister will call for Europe to set out a programme to bring down trade barriers, to establish clearer conditions for the help that it provides, and to marshal its resources to act as a magnet for positive change in the region.
The G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting will take place in Paris next week. It will provide a further opportunity to widen the international coalition addressing the crisis in Libya; to underline with the United States, Russia and others the urgency of progress on the middle east peace process and on Iran’s nuclear programme; and to reaffirm our collective support for political transition in Egypt and Tunisia and democratic reform in the wider region.
There has been welcome progress towards democratic transition in Egypt and Tunisia. There has also been further progress, including the announcement of a national referendum on constitutional reform in Egypt and of a date for elections in Tunisia. However, the resignations of the Prime Ministers of both Governments show that significant challenges remain. There continues to be instability in other countries, including Yemen. We have changed our travel advice: we now advise against all travel to the whole country, and recommend that British nationals without a pressing need to remain in Yemen leave using commercial means. We look to Governments across the region to respect human rights, including the right to peaceful protest, to avoid the use of force and to respond to legitimate aspirations for greater political openness and economic reform.
It remains more vital than ever that we press for a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We want to see an urgent return to negotiations, based on clear parameters, including the 1967 borders. We will work with all the parties to press for a decisive breakthrough this year. President Abbas is visiting the UK this week. I will discuss these issues with him tomorrow, when I will also confirm that, given the extent of our aid to the Palestinian Authority and our work with them, we will join many other countries in upgrading the status of the Palestinian delegation to London to the level of a mission.
If change and development can be achieved peacefully in the middle east, that will be the greatest advance in world affairs since central and eastern Europe changed so dramatically 20 years ago and many of those countries entered the European Union. If not, this could mark the start of even greater instability emanating from the region. It is vital for the people of these countries and the rest of the world that the international community play a coherent and ambitious role in supporting their aspirations. The British Government are deeply committed to that endeavour, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me advance sight of his statement today. I am grateful to him for his update on the situation in Libya and across the region.
First, let me begin by paying tribute to the bravery of the units of our armed forces that have operated in Libya during this crisis. Specifically, I praise their extraction of British nationals from the oilfields of Libya two weeks ago. This was done with an effectiveness and professionalism that is rightly seen as typical of Britain’s armed forces. Secondly, let me say to the Foreign Secretary that I appreciate just how tough this situation is. There is no manual for handling a wave of revolt in a tumultuous region. The tempo of change in the middle east and north Africa has hardly slowed in more than an month, and none of the policy challenges or ministerial judgments thrown up be these events is straightforward or easy.
On behalf of the Opposition, I should like to add my support and welcome for the Foreign Secretary’s announcement that the status of the Palestinian delegation in London is to be upgraded. He can rely on our support as he continues to make the case for renewed urgency in efforts to bring about real and meaningful negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Let me turn to the events of yesterday. I believe that I speak for many when I say that the news on Sunday that British diplomatic and military personnel were being held was seen as just the latest setback for the United Kingdom, and that it raises further serious questions about Ministers’ grip on and response to the unfolding events in Libya. First, we had the still unexplained decision by the Foreign Secretary, alone among European Foreign Ministers, to publicise reports that Gaddafi was already on his way to Venezuela. Then, the Foreign Office was late in securing charter flights and even in convening the Government’s emergency Committee, Cobra, when hundreds of UK nationals were stranded and clearly in danger. Then, last week, the option of a no-fly zone was first talked up and then talked down, with the US Defence Secretary warning against loose talk on the issue. Twice in as many weeks—after the events of this weekend, and following the flights fiasco—ministerial decisions have generated an embarrassment that could all too easily have become a tragedy.
Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Benghazi courthouse that is serving as the headquarters of the interim national council is but 2 miles from where HMS Cumberland was berthed yesterday afternoon? Secondly, will he confirm that the Royal Marines have, on several occasions in recent days, assisted EU nationals from Benghazi on to royal naval warships in the area?
The Foreign Secretary has confirmed today that he personally authorised this mission. Given the outcome of the effort, will he now tell us whether he discussed the merits or demerits of the proposed course of action with senior officials? Did he discuss alternative means of achieving the mission’s aim with his senior officials ahead of his decision being taken? In particular, did he discuss the mission with the Prime Minister in advance of his decision to authorise it?
