House of Commons
Wednesday 9 November 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
7. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the construction industry in Scotland. (78429)
I recognise the vital role that the construction industry plays in the Scottish and UK economy. The plan for growth includes a wide range of measures to support the industry across the UK. I have regular discussions with Scottish Ministers on these and other matters of importance to the Scottish economy.
May I say to the Secretary of State that his Under-Secretary and I have one thing in common? We still have construction workers who remain unemployed after R & D Construction went into administration earlier this year. Does the Secretary of State fully recognise that throughout the UK, and especially in Scotland, there are far too many unemployed construction workers, who desperately want to get back to work? He needs to encourage the Scottish Government to stimulate that sector.
I agree that we must take all appropriate measures to get the economy on the right footing. As he will appreciate, we have a big challenge clearing up the mess left by the previous Government and the challenging situation in the eurozone, but we are determined, through our credible deficit plan and with a strong economy, to get construction and other sectors in the right place.
The Secretary of State might be aware of the major lobby today by construction workers throughout the UK, many of them from Scotland. They are concerned about proposals by six national construction companies to change the national agreement for electricians. Given what is going on in Scotland, when he next meets the First Minister will he remind him of the excellent work being done in both Parliaments in providing quality partnerships? The proposal by those construction companies could undermine all that good work.
I agree that it is vital that the UK Government and the Scottish Government work together. Whether that is on terms and conditions or on the general state of the economy, it is extremely important. We as the UK Government have taken important steps to support the Scottish Government in their efforts with the economy.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable construction activity taking place prior to deployment of marine energy in the Pentland firth, particularly at places such as Scrabster harbour? What more can this Government do to ensure that the right infrastructure is constructed now so that we benefit from the opportunity of marine renewable energy in the future?
As my hon. Friend knows, through our plan for growth, which sets out the basis on which we will support the economy through these difficult times—cutting corporation tax, reducing the burden of income tax, reducing the national insurance burden and, with a huge investment in marine renewables, reforming the energy market—we are laying the foundations for that important sector to develop. It is important that that is not undermined by the uncertainty that the independence referendum is causing in Scotland at present.
A competitive tax position is vital for the construction sector and the rest of the Scottish economy. That is why the Scottish Government have called for the devolution of corporation tax powers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the UK Government are actively considering the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that we have had a consultation about corporation tax devolution to Northern Ireland and we are reviewing the responses to it. I wish we could say the same for the response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on their corporation tax proposals. We have asked a series of fundamental questions about the proposals but they have gone unanswered. We have yet to see the consultation responses, so I suggest the hon. Gentleman ask his friend the First Minister to get on with that.
The Secretary of State has taken the opportunity in the past to say that the UK Government will consider the devolution of corporation tax powers to Scotland, but Dr Graham Gudgin, an adviser to the Northern Ireland Secretary, confirmed in evidence to the Scottish Parliament that the UK Government have already ruled out the devolution of corporation tax “under any circumstances”. Both statements cannot be true, so which is true?
We have said that we want to consider any valid proposals brought forward by the Scottish Government, but they must first establish a credible, detailed position, maintain the consensus across the parties and ensure that there is no detriment to Scotland or the rest of the UK. The Scottish National party and the First Minister have so far failed to deliver the detail.
I ask the Secretary of State to pay particular attention to the concerns raised this morning about the construction industry in Scotland, where 10,000 jobs have been lost this year and the number of companies facing bankruptcy has risen by 135% in the past two years. With that in mind, will he support Labour’s call, and that of the Scottish Building Federation, for a one-year cut in VAT on home improvements to 5%, a specific action to help boost the construction industry and get the Scottish economy moving again?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new post, without, if I may say so, wishing her too much success in it. She brings a great deal of experience to the House and I look forward to our encounters. We have heard Labour’s proposals for reducing VAT, but I have to tell her that when that was last done it did not deliver the hoped-for outcome. As we are seeing across the eurozone, countries cannot spend their way out of a debt crisis. We need a credible plan and we have to deliver on it, which is what we are doing.
I thank the Secretary of State for his kind opening remarks and look forward to robust debates and work in the coming years. I am sorry to say that his answer is completely inadequate, because previous VAT cuts did deliver growth. The Government’s failed policies mean that they are set to borrow £46 billion more this year, rather than reduce the deficit. In reality, Scots face a double-whammy: a Tory-led Government cutting too far and too fast, and an SNP Government presiding over stagnant growth and cuts in capital spending. Scotland is in the midst of a crisis—a jobs crisis and a growth crisis. If he will not follow Labour’s five-point plan to boost jobs and growth in Scotland, what specific action will the Government take in Scotland and for Scotland to get our economy moving again?
The hon. Lady cannot skip so lightly away from the mess we inherited from the previous Government: the highest deficit in peacetime history and we were borrowing £1 for every £4 we spent, which was simply unsustainable. It is absolutely vital that we keep to our credible deficit reduction plan and deliver on the plan for growth by cutting corporation tax, maintaining low interest rates and reducing regulatory and national insurance burdens. As far as Scotland is concerned, I agree that the tax hike in the Scottish Government’s spending review is bad for business. They must acknowledge that we have helped with pre-payments for the replacement Forth crossing and by making land available from the Ministry of Defence. We are helping the Scottish Government in many ways.
The Government have no such policy. The Scottish Government have said that they will introduce proposals for a referendum, and we urge them to end the delay and uncertainty by doing so. Whenever there is a referendum, the UK Government will make the case for a prosperous Scotland in a modern UK.
Should not any referendum that has profound implication for Wales, Northern Ireland and England as well as Scotland involve an absolutely clear and straightforward choice between remaining in the UK and separation, rather than muddying the waters with what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) has called the “I can’t believe it’s not independence” option?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. With a BBC poll at the weekend showing that barely a quarter of Scots favour independence, it is no great surprise that the SNP is taking Scotland for granted and running away from an independence poll. It is creating uncertainty that is damaging for business. Let us have a clear question and get on with it.
In considering Scottish independence, has the Secretary of State seen recent legal advice stating that an independent Scotland would be either outside the European Union, and therefore would lose EU funding and access to free markets, or required to join the euro as a new accession state? Does he agree that that is further evidence that breaking up the UK would be bad for the people of Scotland?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The idea that the SNP can take it for granted that Scotland would enter the EU without negotiation and consideration of such issues is entirely fanciful. That is part of the uncertainty that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.
On 8 May the Scottish Secretary ruled out a 40% rule in a rigged referendum. He also said that the referendum was entirely a matter for the Scottish Government and that he would not be raising any constitutional questions. Does he stand by that?
I do not think we should take any lessons on rigged referendums from the hon. Gentleman’s party, which is determined not to have a straightforward question on Scottish independence—the whole reason it exists—but to bring in other issues as well. Let us get a straightforward question now and end the damaging uncertainty.
Departmental Administrative Costs
Scotland Office Ministers are determined that the Office contribute to the Government’s task of reducing the budget deficit. I and my officials are bearing down hard on administrative costs through a range of efficiency measures, including using framework contracts negotiated by other Government bodies, sharing resources with the other territorial offices and making more efficient use of leasehold property.
The Prime Minister wants to see smaller and more effective government. Only last year, the Secretary of State for Scotland called for the abolition of the Scotland Office. Would the very capable Minister not be making a career enhancing move if he suggested now from the Dispatch Box that we should abolish the Scotland Office, the Wales Office and the Northern Ireland Office and replace them with an office for the Union?
Is that what is called cutting the Department to the bone? Will the Minister name all the staff of his Department? I remember telling a previous Secretary of State that it must be the only empire in the whole of Westminster where the Secretary of State is able to name all his staff: can he?
I pay tribute to the staff of the Scotland Office. With a small number of staff, we have pursued the Scotland Bill, a very significant measure, through this House and into the other place. The Scotland Office has a key role to play as we move forward in preserving Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.
As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland’s economic opportunities are larger, our public finances are more robust, our defence is stronger, our influence on the international stage is greater, the welfare system is more secure and our cultural and family ties are closer. Those are just half a dozen reasons why we are stronger together.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the tough economic crisis facing small European countries, the worst thing for Scotland would be to become a small independent country dependent on the eurozone, rather than being part of the United Kingdom and having the strength that brings?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the issues that face Scotland if it chooses to be independent and the fact that such a process cannot take place without some very hard-nosed negotiations with our European partners, who are facing real difficulties all over the continent. We need the SNP to spell out its plans on how it will deal with those issues—then let us get on with the independence referendum.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the social union, the Commonwealth, the monarchy and particularly the current Queen—Queen Elizabeth—will be important whatever constitutional arrangements Scotland has in the future? That, of course, would mirror the situation in independent Canada, New Zealand and Australia, with Scotland being the Queen’s 17th independent realm.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s passion for Scotland’s independence, but I wish it were shared with some intention to get on with the debate. The chairman of the independence campaign is sitting beside him. What are they scared of? Let us get on with it.
My right hon. Friend has outlined the benefits to Scotland of European Union membership and the uncertainty that would surround those benefits in the event that Scotland were to be independent. Does he agree that it would help to resolve that uncertainty if the Scottish Government published the legal advice they have had on the point, so that it may contribute properly to the debate?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point. The idea that we would somehow simply get membership of the European Union with complete agreement, without discussion and without needing to worry about the terms of negotiation is quite fanciful. It is a journey into the unknown and we need to have the detail.
