House of Commons
Tuesday 17 April 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 24 April (Standing Order No. 20).
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the promoters of the London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2007-08 on 22 January 2008, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Tuesday 24 April.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
12. What recent assessment he has made of the political and security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (102862)
My colleagues and I regularly discuss Afghanistan with our NATO counterparts, as we will in Brussels this week. Although the situation remains challenging, transition is on track. The main NATO summit in Chicago will send a clear signal of the international community’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan.
The vast bulk of the ISAF troop-contributing countries remain clear about the commitment to the end of 2014 as the time when the transition to Afghan security control will be complete. The United Kingdom is fully in line with that. We have said that British troops will not have a combat role after that point or be there in anything like the numbers they are now. That position is unaffected by announcements by any other countries.
Yes, I very much agree with that. Of course, there have been conferences of regional nations—promoted by Turkey, for instance. The co-operation of Pakistan with the Government of Afghanistan is of prime importance, and I am delighted that there has been a distinct improvement in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent months. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has also toured central Asian countries to the north of Afghanistan, encouraging their co-operation with that country.
The tragic events of Sunday afternoon in Kabul are yet more evidence that the idea of a transition to Afghan national forces is an objective that has been construed independently of any real long-term political solution—aid militarised, corruption endemic. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore accept that we should bring our brave troops home now, rather than waiting until yet more lives have been lost?
No; one of the things we saw from the incident on Sunday was the increasing ability of Afghan security forces to deal with a major incident on their own. It was the Afghan forces that killed or captured all the insurgents concerned. Of course, they need time for that capability to be built up further, and we are giving them that time by having our troops engaged in Afghanistan—including in combat—up to the end of 2014. If we did not do that, those forces would not be ready for the full task, and we would be letting down the people of Afghanistan and the people who have done so much work over the last decade.
I suggest that British Governments have long failed to understand that given the available resources, ISAF and Afghan forces will not defeat the Taliban. Is it therefore not now time to drop the unrealistic preconditions to talks with the Taliban and explore possible common ground—including differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda—for our possible mutual benefit? We can be proud of our soldiers, but I suggest that it is now time for the politicians to step up to the plate.
My hon. Friend knows that we are fully in favour of a process of reconciliation and that the British Government have been encouraging that—the last Government did it towards the end of their term of office and this Government have continued to do so. However, a successful reconciliation requires a readiness to reconcile on the part of the other party as well, and that has been lacking from the Taliban so far. I suspect that it would be even more lacking if we were to relax our military efforts and let the Taliban think that they could have success entirely on the battlefield.
I have listened with care to the latest answer that the Foreign Secretary has given. I welcome what seems to be his implication that these latest attacks do not detract from the case for dialogue with elements of the insurgency. However, could he tell the House what work is being done and what progress is being made—specifically, by the Afghan Government, the US Government and the British Government—in pursuit of that goal?
Progress has been made, and the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the announcement of a Taliban political office in Qatar. That was an indication of a readiness to begin a process of reconciliation. Since then, the Taliban have suspended that intention. It is not surprising that efforts at reconciliation go backwards and forwards, or that sometimes there is a readiness to engage and sometimes they move back from that. That does not mean that we stop our efforts. The important thing is to maintain all our efforts to improve security and to build a viable state in Afghanistan so that, whether or not reconciliation succeeds, the Afghan national security forces are able to maintain security in their country.
Let me turn specifically to the NATO summit in Chicago in May, which has already been mentioned. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the summit needs to agree a co-ordinated timetable for the withdrawal of NATO forces, a stable and sustainable funding arrangement for Afghan security forces and a status of forces agreement on the role of any international forces, post-2014? Does he also agree that, as well as setting those three goals, the summit must achieve genuine progress on a stable political settlement in Afghanistan, and specifically on bringing the regional powers on board in a more meaningful way than has been achieved to date?
All those things are important, of course. The timetable was set by the Lisbon summit in November 2010, and as I have said, we are sticking to it. The right hon. Gentleman’s point about funding is very important, and we are doing a lot of work to ensure that there is a clear plan and a clear commitment from sufficient countries for the funding of the Afghan national security forces after 2014. I regard that as of the highest importance in regard to what we agree in Chicago. Of course there will be a network of bilateral agreements for forces, as well as any arrangements with NATO and ISAF, including our own commitment to having an officer training academy in Afghanistan after 2014. We also continue to promote a political settlement alongside all that, but the funding arrangements will be of the greatest importance in Chicago.