Will the Foreign Secretary share with the House his assessment of the impact of this weekend’s events on the credibility of British foreign policy with the Gaddafi regime in Tripoli and the opposition forces in Benghazi? Perhaps the Foreign Secretary has read the question asked by a spokesman for the opposition forces in today’s edition of The Times. Let me quote his words directly:
“If this is an official delegation why did they come with a helicopter? Why didn’t they [inform the revolutionary council] that ‘we are coming, we’d like to land at Benina airport’, or come through Egypt like all the journalists have done”.
Given those remarks, does the Foreign Secretary accept that if some new neighbours moved into his street, the British public would be entitled to wonder whether he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell, or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night?
The Opposition support the Government’s aim of establishing a dialogue with Gaddafi’s opponents. We welcome today’s statement that further efforts will be made to engage with the opposition forces now running parts of Libya, but our welcome to that initiative is conditional, for it should be done in a considered, co-ordinated way with our European and NATO allies. The strategic objectives for the west—sustaining pressure on the regime; helping and where we can protecting the Libyan population; and over time working to assist in ensuring that popular revolt becomes more democratic government—do not divide this House.
This week’s meetings of the European Union and NATO remain opportunities to co-ordinate the international response and increase pressure on Gaddafi. May I therefore ask the Foreign Secretary whether he would consider requesting that the Arab League attend Friday’s EU summit, to signal clearly the breadth of international pressure, in the region and beyond, on the Gaddafi regime? That meeting will also be vital in shaping the humanitarian response. We of course welcome the work undertaken by the Department for International Development and the visit that the Secretary of State for International Development recently paid, but I hope that the Foreign Secretary will update the House on the work being done across Government to support a multilateral response though the World Food Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and indeed the Commonwealth.
The EU summit can do more in sharpening the choice for Gaddafi’s supporters, explicitly stating that assistance will be available to a post-Gaddafi Libya in tackling trade barriers and supporting democratic progress. The summit can be equally explicit to those fighting for Gaddafi: those who leave his forces should be confident about the treatment that they will receive, while officers and mercenaries who stick with him should know that they will face serious consequences in future. At the NATO meeting this week the Secretary of State for Defence will have our support for considering the available contingencies. All options should remain on the table, given the need to sustain pressure on the regime.
Given that it remains uncertain whether this wave of revolt is over—we continue to hear talk of protests in countries beyond Tunisia, Libya and Egypt—can we be confident that lessons are being learned by Ministers about the serial bungling that we have seen in recent weeks? That is what the British people want, and that is what they deserve.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for much of what he said. He pays tribute to the bravery of the troops involved in extracting people from the oilfields two weekends ago, and he is absolutely right to do so. I welcome his welcome for the upgrading of the status of the Palestinian delegation. It is good that that is supported across the House.
There is clearly a good deal of agreement too on the overall outlines of western policy in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman stated, as we have, that all options should remain on the table. He underlined the importance of working closely with the Arab League, which should be continued in many different forms. I do not know whether that will be possible at the European Council this week, but we are in close touch with many of those Arab nations about all the options that may be necessary over the coming weeks and months. Close consultation and co-ordination with those nations will need to continue.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the multilateral aspects of humanitarian aid. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is in continuous close touch with Baroness Amos and all the organisations and people the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and others. We will keep up that work, including on co-ordinating our humanitarian and logistical assistance with France—we have co-ordinated it to a degree—which has also worked well.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about matters that were raised in the House last Monday, so I will not go over all of them again, except to say this on his question about whether there has been a variation in policy on the no-fly zone and whether our policy is out of step with that of other nations: the policy is exactly as stated by the Prime Minister here at the Dispatch Box last Monday, which is that contingency planning should be done for a no-fly zone. It is exactly the same position as that expressed by Secretary Clinton last week, and exactly the same as that expressed by the French Government, as the French Foreign Minister and I made clear at our press conference last week. I think from what the right hon. Gentleman says that it also enjoys the support of the Opposition in this House, so I think we are aligned on this policy.