One of the many benefits associated with the Union is the certainty provided by Scotland’s continuing membership of the European Union. Has the Secretary of State seen the impartial Library research published yesterday, which indicates that Scotland may have to go through an accession process to stay in the EU if it becomes a separate state? That research also shows that if Scotland were accepted as a member state, according to the most recent data, net annual contributions to the EU from Scottish taxpayers would rise to £92 per capita compared with only £57 per capita from the rest of the UK. Would it not be contrary to Scotland’s national and economic interests to separate from the rest of the UK if it meant Scotland ended up out of the EU or paying more to stay in the EU, and only if it adopted the euro?
I recently discussed this issue with Ofgem and other key stakeholders at the energy summit I held in Bathgate on 20 October. This Government are determined to help people to reduce their energy bills and I welcome Ofgem’s recent proposals to reform the retail energy market.
I am delighted to say to the hon. Gentleman that I recognise his long-standing concerns on all these issues—not only salaries but energy prices. Our proposals to simplify matters and to help people to switch and to get greater transparency in their bills, and all the other reforms being introduced by Ofgem, are crucial. I look forward to Ofgem getting on with that work.
One of the key groups of customers facing high energy prices this year is those who are not on the gas main and heat their homes with oil, LPG and other fuels. At the moment, sadly, Ofgem does not have a remit for them. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change whether there is any way that those suppliers can be made to engage with their vulnerable consumers in the same way as mains gas suppliers have to?
Yesterday the Secretary of State for DECC sent a letter to all MPs promoting the Government’s policy of check, switch and insulate, but how does the Secretary of State suggest that off-grid customers can check or switch when in many areas there is a virtual monopoly on home fuel oil? [Interruption.]
As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), we want to discuss these issues. Representing a big rural area without gas grid access, I recognise that this is an important matter, and I am happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman too.
Electoral Commission Report
I welcome the Electoral Commission’s finding that the Scottish Parliament election was well administered and voter focused.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The SNP Government had no complaint about the Electoral Commission’s involvement in the Scottish Parliament elections and the alternative vote referendum but, at great cost to the taxpayer, they intend to set up their own commission to oversee the referendum. No wonder so many people are speculating that that is an attempt to rig the referendum.
I am not aware of any such suggestions in the Electoral Commission report, but my hon. Friend is correct to highlight the issues with the Scottish separatists’ referendum that are causing such uncertainty—the franchise, the question and the timing. [Interruption.]
Carbon Capture and Storage
My most recent meeting with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to discuss this issue was on 10 October. Although it was not possible to reach a deal on Longannet, the Government remain firmly committed to carbon capture and storage and I welcome the confirmation given by the Treasury that the £1 billion of funding will be made available for future CCS projects.
The Government in the 1980s refused to invest in wind power and threw away our world lead in renewables. Are this Government making the same mistake by refusing to invest in the most advanced industrial-scale carbon capture and storage project in the world at Longannet?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on that, but I do agree that we are determined to see Britain take a leading role in this important technology. That is why the £1 billion of investment is still available and why Peterhead and other parts of the UK will be able to bid for it.
I hope that the Secretary of State will welcome this morning’s announcement by Scottish and Southern Energy and Shell that they are bringing the project at Peterhead one step closer. What assurances can he give that the project will not be shelved, as the last Peterhead project for carbon capture and storage was by the previous Government, and that we will see this investment?
In a week when a major international bank has talked about the impact that the uncertainty over independence is having on renewables investment in Scotland, we will take no lessons from the SNP about uncertainty. As I said to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), it is vital that Peterhead and other places come forward with their bids, and £1 billion is available to support them.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the First Minister and his officials on a range of issues of significance to the Scottish economy. I have frequent discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, including a meeting last week on the common fisheries policy and other matters.
I agree with my hon. Friend, just as I agree with Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, who stated in his evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which she chairs, that the UK should speak with one voice in fisheries negotiations.
What discussions has the Minister had with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) about tradeable quotas to ensure that they are not taken advantage of by multinationals who use the UK as a flag of convenience?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with John Swinney, the Scottish Minister responsible for employment, about unemployment in Scotland. Scottish Government officials and agencies have been involved in all the employment seminars that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has held over the past six months.
Unemployment in Kintyre could be reduced if the community bid to take over the former RAF base at Machrihanish goes ahead. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will make a contribution towards making the water supply fit for purpose, so that the community’s bid is viable. Will the Minister please encourage the MOD to do so?
Will the Minister take responsibility for something that his Government have done? This morning, House of Commons figures show that youth unemployment in my constituency has risen by 218.2%. What is he going to tell the young people of Stirling that the Government have done over the past 18 months?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Private Matthew Haseldin from 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment. Despite being in the Army only a short time, he had already proved himself to be a dedicated and courageous soldier. He has made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the British people, and we should send our deepest condolences to his family and friends. This week, we will, of course, pause to remember all those who have lost their lives in defence of our country, so that we can enjoy peace and freedom, and we are humbled by their sacrifice.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I add my tribute to the Prime Minister’s about the sad death of Private Matthew Haseldin from 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, especially with Remembrance Sunday so near?
The Prime Minister is rightly concerned about jobs and growth. Crucial to that is consumer confidence. Does he think that telling 25 million workers that they have no job security and can be fired at will tomorrow will boost or reduce consumer confidence?
Clearly, we have to make it easier for firms to hire people. That is why we have scrapped Labour’s jobs tax, taken 1 million of the lowest-paid people out of tax, established new rules so that someone can go to a tribunal only after working somewhere for two years, and introduced fees for claims in employment tribunals to stop vexatious claims. Added to that, we are investing in the Work programme and apprenticeships—all as a way of helping to give young people jobs.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Matthew Haseldin from 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment? He showed immense courage trying to protect local people, and our thoughts are with his family and friends. With troops serving in conflict overseas, it is even more important that this weekend, on Remembrance Sunday, we honour all those who have served our country and who are serving our country today.
Will the Prime Minister tell us how many people entered the UK under the Home Secretary’s relaxed border controls?
The figures for the period between August 2010 and August 2011 for the number of people who entered the country are published in the normal way. The figures that I have are these: the number of people arrested was up by 10%, the number of drug seizures was markedly up, and the number of firearms seizures was up by 100%. However, we should be clear about what did, and what did not, happen here. First, the Home Secretary agreed a pilot for a more targeted approach to border control. This was for people within the European economic area, and it allowed better targeting of high-risk people and less for others, notably children. This did not compromise security. It was an operational decision, but one that I fully back, and which I think she was right to take.
Secondly and importantly, however, decisions were taken to extend that beyond EEA nationals. That was not authorised by the Home Secretary. Indeed, when specific permission was asked for, it was not granted. This did not mean that our borders were left undefended, and passports continued to be checked, but because this was unauthorised action—as it was contrary to what she agreed—it was right that the head of the border force was suspended. I back that action completely.
It is just not good enough. The Prime Minister cannot tell us how many people—how many millions of people—were let in under the relaxed border controls agreed by the Home Secretary. Is it not totally unacceptable that the Home Secretary chose to relax border controls in July, but, even yesterday, could not tell us which airports and ports that applied to, how many took it up and for how long?
The Home Secretary provided those figures, and the figures are as follows: firearms, 100% increase in seizures; illegal immigrants, 10% increase in arrests; forged documents, 48% increase. But the simple fact that the right hon. Gentleman—and, I think, everyone—has to accept is this. The head of the UK Border Agency, Rob Whiteman, who also did not know that such unauthorised action was taking place, said this, and it is very important for the House to understand it:
“Brodie Clark admitted to me on November 2 that on a number of occasions this year he authorised his staff to go further than ministerial instruction. I therefore suspended him from his duties. In my opinion it was right for officials to have recommended the pilot so that we focus attention on higher risks to our border, but it is unacceptable that one of my senior officials went further than was approved.”
That is why Brodie Clark was suspended, and that is why the Home Secretary backed that decision, but it is important to understand that he was suspended by the head of the UK Border Agency. It was a decision quite rightly taken by him—backed by the Home Secretary, backed by me.
Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman continues, let me just emphasise this: there are Members on both sides of the House shouting their heads off. Members of the Youth Parliament last Friday—[Interruption.] Order. Members of the Youth Parliament spoke brilliantly and passionately disagreed with each other, but they did not shout at each other.
What did the Home Secretary say in the past, when she was in opposition and things went wrong on immigration? She said this:
“I’m sick and tired of…government ministers…who simply blame other people when things go wrong.”
The Prime Minister said yesterday, in his evidence to the Liaison Committee about the relaxation of border controls over the past few months, that
“clearly this is not acceptable and it is not acceptable it went on for so long.”
Why did the Home Secretary allow it to happen?
The right hon. Gentleman cannot on the one hand blame me for not taking responsibility and then quote very clearly my words taking responsibility and saying what is not acceptable. We are having a lecture on responsibility from a party that trebled immigration, let an extra 2.2 million people into our country, allowed everyone from eastern Europe to come here with no transitional controls, built up a backlog of half a million asylum claims, and made no apology about it. Even today, when the Leader of the Opposition was asked whether too many people were let into this country, his answer was a very simple no.