For a genuine settlement to be reached, equal pressure must be applied to the Taliban and to the Afghan Government. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on whether the Americans are continuing to investigate the possibility of retaining one or more strategic bases in Afghanistan after 2014?
I am sure that the Afghan Government feel that pressure. As my hon. Friend knows, they are in favour of reconciliation; they are promoting it. President Karzai has appointed the high peace council to take forward that work, endorsed by Loya Jirga, so that work is certainly under way. The presence of American forces is a matter for the Governments of Afghanistan and the United States to reach agreement on themselves, so I cannot give my hon. Friend any new news on that.
When I was in Kabul about three weeks ago, officials made it clear that the forthcoming elections would create challenges, not only in relation to security. Accordingly, we are working with the United Nations Development Programme to support the capacity building of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, which will have responsibility for presiding over and delivering the election in 2014.
We certainly hope so. The work that is being done to train and build up the Afghan national security forces, including the police, is on track. The numbers have increased, and they now stand at 148,000. It should also be noted that not all of Afghanistan is Kandahar or Helmand; there are substantial parts of the country where security is not an issue. As a result of the transition process, half the population is now under the control of the Afghan national security forces. We will continue to work with them, but we hope that they will be responsible for the conduct of free and fair elections and be able to guarantee that security.
The Minister will know that there are concerns about the capacity of the Afghan authorities to hold presidential elections in 2014. In the light of that, what is the Government’s assessment of recent media reports that Hamid Karzai is considering stepping down a year early, thereby triggering an election before the withdrawal of international forces?
Of course the date of presidential elections that might be triggered by a resignation must be a matter for the Afghanistan Government and the President. That he has made clear his intention to stand down is important in the context of accepting Afghanistan’s own constitution, which limits him to two terms. If an election were to come up immediately, the Independent Election Commission has said it would be difficult, but I think the sense is that the timing is likely to be co-ordinated with the Afghan Administration’s ability to hold such an election. It is a matter for them, but too soon an election might be very difficult, although the Independent Election Commission is working hard at improving its capacity to hold an election at the allotted time.
I am sure the Minister will agree that for the next elections in Afghanistan to be really free and fair, women must be able to participate unrestricted in the process. What action has the embassy in Kabul taken to support women in the political process, and how confident is he that such participation will be meaningful?
Again, my recent visit and one I made some months ago allowed me to talk to women who are engaged in the political process. They are conscious of the difficulties in a socially conservative structure, but also of the gains they have made over the past 10 years and of their determination to make sure that the constitution, which guarantees equality for women, is adhered to. There can be no guarantees, but we are working with women’s groups and organisations throughout the country to ensure that the constitution is lived up to and to ensure the best possible opportunities for women’s representation because their full participation is indeed crucial.
The Minister will, I hope, agree with me that British parliamentarians have a role to play in building capacity in regard both to the elections and to general parliamentary matters in Kabul. Will he therefore encourage the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is planning a trip to Kabul for British parliamentarians, to press ahead with it irrespective of security considerations?
I do not think it is ever sensible to press ahead “irrespective of security considerations”, but the point is well made: parliamentarians have an opportunity to share experiences and help in the capacity building of Parliament, which is already ongoing. I very much hope that such a visit will be able to take place in proper security conditions.
That is a key part of the capacity building of the Independent Election Commission, which has already improved the percentage of those registered. There is clearly a close correlation between ensuring proper registration and preventing fraud, and the commission is very conscious of that correlation and of the need to continue to do more. That work is ongoing, and we are confident that it will be improved further from the elections of 2009 and 2010.
The capacity of the Afghan authorities and their ability to hold free and fair elections will be crucially affected by the summit at Chicago, as the Foreign Secretary said, so we welcome his remarks about the involvement of neighbouring powers—a course of action we have urged on him for some time. Surely, however, this should also include India, Russia and Iran. Equally important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) stressed, the voice of Afghan women must be heard at the negotiating table. We must ensure that women’s rights are protected under the settlement. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that?