On the deployment in Benghazi, the factual points the right hon. Gentleman stated in his question are correct. On consultation with officials and who decided what and so on, we should be clear that when our staff go into a potentially dangerous situation, a level of protection is provided for them, based on professional and military advice. We do that in many places around the world, and it was, of course, important to do so in this situation. As I explained, I authorised such a mission to be made to put a diplomatic team into eastern Libya with protection. Of course, the timing and details of that are operational matters decided by the professionals, but Ministers must have confidence in their judgments, as I do, and must take full ministerial responsibility for all their actions and judgments, as, of course, I do. The Prime Minister and other Ministers were of course aware that we would attempt to put a diplomatic team into eastern Libya.
On the overall impact of British foreign policy on the Gaddafi regime and others, they are aware, as is much of the world, that we have led the way at the United Nations Security Council and drafted the resolution that was passed last weekend, that we led the way at the UN Human Rights Council, gathering the signatures that led to the suspension of Libya, and that we are at the forefront both of implementing the assets freeze and other measures that are putting pressure on the regime and of getting the message through in Libya that reference has been made to the International Criminal Court. The impact of British foreign policy on this situation and on the Gaddafi regime is extremely powerful, and that is how it will remain.
Having as Defence Secretary helped to enforce the no-fly zone on Iraq to protect the Shia and the Kurds, I am well aware of the important benefits this can produce in the right circumstances, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that to take forward proposals for a no-fly zone in Libya two fundamental conditions must be satisfied: first, the United Nations Security Council must give explicit endorsement for such an operation; and, secondly, there must be unambiguous evidence that the Libyan revolutionary council representing the insurgents actually wants the very substantial degree of western military involvement that a no-fly zone would represent, because there is clear indication that many of them believe that Libyans should liberate their own country? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this proposal is unlikely to go anywhere until and unless these two conditions are satisfied?
My right hon. and learned Friend is correct that all the contacts we have had with opposition forces in Libya suggest that they believe Libyans should be responsible for liberating their country. However, it is also only fair to point out that in those conversations they have already explicitly asked for a no-fly zone, and they do not see a contradiction between those two points.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right that many conditions should be attached to trying to implement a no-fly zone. The way I would state them at this moment is: there should be a demonstrable need that the whole world can see; there must be a clear legal basis for such a no-fly zone; and there must be clear support from the region—from the middle east and north African region—as well as from the people of Libya themselves, as my right hon. and learned Friend says. Those are the necessary conditions for such a no-fly zone to be created.
In my experience of operations such as the one at the weekend, there was always an impressive level of operational detail in the submissions that came to me as Secretary of State and to the then Defence Secretary, because it is not the concept that could go wrong but the operational detail. Does the Secretary of State have any reason to believe that less detail is provided to this Administration than was provided to the previous one?
No, absolutely not. The right hon. Gentleman is right about the level of detail normally provided. These operations vary enormously in their nature and the level of detail provided, but I have no reason to think that there would, in general, be a difference.
There is much in the Foreign Secretary’s statement to be welcomed, but I regret what I am about to say. Is it not clear that this mission was ill conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed? What is he going to do to restore the United Kingdom’s reputation in relation to foreign policy in the middle east, what will be the role of any further mission and what permissions will it seek before it goes?
As I said, the United Kingdom, having led the way in so many of the ways I have described at the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, is in the forefront of western policy on this issue. Clearly, further contacts with the opposition in eastern Libya are necessary and desirable, for all the reasons that I set out in my statement. The opposition there has made it clear that it would welcome such contact, so it is important for that to go ahead. Clearly, it must go ahead on a very different basis from that on which it went ahead last week, and that is what we will set about.
Will the Foreign Secretary do nothing more to give the impression to the British public that what is under consideration is about being seen to be doing something, rather than about doing something? Will he do absolutely nothing—he has recognised this in answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—to undermine not only the impression but the priority for the Libyan opposition to be at the forefront of this? This should not be about some desire of the United Kingdom Government.