The right hon. Gentleman has been Prime Minister for 18 months. He cannot keep saying that it is nothing to do with him; it is his responsibility. One month ago he gave a speech on border controls called “Reclaiming our Borders”, but while he was boasting about reclaiming our borders, his Home Secretary was busy relaxing our borders. Does the Prime Minister not think that he should at least have known?
The pilot that the Home Secretary introduced meant more arrests, more firearms seized and more forged documents found. That is the truth of it. The fact is that officials went further than Home Office Ministers authorised. That is what is wrong, and that is why someone had to be suspended—and that was the right decision.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what we have done. Let me tell him. We are completing e-Borders, so that by next April every flight from outside the EU will be checked; we are creating the National Crime Agency, with the dedicated border police; in the first six months, we seized more drugs than in the whole of last year; and last year we rejected 400,000 visa applications and turned away 68,000 people without the correct documents. I am determined that we have tough border controls, and finally we have a Home Office and an Immigration Minister who actually want to cut immigration.
Anyone listening to the Prime Minister would think that his policy has been a great success. It is a fiasco—a complete fiasco. The one thing that he cannot claim to know nothing about is cuts to the UK border force. Can he now confirm how many UK border staff are going to be cut under his Government?
By the end of this Parliament there will be 18,000 people working for the UK Border Agency—the same number as were working for it in 2006, when the right hon. Gentleman was sitting in the Treasury and determining the budgets. He asks about what we have done on immigration in 18 months in office. Let me tell him. We have introduced the first ever limit on work visas from outside the European Union. We have stopped more than 470 colleges from bringing in bogus foreign students. We have cut student visas by 70,000. Anyone who comes here to get married has to speak English. We are ending automatic settlement rights and stopping the nonsense of people misusing the Human Rights Act. In 18 months we have done more to control immigration than he did in 13 years.
Q2. On Friday, 3 Commando Brigade will be marching through the streets of Plymouth on their homecoming parade after a successful but costly tour of duty in Afghanistan. I know that the Prime Minister will be with us in spirit, but will he send a message of support today to those brave and very professional Royal Marines, of whom we are all so very proud? (79339)
I will certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that. I know that the whole of the south-west—and the whole country—is incredibly proud of the Marines, and we are proud of 3 Commando Brigade, who will be marching through Plymouth. I send my very best wishes for the homecoming parade, and we should also put on record what they have achieved in Task Force Helmand. They carried out 37,000 patrols, found more than 400 improvised explosive devices and trained more than 1,300 Afghan uniformed police patrolmen. They have made a real difference to the safety and security of that country, and to the safety of our country too.
Q3. Does the Prime Minister think it right and proper or in any way defensible that the Royal Bank of Scotland, which received a massive bail-out during the crisis, should be paying out more than £500 million in bonuses this year? (79340)
In joining me in giving our condolences to the relatives of the Red Arrows pilot killed at RAF Scampton yesterday, will the Prime Minister acknowledge the overriding need for safety? Our campaign to save RAF Scampton from closure is based not just on sentiment for the historic home of the Dambusters, but on the overriding need for the safe uncluttered skies above north Lincolnshire that the Red Arrows need to practise safely.
I am sure that the hearts of everyone in this House go out to the family of the pilot who was killed in that terrible accident, which comes on top of a second accident that happened in the Red Arrows. This has obviously been a tragic time for something that the whole country reveres and loves, and I know that the Red Arrows’ home in Lincolnshire is extremely important to them. We must get to the bottom of what happened, and I totally understand why my hon. Friend wants to stand up for the air base in his constituency.
Q4. The trade unions yesterday published data showing that Clackmannanshire in my constituency has seen the largest growth in youth unemployment in this country. Given that we will not have the opportunity to question the Prime Minister on unemployment numbers next week, will he tell me why he is letting young people down in my constituency? (79341)
Obviously we face a difficult situation with unemployment, including among young people, right across the country, and we need to do everything we can to help people back into work. That is why there is record investment going into apprenticeships and the Work programme. However, the real need is to grow the private sector, because, frankly, this is a time when whoever was in government would have to make reductions in the public sector. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but any Government would have to do that: look across Europe at the reductions that are having to be made. We need to get the private sector growing, which is what this Government are focused on.
Q5. Developing the considerable potential for jobs in the energy sector is central to economic recovery in my constituency, as is providing local people with the skills to take on those jobs. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government do all they can to fund the completion of the newly opened Pakefield high school in Lowestoft, which will play such an important role in skilling young people in a deprived area? (79342)
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the skills that that local school will bring. This year Suffolk has an extra £33 million in capital funds. It is obviously for the local authority to decide how to spend that money, but school capital available throughout this spending round and this Parliament amounts to £15.9 billion, so money is there for important school projects.
Q6. This weekend the nation will pause to remember, paying tribute to our war dead. At cenotaphs across the nation, we will pay homage to the men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice in conflicts down through the years. Does the Prime Minister agree that where there is a desire to display that tribute in an entirely non-partisan way, whether in shops, schools, churches or on football tops, it should be not only allowed, but positively promoted? (79343)
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and sense that the entire House does too. It is a remarkable achievement of the Royal British Legion and the country as a whole that we have reintroduced over past years the sense of the silence taking place at the 11th hour of the 11th day, which is absolutely right. It is particularly appropriate in Northern Ireland, where so many people have served so bravely in our armed forces. Indeed, whenever I visit the Royal Irish Regiment, I am always struck by how many people from both sides of the border have served so bravely in our armed forces.
Q7. Less family breakdown would reduce the costs loaded on to our economy, so will the Prime Minister encourage health authorities throughout the country to take part in “Care for the Families: Let’s Stick Together” pilots, when health visitors and volunteer parents offer relationship support to new parents in the early years of their family life, which is when half of all break-ups occur? (79344)
My hon. Friend has a great record in pushing forward that absolutely vital idea. It is a tragic fact that so many couples break up after the arrival of the first child because of all the stresses and strains that can bring. That is dreadful for those couples and dreadful for those children. We spend a huge amount as a country dealing with the problems of social breakdown; in my view we should spend more on trying to help to keep families together. Relationship advice and support, as he says, is absolutely vital in that.
Q8. On Friday the UN Security Council will consider the democratically conveyed Palestinian request for full membership of the UN. Might not the international community do more to advance the prospect of a two-state solution by doing more to create a two-state process? In that context, will he ensure that the UK representative casts a positive vote on Friday, and does not go for the cop-out of abstention? (79345)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will make a full statement to the House on this issue in a few moments, but let me say this: the British Government are fully behind the two-state solution, but I profoundly believe that we will get that not through declarations and processes at the UN, but through the two potential states—Israel and Palestine—sitting down and negotiating. All our efforts should go towards helping to make that happen.
Surviving Winter Appeal
I thank the Prime Minister for that question. I would like him to congratulate Peter Wyman of the Somerset Community Foundation on having the brilliant idea of people donating some or all of their winter fuel allowance to those who need it most. Would the Government consider enabling such donations by including an option in the letter sent out about the allowance to allow an automatic donation to the Surviving Winter appeal?
I shall certainly look at that suggestion, but it is important to keep the promises that we made to Britain’s pensioners about keeping up the winter fuel payments and cold weather payments. I would not want to see any unnecessary pressure put on people to do something that might not be in their own best interests.
Q10. The operational instruction from the UK Border Agency on 20 July says:“We will cease routinely opening the chips within EEA passports…checking under 18-year-olds against the warning index”.Did anyone in the Home Office clear that document? Given the conflicting stories between the Home Secretary’s officials and her own version, will the Prime Minister publish all the ministerial instructions to the UKBA? (79347)
The hon. Gentleman is trying desperately to make up the ground lost by his party leader, but I am afraid that he has rather lost the House in the process. The point is that an inquiry will be carried out by the independent chief inspector of the Border Agency—the very person who found out what was going wrong in terms of operations undertaking that did not have the permission of Ministers, and all these issues will be aired.
On Christmas day 1914, British and German troops put down their weapons and played a football match in no man’s land. The following day, the bloody hostilities resumed. Today, we wear the poppy in remembrance of our war dead. Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the outrageous decision by FIFA to refuse the home nations’ request to wear the poppy on their shirts this weekend as a simple mark of respect and remembrance?
My hon. Friend speaks not only for the whole House but for the whole country in being completely baffled—and, frankly, angry—at the decision made by FIFA. If teams want to put the poppy on their shirts, as many teams do in our football league, they should be able to do so at national level, whether it is the English team or the Welsh team. This is an appalling decision, and I hope that FIFA will reconsider it.
Q11. As poverty is rising, the Prime Minister is removing the requirement for people to register to vote in Britain, thereby removing millions of people’s right to vote. Is he not taking their money with one hand and taking their votes with another? Is it not a grotesque distortion of democracy to force austerity measures on the most vulnerable while removing their voting power? (79348)
The point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that we are introducing individual voter registration, which is a Labour policy, so he should be welcoming it. I can understand why he does not necessarily support the idea of making all constituencies the same size, because his constituency has only 62,000 people in it, whereas his right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) represents 91,000 people. I think that it is a basic act of fairness to have seats the same size. It was a demand of the Chartists in the 1840s, and I think that it is time we introduced it.