Of course the Bonn conference is part of the ongoing relationship of the international community with Afghanistan, and it has women represented on it. We made it an important part of our representation, and our own Minister with responsibility for dealing with violence against women—the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)—was present. We do indeed work to make sure that women’s representation is there. I come back to the point that much of this is in the hands of Afghan women themselves, who are very active and have made it clear that they do not wish to see the gains of recent years reversed. It is difficult, and no one should pretend otherwise, as it is not easily dealt with. We are confident that the opportunities will be there, that the determination of the international community will be there and that Afghanistan will be a stronger society because of the participation—political and otherwise—of women.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have candid and regular dialogues on human rights with Prime Minister Meles and others. We recently raised the plight of opposition leaders and journalists who have been arrested under Ethiopia’s counter-terrorism legislation, and we have also raised the impact that that is having on Ethiopia’s already restricted political space. We are engaging with the Government to promote best practice in the implementation of the legislation, with respect for human rights.
Discussions that I have held with the Oromia Support Group and Human Rights Watch suggest that the situation on the ground is extremely serious. For instance, 80% of male detainees have been tortured and more than 50% of female detainees have been raped, and more journalists are locked up in Ethiopia than in any other country. Would the Minister be prepared to meet me, along with representatives of those groups, to try to clarify the position, so that if it becomes clear that they are wrong and the Ethiopian Government are right, the situation can be rectified, and if it is the other way around, the issues can be taken up with the Ethiopian Government?
I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and any people he wishes to bring to see me.
It is important to bear in mind the fact that, although we recognise Ethiopia’s right to fight terrorism, that must be done in the context of observing human rights. It should also be borne in mind that there is a big difference between journalists’ reporting terrorism and their supporting it. It seems that the Ethiopian Government often do not make that distinction.
Given that between now and 2015 our colleagues in the Department for International Development will be spending £330 million a year in Ethiopia, could we not do more to bring pressure to bear on its Government to improve their human rights record? After all, should not diplomacy and aid go hand in hand?
We have great influence with the Ethiopian Government, which is why, whenever my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary or I visit the country, we have access to the Prime Minister and other Ministers. We have made it absolutely clear that they must give more space to the opposition, and must do more to respect human rights. We find it troubling that, whereas there were 150 Opposition Members in the last Ethiopian Parliament, there is now only one. We will certainly keep up the pressure, and we will continue our candid dialogues.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office works to boost trade and support the United Kingdom economy by lobbying the Governments of other countries to open markets, reduce barriers to trade, and make progress with multilateral and EU bilateral trade agreements. To support that work and promote Britain’s future prosperity, we are adding more than 100 new positions in our posts in the fastest-growing cities and regions throughout the world.
Last week, during the Prime Minister’s successful visits to Japan and Indonesia, and elsewhere in south-east Asia, he was able to welcome major deals involving 11 Airbuses for Indonesia and 1,500 new jobs in Nissan in the UK. Given the success of that visit, what steps is the Foreign Office taking to build on the trade relationships that are being fostered in those vitally important export markets?
I strongly endorse the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. Its economy is growing by 6% or 7% a year, and it is the only G20 country in south-east Asia. There are big opportunities for us—political, diplomatic and economic—in countries such as Indonesia. I am delighted that the Prime Minister’s tour of Asia was so successful, and we are working in posts and across Government to build on that success.
Britain has some of the toughest arms export rules in the world, and the Prime Minister’s recent efforts to promote the defence industry on his overseas visits will have been made within those parameters. Did he also take the opportunity to push for a strong international arms trade treaty, and what steps are the Government taking to bring that about?
In a sense, the hon. Lady has answered her own question. We have extremely tough rules on arms exports, and we are keen to promote an arms treaty. However, as is widely recognised throughout the House, it is legitimate to sell arms to people who comply with the regulations, and that is what we will do when it is appropriate.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, while giving a positive overall assessment of voting on election day, identified problems with unequal campaign conditions and serious limitations on voter choice.
We raise with Russian leaders and Russian officials, at every opportunity, our concerns about human rights in their country, and we have certainly raised with the Government of Russia our concerns about how the presidential elections, and indeed last year’s parliamentary elections, were conducted.
Following the results of the Russian elections, does my right hon. Friend anticipate any change in Russian policy towards the oil and gas producing countries of the South Caucasus? What can the British Government do to further broaden and deepen our relationships with those countries?
17. The Minister mentioned the OSCE report. It also said that irregularities occurred in up to a third of the polling stations in the Russian Federation. What representations have the Government made to the European Union for it, in turn, to put pressure on Russia to address the situation? (102868)
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he needs to acknowledge that there are limits to the leverage that the UK alone and the EU collectively have with Russia. However, we always ensure, both bilaterally and in European conversations, that the central importance of human rights and respect for democratic processes is brought home to our Russian interlocutors.