Yes, the right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. In all the countries witnessing great change it is important that the solutions are owned by the people. That is why we have said that it is important that all the assistance that we provide and that we are calling on the European Union to provide is given in a way that is not patronising towards such countries, but does help to provide some of the necessary incentives to get them to move in the direction that we would consider—greater economic openness and political reform. That is true in Libya, too, and I am sure that Libyans are determined, as we should be, that they also own the solution to this. At the same time, the whole world has humanitarian responsibilities—the United Nations has, of course, a responsibility to protect—so we have to balance those against the consideration that he rightly points to.
Further to the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) on no-fly zones, on the two recent occasions when it has been tried—in Bosnia and in Iraq—such zones did not turn out to be effective and the intervention of ground troops was needed before the situation on the ground was resolved. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it makes sense to bear that in mind before making such an operational decision?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. That is one of the reasons why I said in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) that one of the criteria should be demonstrable need. If one was to consider implementing a no-fly zone, one would have to ensure that it would actually make a difference to the situation. The demonstrable need must be there if we are to consider doing it.
Since this crisis started, I have been reading The New York Times and European papers, and watching al-Jazeera, and the notion that Britain is seen as the leader in this crisis exists only in the Foreign Secretary’s head. Last week, to restore the good name of the London School of Economics, Sir Howard Davies did the honourable British thing and accepted his responsibilities. Has the Foreign Secretary considered his position at all?
As I have said, I take full ministerial responsibility, as Ministers do. I believe very strongly in the doctrine of ministerial responsibility for everything that happens in a Minister’s Department, so I am very clear about that. We have been busy drafting the resolutions of the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council while the right hon. Gentleman has been struggling to read the newspapers from around Europe.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the British Government and our partners are to be able to take the kind of difficult decisions that will be needed in the next few weeks, intelligence and information on the ground are of the first importance? Will he therefore reassure the House that whatever action is taken to secure that intelligence and information will not impede the deployment of British assets?
If the object of the mission was to make contact with the leaders of free Libya, why did those involved not go straight into Benghazi, as scores of international journalists have done? Does that not illustrate a lack of grip and competence right at the heart of government?
As I explained earlier, in answer to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), whenever we deploy diplomats in a dangerous situation, we provide a level of protection based on professional and military advice. We do that in several other countries, so it is not an unusual thing to have to do, and we did it on this occasion too.
Direct intervention in these situations is, of course, a momentous thing that must be considered carefully from every possible angle, and my right hon. Friend points to another angle that we have to consider. It is important to stress that the contingency planning that we have asked for in NATO does not constitute such direct intervention in a civil war, or near civil war, but involves the consideration of measures to protect the civilian population and the provision of humanitarian assistance if necessary. That is different from directly intervening in a conflict.
The latest report of the UN Refugee Agency says that 170,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, mostly to Egypt and Tunisia. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Black Watch is currently on stand-by to assist in supporting humanitarian efforts? Given its potential deployment, does he agree that now is not the time to consider closing its home barracks at Fort George outside Inverness?
It is probably beyond the scope of this statement to go into the last point that the hon. Gentleman raises, but he is right to point to the huge numbers of people involved. The latest figures that I have seen show that more than 200,000 people have passed those borders. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary stresses that, at the moment, this is a logistical crisis of getting people to where they need to be, rather than what we would term a humanitarian crisis. Clearly, if the conflict in Libya becomes even more protracted and violent, such a humanitarian crisis may develop on top of that. That is why we are seeking to help and why we are already engaged in helping. Yes, the Black Watch would be available to assist with such humanitarian activity, but that is why it is on that degree of stand-by.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that strong civil societies with democratic freedoms will come about in the middle east and north Africa only if there is greater equality for women in those countries? Will his Department work with the Department for International Development to support all the efforts that will bring that end about?
Yes, I think that is absolutely right. We have to work with people in those societies without us in the western world telling them what to do. We have to work with the grain of their cultures and traditions, but the building up of civil society, improvements in human rights and the development of more open political activity should—certainly in my view and clearly in my hon. Friend’s view too—include a much increased role for women in those societies. That is something that, in the right way, we should certainly promote.