Q12. Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing evidence of the increase in abuse, intimidation and harassment on park home sites across the country? Tackling those problems needs political will, not a large sum of money. Will he address the issues urgently, so that vulnerable park homers get the protection that they need and deserve as soon as possible? (79349)
The hon. Lady raises an important point. I have had constituency cases myself in which people have been treated very badly by park home owners. There are some extremely good park home owners, who not only obey the rules but demonstrate responsibility and compassion, but there are some who do not. We are committed to providing a better deal for park home residents by improving their rights and increasing protection against bad site owners. I will arrange for her to have a meeting with the Housing Minister so that they can discuss this urgent action.
In these difficult economic times, it is even more important for our politics to be in touch with the people we represent. Will the Prime Minister therefore welcome the first people to be successful in getting places on the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme, who are with us here today? They are inspiring individuals who would never normally have the chance to work in politics. Will he agree to meet them and listen to their views on the relevance of the issues today, and perhaps on how we are all doing in our politics?
I would certainly join the right hon. Lady in the point she makes. She has made a huge amount of impact on this issue of social mobility, of wanting to help people who have not had good chances in life. I applaud her for that. If there is time in my busy diary, I will certainly do as she says. I think there is an important opportunity for everyone in this House to look at organisations like the Social Mobility Foundation that provide opportunities for interns from inner city schools to come and have the experience of working here in Parliament. I have used this scheme, as have other members of the Cabinet, and I think it is an excellent scheme to give people a really good chance to see what we do in this place—not just on Wednesday at 12 o’clock, but more broadly.
My hon. Friend raises a serious issue—[Interruption.] I can hear, and I can sense, a bit of resistance, which is perhaps not surprising when 85% of Labour’s money comes from the trade unions. When we discuss legislation in this House, we should be bringing our judgment, our ideas and our arguments, not just picking up a tired old brief from a trade union.
Q14. In my constituency of Kilmarnock and Loudoun there are over 3,000 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance, but the latest figures show that there were only 300 job vacancies available. Jobs are being lost in the public sector and the private sector. How high does unemployment have to go before the Prime Minister will accept that his economic policies are simply not working? (79351)
Unemployment is too high today, and I want to see it come down from its already high levels. What we have to do to make that happen is to put resources into the apprenticeship scheme and into the Work programme to make sure that we do all the things that help businesses to employ people. That is what this Government are doing. We are cutting corporation tax, introducing enterprise zones and doing everything we can to help businesses. We will do that in the hon. Lady’s constituency and throughout the country.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If you do not have credibility about your plans to deal with your debts and deal with your deficits, whether you like the markets or not, they will not lend you any money. That is what we are seeing in countries like Greece and now, tragically, in Italy, where the price of borrowing money is reaching a totally unsustainable level. It is a lesson for all of us to have sustainable plans to get on top of our debt and our deficits. In terms of Europe, the problem of contagion is that as we agree a decisive write-down of Greek debt, people inevitably start asking questions about other countries. As that happens, you need to have in place the biggest possible firewall. That is what the European Financial Stability Facility is all about, and eurozone leaders urgently need to put flesh on the bones and put figures on the size of that firewall, to stop this contagion going any further.
Q15. Last year youth unemployment in Tameside stood at an unacceptable 20%—one in five. Today it stands at 34%, which is shocking. In light of that, does the Prime Minister still believe that the decision to scrap the future jobs fund was the right one? (79352)
Let me just make the point that under Labour youth unemployment went up by 40%—and the evidence that we received on coming into government was that the future jobs fund was three or four times more expensive than other job creation schemes. Indeed, in many parts of the country, including in the west midlands, the percentage of future jobs fund jobs that were in the private sector was as low as 2% or 3%. It was right to scrap the future jobs fund and put in its place apprenticeships, the Work programme and work experience that will make a difference to young people.
War is a failure of politics. The people who go to war are not politicians; they are brave service people who die in the service of their country. May I urge my right hon. Friend to write to FIFA to point out that the poppy is not a political symbol but a symbol that says that we respect the sacrifice that people have made on behalf of their countries?
I will certainly do as my hon. Friend suggests. I think that it is a question not just of writing to FIFA, but of asking its membership bodies, including the Football Association, to take a strong line. As my hon. Friend says, this is not an issue of left or right, Labour or Conservative. We all wear the poppy with pride, even if we do not approve of the wars in which people were fighting. We do it to honour the fact that those people sacrificed their lives for us. It is absolutely vital for FIFA to understand that, and I think that a clear message from the House and the Government can make it think again.
Given that Italy is now on what the Prime Minister has described as a “credible fiscal path”, will he help the Group of Twenty’s Finance Ministers to meet and contribute to the creation of a European financial stability pact in a way that will assist the eurozone?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. However, the first responsibility for building the bail-out fund must lie with the eurozone members. As we said in the House on Monday, the problem at the G20 is that the G20, the International Monetary Fund and countries such as Britain cannot be asked to do things that the eurozone members are not themselves prepared to do.
We do stand ready to boost the IMF, we do want to help countries in distress, and we do not want to see our trading partners collapse. We understand that, even though we do not support membership of the euro, if countries fall out of the euro it could be very painful for our economy. However, it is for the eurozone countries to sort out the problems. It is their currency.
In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), the Prime Minister referred to a firewall in relation to the bail-outs. Does he accept that what we really need is structural renegotiation of the treaties, given the impact that this is having on the United Kingdom? If I may use a cricketing analogy of which the Prime Minister will be aware, he would not be sent in with a broken bat. He would be sent in with a new bat, and with a united Conservative team behind him.
There is a long history in my party of cricketing metaphors and Europe ending unhappily, so I will not necessarily follow my hon. Friend down that path. What I will say is that we will defend the national interest. When there was a treaty change in the European Council we got something back for Britain, which was the ability to get out of the EU bail-out fund. If there are future treaty changes—some European countries are pushing for them—we will make sure that we achieve a good deal for Britain and protect our national interests.
I remind the House that this Friday is 11 November, Armistice day. Although the House will not be sitting on that day, many of us will be on the estate performing our parliamentary duties. I regard it appropriate that, at 11 am, we and staff working for us should join the nation in observing the two minutes’ silence, so that we may remember those who gave their lives for their country to help preserve our democratic freedoms. Instructions will be issued to heads of House Departments, so that members of staff who wish to observe the two minutes’ silence may do so.
Middle East and North Africa
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The House will welcome an update on events in the middle east, including the middle east peace process and Iran’s nuclear programme.
Let me begin by updating the House on the situation in Libya. The national transitional council declared Libya’s liberation on 23 October after the fall of Sirte and the death of Colonel Gaddafi, starting the country’s transition to democracy as set out in the council’s constitutional declaration. A new interim Libyan Prime Minister, Mr al-Kib, has been appointed, and we expect other Ministers to be appointed soon. The forming of a new Government is due to be followed within eight months by elections to a new National Congress.
These are historic achievements. NATO operations came to an end on Monday 31 October, following the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2016 on 27 October. The whole House will join me in paying tribute to our armed forces, whose contribution has saved many lives and helped to make the transition in Libya possible.
I visited Libya on 17 October to reopen our embassy and to hold talks with the Libyan authorities. We are providing communications and logistics support for Libya’s new police force and deploying a British policing adviser. We are also supporting attempts to locate missing anti-aircraft weapons and to clear mines in Misrata, and giving advice on destroying stocks of chemical weapons. We are encouraging the Libyan authorities in their efforts to reintegrate former fighters, bring together Libya’s security forces and provide employment opportunities. It is also important that the remaining International Criminal Court indictees, Saif al-Islam and Abdullah al-Senussi, be brought to justice before a court of law. We urge Libya’s neighbours to arrest and surrender any indictee on their territory.
We are determined to address legacy issues from the Gaddafi regime, including the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, the Lockerbie bombing and support for IRA terrorism. The Prime Minister discussed that with Prime Minister al-Kib on 5 November, and we welcome the new Libyan authorities’ willingness to work with us to try to close this chapter of tragic events.
While progress is made in Libya, in Syria the situation is deteriorating. More than 3,500 people have been killed since March according to the UN. On 2 November, the Arab League brokered an agreement with President Assad, which we welcomed. That plan required the Syrian Government to implement an immediate ceasefire and end all violence; to withdraw their military from all Syrian cities and towns; to release all prisoners and detainees; to provide access for Arab League committees and international media; and to begin comprehensive engagement with the opposition. Implementation was to take place within two weeks.
Apart from token measures, the Syrian Government have failed to implement the plan. Instead, the repression has escalated and at least 60 more people have died. The Arab League is due to meet this weekend to review the situation. We urge it to respond swiftly and decisively with diplomatic pressure to enforce the agreement, with the support of the international community. To us, these developments confirm that President Assad must step aside and allow others to take forward the political transition that the country desperately needs.