I discuss Syria regularly with EU colleagues. At the March Foreign Affairs Council, we condemned the violence of Assad’s regime and supported Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. We agreed to adopt further sanctions, including an asset freeze on two Syrian petroleum companies.
The Security Council has, I am glad to say, at last agreed a Security Council resolution. It did so on Saturday and I pay tribute to our mission at the United Nations in New York for the way in which it helped to achieve that. This resolution embodies the Kofi Annan plan, but it also sets out very clearly how the role of the monitors for the ceasefire that has now, at least partly, come into effect in Syria, should be regarded, in terms of giving them access to where they need to go and to people they need to talk to. For the first time the Security Council has passed a resolution uniting all the members of the Security Council, against which the Assad regime and its behaviour can now be judged.
We deplore that outrageous behaviour, along with the killing of 10,000 and more people throughout this conflict so far in Syria. We have expressed our strong solidarity to Turkey over that. I am not going to get into discussing hypotheses about military action by Turkey; I do not believe that that is being seriously contemplated at the moment, although, of course, continual violation of the border would be an immense provocation to Turkey. But we absolutely deplore that particular violation.
Is it not clear that the Assad regime had no intention of respecting the ceasefire and withdrawing its tanks and heavy artillery from towns and cities? As the international community accepts a responsibility to protect, will the British Government initiate urgent discussions with the Arab League, Turkey, the United States and other European countries, with a view to encouraging Arab states to close their land borders and their airspace to any traffic destined for Syria? If that were combined with a naval blockade of the Syrian coast, would it not, at the very least, prevent any further arms from being delivered to the Syrian regime?
As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, we have very tough sanctions in place, imposed through the European Union, and the Arab League has sanctions of its own. But as he will also know, some Arab League countries do not implement, or do not fully implement, those sanctions, particularly countries that are close to Syria, such as Iraq. For that reason, it is extremely difficult to impose the general blockade that my right hon. and learned Friend talks about, and arms shipments continue to reach Syria from Russia as well. Cutting off all such arms supplies without the co-operation of the countries I have mentioned is not possible. What we now have to do is try to ensure that the terms of the UN Security Council resolution are met, and clearly warn the Assad regime that if they are not met, we will be able to return to the Security Council for further measures.
Let me stay on the issue of the Security Council resolution, and echo the words of praise for the UK mission in New York. We welcome the authorising of the deployment of observers from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the fact that, as I understand it, members of the group have now started arriving in Damascus, but will the Foreign Secretary say when he expects the observer group to be up to full strength, when it will begin reporting back, and what his personal assessment is of the chances of its being able to go about its work peaceably?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to sound a sceptical note about the group’s ability to go about their work, as the Assad regime did not fully co-operate with the Arab League observers who were in the country previously. That shows the importance of passing, in the Security Council resolution, clear language about “unhindered deployment of…personnel”, full
“unimpeded and immediate freedom of movement”,
as well as “unobstructed communications” and a requirement to be able
“to freely and privately communicate with individuals throughout Syria”.
The observers will therefore be able to report on a continuous basis on whether these terms are being met, and the Security Council will then be able to debate those terms. They are terms that have been agreed by Russia and China as well as by countries such as ours. The expansion of this monitoring team into a team of several hundred, rather than 30, depends on the observance of the ceasefire, what progress is made over the coming days, and the passage of a further UN Security Council resolution.
Through the Department for International Development, we have already given about £4.5 million in support for humanitarian purposes. That goes through international agencies. That has helped to provide basic supplies and much needed emergency supplies, particularly to people on the borders with Syria, and we have offered further assistance to Turkey, which has seen large numbers of Syrians cross the border in recent times, if it requires it.
The Syrian opposition has taken steps to improve its cohesiveness. In Istanbul on 1 April, I met senior members of the Syrian National Council. I urged them to continue their efforts to provide a common platform for the opposition to Assad, including for Kurdish people, and I have doubled the financial support we provide to them for non-lethal activities.
I think the behaviour of the regime—not only in Homs now or in recent weeks, but throughout the last 13 months—can only help to solidify and intensify the opposition. It is an encouragement to them because it shows what an appalling and murderous regime they are up against. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise doubts about the intentions of the regime. It has complied with the ceasefire in the most grudging way possible, and has not yet met all its terms. It continued to kill as many people in the opposition as it could until the last possible moment. I have no doubt that it will at various stages try to obstruct the observers and that it does not necessarily intend to engage sincerely in any process of political transition. All that is true, but it is an advance to have the observers there and the Security Council resolution in place.