The Foreign Secretary does not need me to tell him that when we engage in the kind of operations that took place over recent days, there is risk a to serving British service people, as well as to those with whom they come into contact. That must be proportionate. In this case, is the right hon. Gentleman confident that what appears to have ended in farce could not have ended in tragedy?
The hon. Gentleman points to an important fact. There are risks involved in many of the things that we have to do in such situations. There were risks involved in what happened the previous weekend in the rescue of oil workers from the desert. One of those flights was engaged with small arms fire when it landed in the desert, so yes, there are risks involved, and it is precisely because there are risks involved in the deployment of our staff in such situations that we act on professional and military advice to give them protection.
I speak as someone who has operated underneath a rather ineffective no-fly zone. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if we get involved in a no-fly zone, we will be prepared to bring down aircraft and helicopters, and even strike anti-aircraft assets in the sovereign territory of Libya?
For a no-fly zone to be implemented, it would clearly have to be effective, as well as to have the demonstrable need that I spoke about earlier. My hon. Friend is getting me into matters that are properly for the contingency planning that is now being done in NATO. Those are matters to be scoped out in any planning for a no-fly zone, and in consultation with other countries beyond NATO as well.
It is useful to follow the previous question, because my question is about hitherto unsuccessful no-fly zones, where the confusion between military and humanitarian aid caused undue problems. In his contingency planning, is the Foreign Secretary planning to distinguish strictly between those areas still controlled by Colonel Gaddafi, which would therefore not receive humanitarian aid, and those controlled by the rebellion, which would receive it, or is he not prepared to make such a distinction?
There is a range of options to be considered, and the hon. Lady draws attention to how many different ways one can look at the issue. Those different options need to be examined. NATO Defence Ministers will be able to discuss the matter later in the week, so I cannot give a specific answer now to her question. All those considerations will be taken into account.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to take credit for the operations that go right, as well as responsibility for the operations that go wrong? May I remind him of the aftermath of the first Gulf war, when the fatal error was to allow Saddam Hussein to fly his helicopters to oppress his own people again? The Government are right to lead the debate about a no-fly zone, which is gaining support among voices in the United States, as well as from France.
Yes, I take the point that my hon. Friend makes and I am grateful for his support for the position that we have taken on contingency planning. On the question of taking credit for what goes right as well as blame for what goes wrong, having in the past led the Conservative party for four years, I have never heard of that notion before.
Up to about a fortnight ago, we were busy selling arms to Gaddafi’s bloodstained regime. Does the Foreign Secretary understand that there is a great divide between giving humanitarian aid to the victims of Gaddafi’s regime, and military intervention? On the latter, there seems to be in the House and certainly in the country at large—and I believe it is the right attitude to take—no appetite for military intervention in Libya.
We will not take too many lectures from the Opposition on the issue of selling things to the Gaddafi regime or wider issues of policy towards Libya, but of course there is a difference between humanitarian assistance and direct military intervention. As I explained earlier, the options that we are asking NATO to look at are essentially options to protect the civilian population or to deliver the necessary humanitarian assistance. That is different from direct military intervention.
Following the scandal of the financial links between Libya and the London School of Economics and other British universities, will the Foreign Secretary examine what the previous Labour Government did to help facilitate those links? Does he not agree that the fish rots from the head down, and will he hold an independent inquiry to examine the previous Government’s insidious links with Libya?
I am sure that there will be lessons to be learned from that. We are a little preoccupied with what is going on at the moment, but there will be a time to learn all the lessons from past relationships with some of the systems and regimes now being overthrown by their own people.
In the light of the tragic deaths of three Bangladeshi nationals during a repatriation mission from Libya, what steps are being taken to ensure the safety of all those being repatriated? What further assistance will the UK Government provide to support and repatriate those stranded in neighbouring countries?
We will continue to provide support as necessary. All accidents in these situations, and certainly deaths, are very regrettable, as we would agree immediately across the House. We have assisted in the evacuation of more than 500 Bangladeshis and more than 6,000 Egyptians. In doing so, their safety is the paramount concern—it is for their safety that we are undertaking the operation in the first place. The hon. Lady can rest assured that the utmost care is being taken. We cannot guarantee that no accidents will happen, but great care is taken and will continue to be taken in the operations.