We will work to intensify pressure on Assad and his regime. On 14 October we reinforced EU measures to include sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria, the largest in the country. These sanctions, including the embargo on imports of oil from Syria into the EU, are already restricting sources of finance to the regime. We are working with our European partners on a further round of sanctions to be applied soon if the Syrian Government do not take immediate action to end the violence.
Turning to Iran, today the International Atomic Energy Agency will deliver its report on military aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. The report lays out clearly and objectively the evidence that the agency has uncovered of Iran’s development of nuclear weapons technology. The board of governors of the IAEA will convene later this month to consider these grave findings. The assertions of recent years by Iran that its nuclear programme is wholly for peaceful purposes are completely discredited by the report. Iran is ramping up its production of uranium enrichment to levels for which it has no plausible civilian use, but which could easily and quickly be converted into weapons-grade material. The uncovering of the recent plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States also shows Iran’s apparent willingness to sponsor terrorism outside its borders.
Iran needs to change direction. We want a negotiated solution and have extended the hand of reconciliation to Iran time and time again. We are prepared to have further talks, but only if Iran is prepared to engage in serious negotiations about its nuclear programme without preconditions. If not, we must continue to increase the pressure, and we are considering with our partners a range of additional measures to that effect. Iran’s actions not only run counter to the positive change that we are seeing elsewhere in the region; they may threaten to undermine it, bringing about a nuclear arms race in the middle east or the risk of conflict.
The events in the Arab spring and mounting concern over Iran’s nuclear programme do not detract from the urgent need to make progress on the middle east peace process. I repeat our calls for negotiations on a two-state solution without delay and without preconditions, based on the timetable set out in the Quartet statement of 23 September. In our view, the parameters for a Palestinian state are those affirmed by the European Union as a whole: borders based on 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps; a just, fair and realistic solution for refugees; and agreement on Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.
Israel’s announcement last week that it would accelerate the construction of 2,000 settlement housing units was wrong and deeply counter-productive. That was the eighth announcement of settlement expansion in six months. We also condemn the decision to withhold tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, which was provocative and against Israel’s own interests, as it has direct implications for the Palestinian Authority’s ability to maintain effective security in the west bank. We call on Israel to revoke both those decisions. We are also concerned about the situation in Gaza and the constant risk of an escalation in violence. We believe the Israeli restrictions harm ordinary Palestinians, inhibit economic development, and strengthen rather than weaken Hamas. It will be both right and directly in Israel’s interest if it permits increased imports of building materials for UN projects and for the private sector in Gaza; allows legitimate exports to traditional markets in the west bank and Israel; and reduces restrictions on civilian movement between Gaza and the west bank.
On Friday, the admissions committee of the Security Council will conclude its consideration of the Palestinian application and produce a report summarising Council members’ views on whether Palestine meets the criteria for membership under the United Nations charter. As that could now soon be followed by a vote in the UN Security Council, it is appropriate to inform the House of the Government’s intentions.
The United Kingdom judges that the Palestinian Authority largely fulfils criteria for UN membership, including statehood, as far as the reality of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories allows, but its ability to function effectively as a state would be impeded by that situation. A negotiated end to the occupation is the best way to allow Palestinian aspirations to be met in reality and on the ground. We will not vote against the application because of the progress the Palestinian leadership have made towards meeting the criteria, but nor can we vote for it while our primary objective remains a return to negotiations through the Quartet process and the success of those negotiations.
For those reasons, in common with France and in consultation with our European partners, the United Kingdom will abstain on any vote on full Palestinian membership of the UN. We reserve the right to recognise a Palestinian state bilaterally at a moment of our choosing and when it can best help to bring about peace. The United Kingdom will continue to be one of the principal supporters of Palestinian state-building efforts, assisting the Palestinians to tackle poverty, build institutions and boost their economy. If their application to the UN Security Council fails, the Palestinian leadership have indicated that they may take the issue to a vote at the UN General Assembly, where different voting procedures and different considerations apply. We and the other countries of the European Union will continue to emphasise that any proposition put to the General Assembly must make a return to negotiations more likely.
For Israel, the only means of averting unilateral applications to the UN is a return to negotiations. A demonstration of political will and leadership is needed from both sides to break the current impasse. This includes the Israeli Government being prepared to make a more decisive offer than any they have been willing to make in the past.
The middle east peace process cannot be viewed in isolation from the rest of the region. In each country there is a huge opportunity for peaceful change, the advancement of human rights and economic development. The decisions they take now will affect their future security and prosperity, and we urge all of them to take the path of reform.
That was my message on my visit to north Africa last month, when I also travelled to Morocco and Algeria, and to Mauritania, making the first visit by any British Minister to that country. I welcome the fact that during my visit the Government of Mauritania announced that they will reopen an embassy in London. In all these countries I discussed political reform and declared our willingness to support projects through our Arab partnership initiative. That is already providing £6.6 million this year to projects that promote freedom of speech and political participation, support the rule of law, tackle corruption and help small business and entrepreneurs. Across the region we are working with the BBC and the British Council to develop new programmes to strengthen public debate, drawing on our country’s long tradition and expertise in these areas.
Tunisia has set an example of what can be achieved peacefully. Its elections on 23 October were the first free elections of the Arab spring and the first in that country’s history. This is a remarkable achievement. We look to those who have been elected to the constituent assembly to work together in forming a Government.
In Egypt, we welcome the decision of the high election commission to allow international NGOs to monitor its parliamentary elections on 28 November. On his visit to Egypt last month, the Deputy Prime Minister emphasised the need for a clear road map to democracy, and announced UK Arab partnership support to assist the democratic process and economic reform.
In Bahrain, we await the report of the independent commission of inquiry into the unrest in February and March, which has been deferred until 23 November. This report is a major opportunity and important test for the Bahraini Government to show they take their human rights obligations seriously and will adhere to international standards. We stand ready to help them implement recommendations from the report. In the meantime, we continue to encourage the authorities to address allegations of human rights abuses that are reportedly still occurring and remain of great concern.
In Yemen, finally, the political impasse is deepening insecurity and poverty. On 21 October, we helped to secure Security Council resolution 2014, which was adopted unanimously and signals clearly to President Saleh that the only way to meet the aspirations of the Yemeni people is to begin a transition on the basis of the Gulf Co-operation Council’s initiative. We will continue to work with others to support a peaceful and orderly transition in Yemen.
Each country in the region has to find its own way, and we will work with Governments who strive to bring about greater political and economic freedom in their countries. The Government will work with international partners to maintain peace and security, promote democratic development and uphold the interests of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, although the fact that it has been made today, reducing Opposition time, is a matter of regret.
This is the first statement we have had on foreign and Commonwealth affairs since NATO’s Operation Unified Protector ended, after seven months of operations at sea and in the air. I am sure the whole House wants to pay tribute to the armed forces of all nations involved, and in particular to commend the professionalism of the British service personnel who have been involved in protecting the Libyan civilian population.
While we are dealing with matters related to armed conflicts in north Africa and elsewhere, could the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether reports today are true that the British Government intend to support efforts to change the position agreed in the 2008 convention on cluster munitions and permit the use of certain cluster munitions bombs produced after 1980? He will, I hope, take this opportunity of his response to agree with me that the achievement of the previous Government, taking a lead in reaching international agreement to prohibit the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions, was significant and should not now be reneged upon. I also welcome the steps, set out by the Foreign Secretary, that are being taken by the Government in Libya—and indeed Tunisia and Egypt—to translate popular uprising into stable democratic government.
In his last statement, the Foreign Secretary promised
“to increase the pressure on the regime”—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 496.]
in Syria. Last Wednesday, he issued a statement saying that he commends
“the Arab League’s efforts in pursuing this initiative to stop the violence in Syria”.
Of course the diplomatic involvement of Syria’s neighbours in ending the violence would be welcome, but in his statement today he acknowledged that the situation in Syria has in fact deteriorated, with the UN stating that the death toll now exceeds 3,500. Sixty people have been reported killed since the Arab League began its involvement, many in the city of Homs. Can the Foreign Secretary therefore give his assessment of the realistic prospects for the Arab League’s process, given this continuing pattern of violence? Can he also set out more specifically in his response what steps the British Government are urging on the Arab League when it meets this weekend?
Let me turn to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report, which we are given to understand indicates that Iran has carried out tests
“relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”.
The Foreign Secretary should be assured that he therefore has our full support in making clear to the Iranians their obligations under international law, our shared opposition to Iran developing a nuclear weapon—a step that would not only threaten Israel and Iran’s immediate neighbours but the security of the whole region—and the need for Iran, as he put it, to change direction.
In the last statement to the House, the Foreign Secretary said,
“We are working on further sanctions”—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 502.]
on Iran. Given that the case for further diplomatic measures will be strengthened by this latest IAEA report, can he now tell the House what progress has been made in developing those further sanctions? Can he also give his assessment of the implications of this news for proliferation across the region, given that none of us wants to see a nuclear arms race in such a volatile part of the world? Finally, can he give his assessment of what prospects there are for further action at the United Nations level, given the stated positions of both China and Russia?
I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has given a more substantive update on the situation in Bahrain in today’s statement than was given in his previous statement. In our last exchange on the issue, the Foreign Secretary accepted that
“national dialogue has not yet been successful in bringing everybody together in Bahrain.”