In the judgment of my right hon. Friend, are the tragic events in Syria a genuine national uprising against a tyrannical regime or a power struggle between the Sunni and the Shi’a and their foreign backers, which, if it results in the overthrow of the Alawite regime, could lead to tragic results for some of the other minorities in that country, including the 350,000 Christian Syrians?
I think it is much more the former than the latter—that would be the judgment I would give to my right hon. Friend. From everything I have seen of opposition activists in Syria, they are motivated by their opposition to the regime for many secular rather than religious reasons. They want to bring about a plural democratic political system in their country, so I think those are the prime motivations, but we always impress on them the need to state their commitment to protecting minorities, including the Christian minority in Syria, and I am pleased that they have now strongly stated that commitment.
Last week, I visited Jordan’s northern border with Syria, near the town of Deraa. I draw Members’ attention to the entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that will soon appear. Will the Foreign Secretary check how much of the £4.5 million being given to help refugees is going to the Jordan border, where literally thousands of Syrian refugees are coming through? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is operating on a shoestring and such relief work is often being done through the generosity of the Jordanian people themselves.
I certainly will check, and will encourage my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary to check in detail. We should be clear that if we are asked by the UNHCR or by countries bilaterally for greater assistance, we will provide that. We are providing assistance that has been requested, and we will certainly do more if necessary.
In welcoming the Annan plan, does the Foreign Secretary agree that, ironically, compliance with it entrenches the regime in situ? Is it still his wish that the Assad regime stand down, and how does he think that can be best achieved?
Of course it is our view that the Assad regime should go—that was our stated view from last summer—but as my hon. Friend knows, that is not the united view of the whole United Nations Security Council, so this resolution and the work of Kofi Annan is based on a political process. However, that is a process, as set out in the Annan plan, to lead to a plural democratic political system. Of course, the regime will try to use a ceasefire and a political process to its own advantage; but the more it is a genuine ceasefire and a genuine political process, the less it will be to the regime’s advantage.
9. What representations he has made to the Government of Israel on the increase in demolition of Palestinian houses in the last year. (102859)
I raised the issue of demolitions in the west bank with the Israeli ambassador on 23 February, and again with the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Mr Meridor, on 19 March.
I thank the Minister for that half an answer—it might have been useful to tell us what the Government said. There has been a 40% increase in demolitions in the last year, 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since the Oslo agreement was signed, and 14,000 people have been put out of East Jerusalem through the withdrawal of their right to live there. Is this not in fact ethnic cleansing, and are the Government of Israel not now heading for a racially based apartheid regime similar to South Africa?
I am happy to give the second part of the answer—now that that part of the question has been asked. The situation is as the hon. Gentleman indicated: the UN reported an increase in demolitions of some 40% last year. We have made representations to Israel on this issue, and we think the demolitions are very destructive of the peace process and the relationship that needs to be built. This has to be set in the overall context of the relationship between the Palestinian authorities and Israel, because settlements, demolitions and related issues must be part of an overall peace process, which is why we have pressed both parties to continue their engagement.
Is my hon. Friend aware that over the same period last year there were 627 rocket attacks into Israel, with an upsurge of 200 in the last month? Does my hon. Friend agree that it would help the peace process, which we all want to see furthered, if those acts of unprovoked aggression were brought to an end immediately?
We have indeed condemned the rocket attacks that have emanated from Gaza, as we have expressed concern about the increased violence in the area and attacks on civilians anywhere. My hon. Friend’s question is a measure of the difficulty of dealing with this when both sides have issues to raise about each other. That is why our pressure and our determination to see the middle east peace process develop and continue are so important. We have not lost sight of that despite all the other things going on in the region.
The increase in demolitions of Palestinian houses is one example of the approach to the west bank situation being taken by the Israeli Government. A septuagenarian from my constituency, Anthony Radcliffe, discovered another when he was detained over this weekend by the Israeli authorities in Tel Aviv, having attempted to gain peaceful access to the occupied territories in the west bank. Does the Minister agree that it is wrong that the security services of one country, Israel, can prevent a British citizen from visiting another, Palestine, and what will he do to ensure free passage for British citizens in future?