Realistically, given our resources, or lack thereof, surely there is no way we can or should take the lead in a no-fly zone. Indeed, will my right hon. Friend accept that after two interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the British public have not the slightest appetite for getting involved militarily in a third Muslim country?
As I have said, what are not being actively introduced at the moment, but for which we want to do the contingency planning, are measures to protect the civilian population or deliver humanitarian assistance where it is needed. There might be an appetite for that if there is a demonstrable need. I set out several criteria earlier, and any action along those lines should be judged against them. Several hon. Members have drawn attention to previous no-fly zones and conflicts. Should we learn lessons from what has happened? Yes, we certainly should.
Two weeks ago, we witnessed the debacle of the Foreign Office trying to arrange a Tripoli airport rescue mission, and last week the Prime Minister refused to rule out arming rebel groups in Libya, and those are the same groups that held our diplomats and soldiers over the weekend. Can the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that this week will not be the third week of disasters by the Government?
If it is a protracted conflict that goes on for some time, it will throw up many challenges in addition to those we have already faced. Some of those are diplomatic, and as I have said the UK has led the way on that. Some are humanitarian, and the UK is playing a leading role in that, as we have discussed. There are other areas where we have certainly had difficulties, such as those of a couple of weeks ago to which the hon. Gentleman refers. On the other hand, after those difficulties we have pulled out and evacuated British nationals, ahead of many other nations, and helped people of about 30 other nationalities to leave Libya during our operations. Perhaps he should take a lesson from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and acknowledge that although not everything goes right, the UK has done many things properly and well over the past few weeks.
There are many non-violent options that have not yet been explored. May I please encourage my right hon. Friend to look in particular at the formation, under chapter 7, of an escrow account for Libyan oil revenues in trust for the Libyan people and apart from the Gaddafi regime?
Yes, we continue to look at other options on top of the asset freeze and the measures we have already taken. My hon. Friend will be familiar with the measures we took to stop the delivery of what has added up to about £1 billion in bank notes to the Gaddafi regime. We continue to look at other ways to reduce the financial flows to the Gaddafi regime that might be used to support the violence and attempts to suppress the civilian population’s protests, of which we have all heard and some of which I have described. We will certainly be looking at that kind of measure.
As I have explained, the missionaries were to make contact with opposition groups in Libya in order to assess the humanitarian situation there, and it will be necessary to have further diplomatic presence and diplomatic contact in order to do that. I am not going into further operational details about that for entirely obvious reasons: other missions sometimes take place in other parts of the world. The mission under consideration met the president of the national council that the opposition have formed, and that is the basis for further contact between the United Kingdom and those opposition groups.
The diplomatic team that was there at the weekend did have a meeting with him, and we have had a range of contacts with other figures in the opposition. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that several figures have defected from the Gaddafi regime to the opposition, and I have spoken to some of them myself, including General Younis, one of the Ministers who took some of the special forces over to the other side in Libya, so our contact has been with Mr Jalil, that particular general and other figures among the opposition forces in eastern Libya.
The Foreign Secretary obviously has a huge area of responsibility, but I am very surprised that in his statement he said very little about the crying need for human rights and justice in Saudi Arabia, and nothing about the ongoing crisis in Bahrain. The contagion throughout north Africa of the thirst for democracy, liberty and human rights is universal, and the Government should recognise it as such. It is actually more important than selling arms.
It is true, of course, that it would be possible to make a much longer statement about the situation in the middle east, but it might be necessary for Ministers to make statements over many months, going into the details of many countries, so of course I recognise that it is possible to say more about those situations. I referred to them in my statement—where we called for people to be able to protest peacefully. It is also important that, where protests occur, policing techniques are used that allow for peaceful protest and, wherever possible, do not encourage or lead to violence. That is a message we convey to all nations, as well as the message that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister expressed in his speech in the Kuwaiti Parliament, calling on all nations in the region to respect legitimate aspirations for economic development and more open and flexible political systems.
Do events in Libya and the middle east carry any lessons at all for the Government, given the talk about possible British participation in no-fly zones and the decision to stand down the carriers and the Harriers that would be essential to carry out any such operation?