Given his statement today that human rights abuses are still being reported, can the Foreign Secretary give his assessment of whether the prospects for national dialogue have improved?
In his last statement the Foreign Secretary also said:
“We attach great importance to the publication”
of the report of the independent commission of inquiry into human rights abuses. At that time he said he expected the report on 30 October, but that has now been pushed back to 23 November. Can he explain why? Will he commit today to setting out the British Government’s reaction in a written or oral statement to the House when that report is finally published?
Let me turn to the issue of Israel and Palestine. The need for progress on this conflict has, if anything, become more urgent in light of the recent changes in the region, which have only increased the Palestinians’ desire for statehood and have shaken some of the core assumptions that have underpinned Israel’s security in past decades. What is the Foreign Office’s best assessment of the likely impact of the announcement by the Israeli Government of 2,000 more settlement units and threats to withhold Palestinian tax revenues, which the Foreign Secretary condemned, on the Quartet’s attempts to facilitate a return to talks? Will he also join me in condemning the latest rocket attacks on the people of Israel?
The House is aware that, as the Opposition, we set out our position on the issue of Palestinian recognition on 20 September, and that in a letter to the Foreign Secretary on that date I said that the case made by the Palestinians for recognition at the United Nations as a state was strong. I said that the British Government should be willing to support the recognition of Palestinian statehood as part of continuing steps to achieve a comprehensive two-state solution, but I also said at the time that there remains a heavy onus on the British Government and other members of the international community to work to ensure that any change in the level of Palestinian recognition is followed by meaningful negotiations between the parties.
The Foreign Secretary rightly stated that the goal of all diplomatic efforts should be a two-state solution brought about by negotiations. On 13 October, he told the House:
“Our words are all directed towards trying to bring about the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. How we act in the Security Council or on any motion that may come before the UN General Assembly will be determined by how we can bring about a resumption of negotiations.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 497-502.]
Yet today the Foreign Secretary has been unable to explain his decision in reference to negotiations that have resumed. That is because no meaningful negotiations are taking place. After his statement today, many Members in all parts of the House will still be struggling to see how a decision to abstain is likely to help bring about resumed negotiations.
Given the absence of any meaningful negotiations between the parties at present, a point which I am sure the Foreign Secretary will not dispute, can he tell the House how his position of having no position is likely to advance the peace process? This decision announced by the Government today represents a further acceptance of and accommodation to a wider pattern of failure—failure to achieve meaningful negotiations, failure to meet the aspirations of the Palestinians and, indeed, the Israeli people, and continued failure by the international community to find a way through the present impasse.
Given the Government’s decision announced today, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the likely consequences of the Palestinians’ bid for statehood being rejected in the Security Council? How will the Government cast their vote when the issue comes before the United Nations General Assembly? The House deserves a clear answer on this question. I hope in his response the Foreign Secretary will be able to offer a clearer sense of what he now regards as the realistic path forward to a negotiated two-state solution, which I sense the whole House is united in continuing to support.
I am grateful, as ever, to the right hon. Gentleman. He asked about a report on a different subject, cluster munitions, but I will deal with it quickly. There is an Adjournment debate about this tomorrow, I think, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will deal with and set out the position in more detail. We certainly do not want to weaken what has been agreed in the past, so it is important not to believe everything written in newspapers on this subject, as on so many subjects.
On the questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked about Syria, yes, I think it is absolutely right for us to commend the efforts of the Arab League, without being able to have a huge amount of optimism about whether they will be successful. It is very good that the Arab League is engaged with the issue in a united way, and that pressure from within the region among the Arab states is being applied to the Assad regime. As in so many of these situations, that is far more likely to succeed than any pressure from western nations.
It is right to commend that pressure, but as I indicated in describing the events of the past week, matters have not improved since the putative deal with the Arab League was done, so it is important now for the Arab League to reinforce the pressure that it is applying to the Assad regime. There is a range of measures that the Arab League can take, from suspending Syria from the Arab League to much more concerted diplomatic pressure. It would be quite a major step for the Arab League to go beyond that, given its customary practices, but it is for the Arab League to consider. We will not try to lay down what it should do. We will continue to intensify our own pressure. We have already agreed in the EU sanctions on 56 individuals and 19 entities—importantly, as I say, on the Commercial Bank of Syria as well. That pressure will continue to increase on what is a completely deplorable and unacceptable situation in Syria.
On Iran, I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for much of what I said about Iran. He asked what the report meant for proliferation in the region. It is bad news about proliferation in the region. The principal problem with Iran’s nuclear programme is that it threatens to drive a coach and horses through the non-proliferation treaty. Iran is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. It makes it much more likely that other states in the region will develop their own nuclear weapons programmes. Then the world’s most unstable region will be in possession of the world’s most destructive weapons. We have to take this situation with the greatest seriousness. Further action at the United Nations is difficult, given the positions of Russia and China, but I think it will be important for all the Security Council members to study the IAEA report and the forthcoming outcome of the board of governors meeting, and there will be a strong case for further discussions at the United Nations.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what further pressure we are considering. We have already introduced unprecedented UN and European Union sanctions on Iran. We are working to ensure their robust implementation to close loopholes and to discourage trade with Iran. We are in discussions about increasing this pressure, and we are also considering further unilateral measures, should Iran fail to comply with its responsibilities. Although I cannot go into precise detail now on the sanctions that we are considering, we are looking at additional measures against the Iranian financial sector and the oil and gas sector, and the designation of further entities and individuals involved with its nuclear programme.
On Bahrain, an assessment of whether the national dialogue will lead to success is, again, difficult to give. Some honest efforts have been made to reinforce and carry out that dialogue, but they have certainly not yet produced general agreement in Bahrain on the way forward. The right hon. Gentleman asked me to explain why the report of the commission of inquiry had been delayed. That is a matter for the Bahraini Government rather than for me to explain, but I hope it signals—[Interruption.] Well, one can take it as good news or bad news. I hope it signals that this is going to be a serious report when it is published on 23 November. Certainly, the composition of the inquiry suggests that its members will want to produce a very serious report. That is why we should attach great importance to it. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether, when the report is published, we would give the Government’s reaction in a statement of whatever kind, including a written statement. We will certainly do that.
On the middle east peace process, the right hon. Gentleman asked whether actions are helping, including the settlement announcements. Clearly, they are not helping; nor are the rocket attacks on Israel, which he rightly pointed to. He pointed out that his position—and it is our position as well—is that any change in the status of Palestine at the United Nations must be accompanied by or followed by a return to meaningful negotiations. I think that there is common ground on that across the House, but it is how to act on that basis that gives rise to differences on how we should vote at the UN Security Council.
We consider there to be no substitute for negotiations under the Quartet process, which we obviously want to get going. We believe that it is vital for Israel and the Palestinians to embrace the opportunity to take the Quartet process forward, but we also believe that voting for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations at this moment would reduce the incentives for the Palestinians and the willingness of Israelis to find a negotiated solution. I fully respect a different point of view, but that is our judgment on the matter and that of most, if not all, European Governments in and outside the European Union.
A further factor in our decision is the fact that there has been a serious European effort to bring about a resumption of negotiations by supporting the Quartet. That effort will continue. I do not expect any of our European partners to vote at the Security Council for Palestinian membership. A serious divergence in our voting behaviour at the Security Council at this point would disrupt and complicate European efforts to revive and support negotiations.
Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If I am to accommodate a reasonable number of them within the very heavy time pressures we face, extreme brevity from Back and Front Benches alike is vital. The way can be led by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr Richard Ottaway.
The Foreign Secretary has confirmed that the IAEA will be publishing a critical report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Does he agree that we must ensure that the choice does not come down to a military strike against Iran on the one hand, or a nuclear Iran on the other? Even though the Russians do not want to get involved, will he mobilise the international community to bring back the toughest sanctions possible before we are caught between a rock and a hard place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the urgency of the situation. I hope no one in the world wants to be confronted with the choice he refers to. That is why our dual-track approach is so important; we are prepared to negotiate with Iran through the E3 plus 3, but at the same time we can increase the peaceful and legitimate pressure. It is a peaceful pressure, but it is an increasingly strong economic pressure through the sanctions we are applying. That is designed very much to avert the terrible choice to which he refers.
I commend the Foreign Secretary for making his announcement on Palestinian statehood to the House first and wish that more Cabinet Ministers would do the same. Is it not clear from what he said about the expansion of illegal settlements, the fact that President Obama, as we have heard, has to deal with Mr Netanyahu every day and the fact that still nothing is happening that an abstention at the United Nations would simply be an abdication of responsibility and achieve nothing?
As I said, I think that will be the position of many of our partners and many members of the Security Council, based on our best judgment of what is likely to bring about a return to negotiations. The shadow Foreign Secretary rightly said that such meaningful negotiations are not taking place at the moment, but the best chance for a viable, durable Palestinian state living in peace with Israel is for such negotiations to be resumed and to succeed. It is certainly our judgment at the moment that a positive vote at the UN Security Council would not help to bring about a return to negotiations. I entirely respect a legitimate alternative view, but that is our judgment and that of the French Government and many of our colleagues.