It is clear that UK citizens can visit the west bank and that they do so in ordinary circumstances, but the Israeli authorities have made it clear that they will not facilitate what they consider to be an organised protest. We have made that clear in our travel advice, and in the circumstances we have seen over the last weekend we have ensured that consular officials are available at the airport. It is within Israel’s legitimate immigration rights to do what they are doing, but clearly the situation is not comfortable. We believe that it provides further reasons why we should continue to press both parties to engage in the talks that will resolve the situation. We cannot separate the attempt being made at the weekend to mark Palestinian land day from the overall concerns of both sides.
Does the Minister not accept that what he is proposing does not work? Will he support me and others at peaceful demonstrations at events involving Israeli Olympians to highlight the plight of the Palestinians and to bring to public awareness the apartheid regime in Israel?
I understand any colleague’s desire to take part in free and peaceful process in this country, but the hon. Gentleman raises an issue that he knows is deeply contested by Israeli authorities as regards how they conduct their affairs. It is a further measure of why it is important to work on both sides to get an agreement to this long-standing dispute.
I am in regular contact with my European colleagues on Iran. Most recently my officials met Iranian representatives, alongside those of France, Germany, the United States, China and Russia, in Istanbul on Saturday to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.
EU member states make up four of the world’s 10 biggest oil importing states and OPEC has calculated that removing Iranian oil from the market would result in the loss of about 10 billion barrels a day. To maintain biting sanctions on the Iranian regime, alternative and adequate supplies of oil need to be secured. What steps are the Government taking with their EU counterparts to achieve that?
The ban on importing Iranian oil comes into force on 1 July, although most European countries have already stopped such purchases. During March, Iranian exports of crude oil reportedly fell by 14%—in just one month. That is putting considerable pressure on Iran. I am not aware so far of any difficulties among EU countries in replacing those supplies. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are increasing their oil production and that is very helpful.
The measures we will take will go down the twin track of sanctions and negotiations. We now have unprecedented sanctions coming into force on Iran, including not just the oil embargo but a partial asset freeze on the central bank of Iran, and expanded financial measures against Iran, including on gold and precious metals. However, we are sincere about negotiations. I am pleased that the opening round of negotiations in Istanbul went better than previous rounds, and a second round has been agreed for Baghdad on 23 May.
I am pleased that the talks last weekend were described as “fruitful” and co-operative—I think those were the words—which is useful of course. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we need to keep up a maximum dialogue between now and 23 May so that when the parties next convene for a formal discussion we can really look forward to concrete proposals?
Yes, of course the dialogue will be kept up, as will the maximum pressure in the form of the sanctions coming into place. The commitment to a second round of negotiations includes a commitment to discussions between officials between now and then in order to prepare those discussions in Baghdad.
15. The last nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference supported the concept of a nuclear-free middle east. Could the Foreign Secretary say what is being done to promote that and when the conference involving all countries in that region including Israel is due to take place as a way of promoting a nuclear-free and therefore peaceful region? (102866)
We are in favour of such a conference and we were one of the countries that promoted the idea. It was due to take place in 2012, although agreement on its taking place has not yet been reached. I stress, however, that we have no chance of achieving a nuclear-free middle east as long as Iran persists in a programme that the world suspects is a nuclear military programme.
My right hon. Friend has already referred to the effect of the sanctions and oil embargo in putting pressure on Iran. What discussions has he had with those countries, notably China and Russia, that are breaking the oil embargo and that would presumably have a great deal to lose if there were a loose Iranian nuclear power?
China and Russia are not part of the agreement on the oil embargo—there is no United Nations oil embargo; it is a European Union embargo—but it is noticeable that Chinese purchases of Iranian oil seem to have fallen in recent months. The Iranian nuclear programme is an issue that we discuss constantly with our counterparts. I discussed it with the Russian Foreign Minister in Washington last week and I will be discussing it with a member of the Chinese Politburo in about 45 minutes’ time. We will of course continue all those discussions.
The most important thing in making a success of the Baghdad negotiations is that there are productive discussions between officials beforehand and that Iran comes to the table with proposals of its own for urgent practical steps that can be taken to give confidence that it is serious and sincere about the negotiations. The most important step it could take would be to demonstrate to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the whole world that its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes and to do so to all our satisfaction, but it has not been able to do that.