It is not true that such facilities are necessary to implement a no-fly zone, because, in the case of Libya, ground bases are available and no nation has used an aircraft carrier for the recent evacuation of their citizens. The United Kingdom still has and will continue to have formidable military assets, including in air power. We are a part of the contingency planning for what might happen, but it would not be necessary to have an aircraft carrier to execute such a plan.
In acknowledging the difficulty of deciding how best to protect the Libyan people, I wonder what discussions the Foreign Secretary had with our partners in view of the danger and the potentially counter-productive nature of the mission.
We have discussions with our partners in NATO and in the European Union, and indeed more broadly in the Arab world, about this entire crisis, about the future of Libya and about the future of the entire region. Obviously, the mission into eastern Libya that we are describing was a United Kingdom-only mission, and not subject to discussion with other nations.
If the European External Action Service has a point, it is surely to engage in a timely fashion in its very near abroad. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any action being taken by Baroness Ashton in advance of this Friday’s meeting beyond cancelling a few visas and imposing a few trade sanctions?
Baroness Ashton has recently visited a number of states in the region, including Egypt and Tunisia. It will be important for the European Union, including Baroness Ashton and her organisation, to play a role in what we are calling on the European Union to do in changing its policy to one of greater openness towards the countries of north Africa and to providing incentives for them to move towards economic openness and political reform. I hope that all the nations of the European Union, and its organs, will take part in that.
The Secretary of State spoke earlier about the plight of refugees. Up until the middle of last week, 10,000 to 15,000 people were crossing the border into Tunisia on a daily basis. Since then, that number has dropped dramatically, and on Thursday only 2,000 refugees crossed the border. UNHCR has expressed concerns that people are being prevented from leaving Libya. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of this drop in numbers, and to whom has he spoken to help to inform that assessment?
That is a very good point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has expressed the very same concern. A variety of things may be happening in this regard. Most of the people who have left have been migrant workers from other countries, and so it is possible that the numbers who remain are diminishing. It is also possible that the extent of the fighting that is taking place is making it harder for people to leave, or that they are being discouraged from leaving. My right hon. Friend is assessing that with his international partners and multilateral organisations. It is difficult for us to know exactly what is happening on the ground, but we will continue to assess it.
May I congratulate the Government and the armed forces on the successful evacuation of thousands of people by sea and air under very difficult circumstances? May I also, though, caution my right hon. Friend that humanitarian aid supported by military means is very unlikely to be seen in that way by the protagonists in a civil war?
Yes, I entirely take my hon. Friend’s word of caution; he is quite right to point that out. If we came to the point of thinking that that might be necessary, it would be a difficult decision to take. As the Prime Minister made clear last Monday, it is also right to do the contingency planning about many of the options that might have to be taken in a whole variety of circumstances. However, I stress to my hon. Friend that this is contingency planning rather than a decision to undertake the kind of operation that he is concerned about.
It is good that the Foreign Secretary is admitting that the mission failed, and of course it must be right to protect our diplomats in the way that he outlined. However, was not the mission always going to fail given that people arrived, unannounced, in a helicopter full of military equipment in such a volatile situation? What does he think of the role of our ambassador in the conversation that was reported by Colonel Gaddafi and the relationship between the two ambassadors, when the ambassador himself did not know what was going on?
Of course, there are many telephone conversations going on. I myself speak to people on both sides of the divide in Libya, including to the Libyan Foreign Minister, Musa Kusa, who is still part of the Gaddafi regime. As there are British nationals still in Libya, it is important for us to be able to have a channel of communication directly with the Libyan regime, as well as with leading figures in the opposition. It is therefore no surprise that such telephone conversations are going on, particularly in the situation that we had over the weekend. The background to the mission is exactly as I described it earlier. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as I made clear in my statement, the mission ended up meeting the president of the national council of the opposition forces, and that is now the basis for further diplomatic contact with them.
Apart from the irony of sending a British warship named after a pork sausage to rescue Brits from a Muslim country, is not the real lesson from this situation that we should stop meddling in other people’s affairs and be very careful before we lecture countries on democracy when we have armed their autocratic rulers with crowd-control weapons?