I fully support everything my right hon. Friend said about Syria, Libya, Iran and Bahrain, but I hope that he will forgive me for registering my profound disappointment that the United Kingdom will abstain in Friday’s vote in support of Palestinian membership of the United Nations. Does he understand that many on both sides of the House, and indeed in the country, believe that such a decision is wrong in principle, is ultimately against British interests and will reduce our influence in the region?
Clearly I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend on that point. British interests are in a negotiated settlement; we have no higher interest than that in the middle east peace process. We want to see successful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians leading to a two-state solution. We have to act in a way that is consistent with that and supports it. There are differences of opinion on how best to do that, but our judgment is that it can best be done by acting in this way. It is also the general judgment of our European partners. He is a strong enthusiast of Britain acting with our European partners, but we would be going in the opposite direction if we were to vote differently. I am often asked to ensure that we work closely with our European partners, but when such a situation arises people want me to go in a different direction.
I endorse entirely the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). Will the Foreign Secretary please think again about this? His argument seems entirely tactical, yet there is absolutely no evidence that holding back from a decision to vote for this, which I think he would otherwise support, will encourage Israel to come to the table. Surely the whole weight of the argument is that Israel will come to the table only if the international community is firm with it.
I did not notice under the previous Government a dramatic recognition of Palestine or support for its membership of the United Nations—[Interruption.] It seems the right hon. Gentleman is still learning as he goes along. He is right that the judgment is largely tactical. Our tactical judgment is that this is the best way to proceed at this moment in the peace process when we are faced with this particular situation. We strongly support the successful creation of a viable Palestinian state. As I pointed out in my statement, under successive Governments the UK has been one of the biggest supporters of that in so many ways, including financially, and the judgment takes nothing away from that, but we believe that we have to maximise the incentives for Palestinians to re-enter negotiations without setting many preconditions and the willingness of Israelis to find a negotiated solution, however frustrated many of us may be with them, and we believe that that is best served by voting in the way I have described.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN and the EU have all assessed the performance of the Palestinian Authority and reported that they are ready for statehood and that, therefore, the consequences of an abstention at the Security Council on 11 November will be severe? Our partners in the middle east look on amazed while we support the right to self-determination in every other country in the region but deny the Palestinians the same right. I strongly urge him to order a reconsideration of the matter and exercise a positive vote at the Security Council.
As my right hon. Friend well appreciates, Palestinians are in a different situation. We strongly support their right to a state and a two-state solution in the middle east, but all concerned must concede that such a state can come into meaningful existence only as a result of successful negotiations with Israel. That is where we must direct our efforts. It is not right at this time to vote for a resolution that is not linked to negotiations. That would give the impression that there is a better way of proceeding than returning to negotiations. At this moment there is no better way.
I support the Foreign Secretary’s view that only direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will solve the conflict. Does he consider that in the current situation the Palestinians are refusing to go back to the negotiating table because they regard the unilateral declaration as an alternative to negotiations in which they would have to recognise Israel?
The hon. Lady’s point is related to the one I am making, which is that we should not encourage the idea that at this moment there is a substitute for negotiations that will bring about a Palestinian state, because realistically there is not. That is why we have taken this position. I think the Palestinians should be ready to re-enter negotiations without setting additional preconditions, but I also think that Israel has to enter negotiations with a readiness to make a much more decisive and—if I may describe it like this—generous offer to the Palestinians than it has been prepared to make for many years. Both things are necessary to bring about a successful negotiation.
Is it not the case that the UN process is a distraction from the biggest obstacle to what we all want to see, which is an independent Palestine living alongside a secure state of Israel? That biggest obstacle is the unchecked nuclear ambition of Iran. It is simply inconceivable that the Israeli people will accept another state becoming a base for Iranian proxies in the way that south Lebanon and Syria have been until we sort out the problem of Iran.
It is certainly true that the behaviour of Iran makes peace in the middle east a much more difficult goal to attain. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. However, I would say—and I do say—to Israeli leaders that the conduct of Iran makes it all the more important for them to settle their differences with the Palestinians and seek to arrive at a two-state solution. That is a very important aspect of the argument as well.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is little chance of a united international, and therefore effective and peaceful, response to the Iranian nuclear weaponisation programme unless other regional players take a lead in those international forums? Is there any chance—has he seen any sign—of their preparedness to do so?
There is a lot in what the right hon. Gentleman says. It is very important that strong international concern is expressed beyond western nations and United Nations Security Council members. He will know that there is immense anxiety in the Arab world about, for instance, the behaviour and intentions of Iran. We do look to those countries to take a stronger public position in the coming months than the positions they have been prepared to take in recent years.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Netanyahu has in the past couple of days announced a dismantling of illegal settlements? That could mean more settlers being removed than since the evacuation of Gaza, which led to increased terrorism. Does he agree that it is difficult to support a Palestinian state when part of it is still controlled by terrorists funded by Iran?
I am aware of announcements made by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Nevertheless, I say to my hon. Friend that the overall effect of Israeli settlement announcements is very negative, is the wrong judgment and does not help the peace process. We should be absolutely clear about that. I readily agree with him on his second point. Clearly, the situation in Gaza—the continued intransigence of Hamas—certainly does not help the peace process or help to persuade Israelis that a partner for peace is available to them.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Palestine’s bid for membership of the United Nations is a lawful one and that it asks no more than the recognition that Israel has demanded as non-negotiable for itself and which was granted by the United Nations 63 years ago? When lawful acts like this and the recent UNESCO decision to admit Palestine to membership are met with reprisals through accelerated settlement building, financial boycotts and attempts in the Israeli Parliament and on the streets of Jerusalem to gag Jewish Israeli groups that dare to speak out for peace and human rights, how is it credible for the UK to sit on its hands and abstain? The time has come to make up our minds.
There are two points to respond to. It is certainly entirely wrong to respond to votes such as the one that took place in UNESCO with reprisals of any kind—with announcements of new settlement construction and the withholding of tax revenues. That aggravates and escalates a difficult situation and does not help Israel any more than it helps Palestinians.
The hon. Gentleman said that we are sitting on our hands. The important point is that, across all the European nations involved in these matters, we are absolutely not sitting on our hands. We are trying to get negotiations going again through the Quartet, the work of Baroness Ashton—the EU High Representative—and all the representations that the United Kingdom, France and Germany make. We are all highly active in that regard. However, at this moment in the very difficult fortunes of the peace process, it is consistent with that approach for us to act in the way I have described.
Will my right hon. Friend re-evaluate the travel ban in parts of Kenya, particularly in Malindi, which is an important tourist resort where thousands of African workers have no work and are likely to be—or could be—recruited by terrorists? Many local people believe it is now safe.
As it is clearly a waste of time asking the right hon. Gentleman to reverse his deplorable decision on Palestinian membership of the United Nations, may I ask him to endorse the French President’s character reference of the Israeli Prime Minister?
Well, it will not last for ever. I do not think the Israeli Government regard me—or the position of the United Kingdom—as patient on this subject because we have spoken to them extremely frankly about what they need to do. Nevertheless, however frustrated we are, we all have to recognise that the resumption of negotiations is the only way to bring about the Palestinian state that we seek. We have to act in a way that is in accordance with that, which is why we have taken the decision we have.
The Iranian regime is dreadful. Its tyranny is notorious and we all condemn it—at least I hope we all do. Does the Foreign Secretary accept, however, that any military attack on that regime would be counter-productive and have devastating consequences in the region? Will he give a commitment now that under no circumstances will this country be involved directly or indirectly in any such attack?
It is always right to warn against all the unknowable consequences in any situation of military action but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, our concentration is on efforts to negotiate with Iran and apply peaceful pressure to it. We are not calling for or advocating military action, but we have also always made it clear under successive Governments—this remains our position—that no option has been taken off the table.
Two matters are now clear beyond peradventure in relation to Iran. First, that Iran is in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons; secondly, that the existing sanctions regime has not worked at all in seeking to deter it from that course. Russia and China stand in the way of the further sanctions that my right hon. Friend has indicated it would be the Government’s intention to seek, but we have friends in the middle east who can exercise their own pressure on both Russia and China. Will he give an undertaking that that is precisely what the Government will seek to do with those friends in the middle east?
Yes. As I emphasised to the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the former Secretary of State for Defence, it is very important that the pressure does not just come from western nations. It is very important that there is increased pressure and attention on the matter throughout the middle east, and we will certainly be seeking to encourage that.
May I welcome what the Foreign Secretary said about addressing legacy issues arising from the Gaddafi regime, particularly his explicit reference to IRA terrorism? I look forward to continuing to work with him and his team in the Foreign Office on that issue. On Israel, has he any evidence to suggest that recognition of a Palestinian state would encourage Hamas and those like them, including Iran, to stop their support for the annihilation of Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people?
I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman says about the legacy issues. Of course, we will continue to work with him and others on these subjects. We have no evidence that what he describes would be the result. That underlines, of course, the importance of a negotiated solution. Passing motions in the United Nations will not resolve the issue, but a successful negotiation between Israel and Palestine would do so.