The most recent discussions with the Sri Lankan Government possible were at the March meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. We lobbied for and supported a resolution that was passed at the meeting which we believe will assist in creating new impetus for Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
I thank the Minister for his answer. On Saturday I attended a Sri Lankan new year cultural programme in my constituency, which was part of important work to build links and trust between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Does he agree that it is now vital for the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that there is a credible, independent investigation of the alleged abuses on both sides as part of taking a critical step towards long-lasting peace, as called for by the UNHRC?
The hon. Lady’s presence at such a meeting indicates how important it is for the process of reconciliation to be accepted on all sides. There is no doubt that the lingering doubt about the events at the end of the conflict will produce a cloud and a shadow over that. We have been at the forefront of calling for a credible inquiry into those circumstances and we believe that the passing of the Human Rights Council resolution produces a new opportunity for us and Sri Lanka to deal with this and other aspects of reconciliation detailed in the Commission’s recommendations.
Tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and I will attend a meeting of NATO Defence and Foreign Ministers in Brussels. The meeting will prepare for the Chicago summit in May, which will focus on Afghanistan, improving military capabilities, and strengthening NATO’s network of partners across the world.
Will the Foreign Secretary join me in congratulating Aung San Suu Kyi on her election victory, and does he agree with claims by the Chindits—the lions of the jungle—that they have been abandoned by the UK Government in their fight against Burma’s ruling dictatorship?
Of course I very much congratulate Aung San Suu Kyi on those victories. We are pleased that such change is taking place in Burma. We will discuss at the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg next Monday what we now do about sanctions on Burma. The Prime Minister had a very successful visit there last Friday. We are not abandoning anybody as we improve relations with Burma. In fact, we have stressed throughout the importance of the release of political prisoners, the upholding of human rights—far more effectively, we hope, than in the recent past of Burma—and the ending of regional ethnic conflicts. All of those are equally important.
T2. This week is the anniversary of the genocide that was perpetrated by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, a genocide that is still not formally recognised in most countries. Will the UK recognise that a genocide took place and encourage others to follow suit? (102877)
Whether or not the term “genocide” is appropriate, it is clear that an appalling atrocity was perpetrated against the Iraqi Kurds, not least at Halabja. They were among a number of minorities who were attacked by Saddam Hussein. It is noteworthy that his indictment at the end of the day was for crimes against humanity. Very many suffered as a result of his activities and we should remember them all, as we remember the opportunities now created in Iraq for a new future.
The Defence Secretary and I have both referred to that in the past and we have stressed that any such attempt would be unsuccessful. It is one of the reasons for our maintaining a force of minesweepers in the Gulf. It is one of the reasons for our joining the United States and France in sending ships through the straits some weeks ago to demonstrate our determination to protect international navigation, so I hope that Iran has taken note of that determination and will desist from any such attempt.
T3. My constituent John Lawton has been missing in Greece since Easter Sunday. He was competing in a marathon. He passed through the fourth checkpoint and has not been seen since. This is very distressing for his wife, Lynda, and son, Steve, who are out in Greece and with whom I am in regular contact. Can the Minister assure me and the Lawton family that everything possible is being done by the Government to support the family and to make sure that everything possible is being done by the Greek authorities at the highest level to ensure the widest possible search, and that the family receive support on the ground from the British embassy? (102878)
May I first express my sympathy to the Lawton family at what must be an incredibly traumatic time for them? I spoke to our ambassador in Athens this morning about this case. My understanding is that our embassy has been in regular contact with both the Lawton family in Greece and the Greek authorities at every level, from ministerial to operational police level. I am very willing to offer a meeting between our consular team in Greece and the Lawton family members who are there, and I am also very happy to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, our hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), in order to discuss the case further.
T5. Following the recent sudden death of the President of Malawi and the peaceful and constitutional succession of Joyce Banda as the new President, what assessment has the Minister made of the prospects now for full diplomatic representation in Malawi and the resumption of the direct foreign aid that is so important to so many people in that very poor country? (102880)
I had a chance to speak to President Joyce Banda a few days ago. I was extremely impressed by her determination to drive a programme of economic reform and to meet some of the milestones that we put in place for the bilateral relationship, so I am confident that we will be able to appoint a high commissioner in the very near future. Direct budget support will be up to the Department for International Development, but we will carry on providing aid to the Malawi people.