The Foreign Secretary’s statement seemed to focus very much on the actions of Israel rather than on the actions of the Palestinian Authority, which continues to threaten the state of Israel and not to do enough about terrorist attacks on Israel. However, may I urge him to look again at whether we abstain? Surely we should be voting against this unilateral and provocative act that will do nothing to bring anybody to the negotiating table.
We will not vote against it, for the reasons I gave in my statement. I disagree with my hon. Friend a little on this. In recent years, under President Abbas, the Palestinian Authority has done a very good job of building up many of the attributes of statehood. In particular, the work of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has been excellent in this regard. We must not lose sight of that. On the other hand, of course, there is Gaza and the behaviour of Hamas; the Palestinian Authority is not in control of that situation, so I can meet my hon. Friend halfway on that. The Palestinians have done a good job of building up many of the attributes of a state, and that is why we could not countenance voting against this resolution.
But surely the Foreign Secretary must understand that an abstention in these circumstances is equivalent to a no vote. Does he understand the despair that this will cause, and does he not accept that this will encourage Hamas and undermine President Abbas, who, as he said, has done so much to try to forward the peace process?
No, I do not agree with that. President Abbas has always understood that such an application would not succeed in the United Nations Security Council. After all, it is the position of the United States that it would, if necessary, veto such a resolution. There is no Palestinian expectation that this application would succeed in the Security Council. What is important is what comes after this discussion. Of course, we want to see the resumption of negotiations in the Quartet. If that does not work, I think that the Palestinians will return relatively quickly to the United Nations General Assembly, where, as I said, different considerations will apply because the terms of any resolution there have yet to be framed. We will do our utmost to ensure that any such resolution helps the return to negotiations.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the conflict is a political one that can be resolved only at the negotiating table, and that the talks should resume as soon as possible without any preconditions? May I therefore urge him, as have other Government Members, to reconsider and vote no against any application?
My hon. Friend is right that it is a political problem that requires a political solution. There is no legal solution that can be imposed in this respect; a successful political process is required. I agree with him about that. However, for the reasons I gave earlier about the very good work that has taken place in the Palestinian Authority in moving itself towards statehood, we would be unable to vote against its application for membership of the United Nations.
Many people listening to the statement will be very surprised that the Foreign Secretary devoted so much more time to criticising Israel than to criticising Iran’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons, which threaten the stability of the entire region and could trigger a regional arms race and threaten Israel’s very existence. In addition, he did not have a single word to say about terrorist attacks on Israel sponsored by Iran. What conversations has he had with his international counterparts about an increased sanctions regime and any other measures designed to bring Iran to its senses?
I have set all that out already, so I do not want to repeat myself. I covered a very wide range of subjects in the statement. I do not think our concern about each subject should be measured by the number of words on it. The middle east peace process is a particularly complex matter that therefore requires a good, detailed explanation. I think that what I have said about Iran is very clear, and I set out in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary how we are proceeding on additional measures.
The Foreign Secretary was right to say that Tunisia has set an example of what can be achieved peacefully, and its first free elections are a remarkable achievement. He will recall that the events that triggered the downfall of the undemocratic Government in Tunisia were caused primarily by economic hardship. What can the UK and its allies do to ensure that there is an economic recovery in north Africa to underpin the positive political progress we have seen?
There is an enormous opportunity to create much stronger economic and trading links between the whole of Europe and the countries of north Africa. It is part of the excitement and the vision that is now possible in the Arab spring that we can envisage Tunisia, Libya and, we hope, Egypt opening up economically, provided that we open up to them. It is now vital that we implement the European neighbourhood policy agreed in May, including better market access into Europe for products, including agricultural products, from north Africa to begin that process of much stronger links between our countries.
One hundred and seven hon. Members from across this House have signed a motion in support of Palestinian statehood at the UN. Surely at a time when the negotiations have virtually stalled, one way of kick-starting them is to get a positive vote for the Palestinians at the UN. If, as it is said, they are one vote short of achieving that, it would be an absolute disgrace for this country to sit on the fence.
The difference of judgment is on whether voting for the application in the current situation at the UN Security Council would help a return to negotiations. Our view, and the view of the Government of France and many other Governments, is that it would not do so—that such a vote, if we all voted in that way, would reduce the incentives for Palestinians, and the willingness of Israelis, to engage successfully in negotiations. We differ only on that point. I entirely respect the legitimate view that we should vote in favour, for all the reasons the right hon. Lady and others have put, but our overall judgment is that a return to negotiations is best served by the course I have set out.
This year, although on separate occasions, my right hon. Friend and I were the first British MPs to visit Mauritania since its independence in 1960, when the Father of the House visited. This shows the previous Government’s lack of engagement with Francophone north Africa. I very much hope that as a result of my right hon. Friend’s visit we will give due consideration to establishing an embassy in Nouakchott and issuing a speedy invite for the President of Mauritania to come and meet the Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend blazed a trail by being the first British MP to go to Mauritania in a very long time. I can assure him that people there are still talking about his visit, and they will be for a long time to come. I strongly welcome the work that he has undertaken. We now have one diplomat based in Nouakchott, and of course we may want to expand that presence in future. I do not want to go any further than that at the moment.
The Foreign Secretary rightly drew attention to our need to have dialogue with the Arab League, and possibly Turkey, about Iran and Syria. Does he accept that while we do not buy friendship with those we work with, nevertheless the decision announced today about the vote on Palestine will not be well understood by our friends in the Arab world?
I think the situation in the Security Council is quite well understood in the Arab world. As I pointed out to one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, there has been no serious expectation that a bid to the Security Council could be successful; given the position of the United States, it is not possible for it to be successful. What matters, therefore, is what happens next. It is very well understood in the Arab world that we have been increasing the pressure on Israel and increasing our condemnation of actions such as the settlement activity undertaken by Israel, and that we are doing our utmost to restart negotiations.
I strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s support for enhanced but peaceful pressure on Iran. Will he confirm that our preferred approach for more aggressive intervention in other states by anyone is that there should be a strong legal and humanitarian justification, regional support and, if possible, explicit sanction by the United Nations?
My hon. Friend is quoting me back at myself in what I have said about the strengths of our intervention in Libya. I have said that any necessary intervention is greatly strengthened by such things and that they are, and remain, criteria for us. Clearly, we are not advocating military action; we are advocating an increase in peaceful, legitimate pressure, as well as the continued offer of negotiations.
Will the Foreign Secretary call on the Turkish Government to end their criminalisation of legitimate democratic Kurdish organisations and, in particular, will he condemn the arrest of the Assembly Member, Büsra Ersanli, the veteran writer and publisher, Ragip Zarakolu, and many others on clearly politically inspired charges?
We do raise human rights cases with Turkey and I will certainly consider the cases that the hon. Gentleman has described. We will have many detailed discussions with Turkey because of the state visit of the President of Turkey in two weeks’ time. I will look at those cases ahead of that visit.
Russia and China are involved in the current framework of United Nations sanctions, which is approved by the UN Security Council, including by Russia and China. It is important that we do not have the impression that those countries are not concerned about this subject or that they have not been helpful on many occasions. It is true that we would go further, however. In the light of the IAEA report we will certainly want to focus minds on this subject, including in Moscow and Beijing, so there will be further discussions with both countries.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that all women doctors should be released from Bahraini prisons, that all our parliamentary colleagues in Bahrain should be able to resume their functions, and that all Ministers who sanctioned torture a few months ago should be placed on trial? We do not need to wait for a whitewash report before he can say yes on all three points.
We want human rights to be fully respected in Bahrain. It is wrong of the right hon. Gentleman to say in advance of the report that it is a whitewash. We will be able to see whether it is or not and to form our own judgment. It is wrong of him to form his judgment before its publication. It is best to respond to such things after their publication. In the meantime, we will of course continue to advocate to the Bahraini Government that they should have the maximum respect for the human rights of their citizens, just as we would expect in this country.
Iran’s continued nuclear weapons programme and the rising tensions in Israel constitute a terrifying tinderbox in the middle east. The military rhetoric from some quarters in the United States is very worrying. How is the Foreign Secretary using our improving bilateral relationships with Brazil, India and other emerging economies to increase the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran?
We always raise this issue with the emerging powers of the world. The position of such countries is generally not as favourable to sanctions, including on Iran, as our position and the general European and American position. Again, I hope that the detail of the IAEA report will increase the focus on the behaviour of Iran in countries such as Brazil and India.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that some countries believe that Britain and France should not have seats at the Security Council, but that there should be a European Union seat instead. Is he saying that when there is no consensus in the European Union and when Germany objects, we will in future abstain in the Security Council?
No, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will never agree to an EU seat at the United Nations Security Council. It is important that British and French permanent membership is continued. Of course, there are many occasions on which we vote in different directions. However, on the middle east peace process, the EU has worked together to pursue a determined initiative in a united way, working with Cathy Ashton, so there is a premium on European unity being maintained on this issue.
We are entering a more dangerous phase—let me put it that way. When the IAEA report is officially published, everybody will be able to see what it says. Of course, the longer Iran pursues a nuclear weapons programme without responding adequately to calls for negotiation from the rest of us, the greater the risk of a conflict will be.
The importance of involving women in post-conflict situations is well known. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what support that the Government are providing to countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia is going specifically towards ensuring that women are fully involved in the development of democracy?