T6. I recently visited India with a view to helping a constituent whose son died there two years ago. They are still awaiting the outcome of the forensic findings of the loss of life investigation. Will the Minister or the Secretary of State meet me and, on a cross-party basis, other Members of the House who are similarly affected by loss of life investigations in India? (102881)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the diligence with which he has pursued the case of his constituent. I have raised the case with the Indian authorities on two occasions but have not yet resolved it to his or my satisfaction. I am more than happy to meet him and others to try to make further progress.
T8. The International Crisis Group reported in December that:“Women in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil-speaking north and east are facing a desperate lack of security in the aftermath of the long civil war.” It refers to forced prostitution and trafficking. Will the Minister raise those issues in his dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka? (102883)
We thought that it was a good report, with elements that we certainly recognise and that also match some of the issues raised through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, so those concerns will form part of our dialogue with Sri Lanka as it works towards its own determination to secure peace and reconciliation for the future, which we believe must also be based on justice for the past.
T7. Following a recent visit to Gaza, I refer the House to my entry in the register. Have Her Majesty’s Government raised with Egypt the serious impact on Gaza’s economy, basic infrastructure and medical facilities and the Gaza strip’s sole power station of Egypt’s recent restrictions on fuel exports to the Gaza strip? (102882)
I have not raised that specifically with Egypt. We are aware of the concerns about power and fuel and the discussions among the relevant parties to try to resolve it. We are following those discussions closely and urge those parties to solve the issue so that some of the pain of the Gazan people can be relieved. My hon. Friend is right to raise it.
T10. Given that today is Palestinian prisoners’ day, can the Minister say what representations he has made regarding the number of Palestinian children currently detained in Israeli prisons and what concerns he has about the treatment they are suffering? (102885)
I have raised the issue of the detention and treatment of children on a number of occasions with the Israeli authorities. We appreciated the fact that the age of majority for criminal proceedings has been raised, but I still have concerns about access to lawyers. Indeed, from this Dispatch Box I have said that the shackling of children is wrong. We can continue to raise those issues on behalf of those affected.
T9. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the diplomatic and responsible way in which the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict was handled recently. What is his view on Argentina’s continued reference to an illegal occupation, which does not reflect the principle of self-determination? (102884)
Our view on this is well known: we support the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination. For us this is not about territory, but about the rights of those people, who have been settled there for generations. We recently saw the birth of a ninth-generation baby on the Falkland Islands, and some of the families have been settled there since before Argentina existed in its current form. The Falkland Islanders have been there a long time. We uphold their right to self-determination and will always continue to do so.
I know that the Government are appalled at the recent turn of events in the west African state of Guinea-Bissau. Is the Minister in a position to update the House on what has happened in Guinea-Bissau and what efforts can be made to help restore democracy to that beleaguered land?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interest in Guinea-Bissau. I gather that he has been there twice, including recently as an election observer. We absolutely deplore the coup d'état. Guinea-Bissau was making really good progress from a failed state towards a functioning democracy, so we support the statement by the Economic Community of West African States that the Prime Minister, Carlos Gomes, and the interim President, Raimundo Pereira, must be released and that the second phase of the election must go ahead on 22 April.
In the curious case of Mr Neil Heywood, can the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that everything that could have been done has been done, and everything that should have been done has been done, preceding and proceeding Mr Heywood’s tragic death?
Yes. My hon. Friend will be aware that before Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions today I issued a written ministerial statement, setting out what has happened since 14 November, since the tragic death of Mr Heywood, and I hope that it will be for the assistance of the House. As my hon. Friend knows, we have asked for—we have demanded—an investigation, and the Chinese authorities have agreed to conduct such an investigation. There has been a further discussion about that this afternoon, between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and a visiting member of the Politburo, Mr Li Changchun, whom I too will meet shortly, so we are pursuing the matter extremely carefully but vigorously.
Further to Question 9, is not the worst aspect of the demolitions the practice of punitive demolitions, which is based on the doctrine of collective punishment, and does that not directly contravene article 33 of the Geneva convention?
I reiterate again that we raised with the Israeli authorities the issue of demolitions as one of great concern. They have been on the increase, and we see them as a setback to the peace process and to the need to build a proper relationship with the Palestinian authorities in order to get an ultimate settlement resolved. It will be resolved only within that context, but we are concerned about the recent increase, and we make our representations very clear.
I have great concerns about demolitions in East Jerusalem, and the Foreign Secretary himself recently talked about Israeli settlements in the west bank being illegal under international law, counter-productive, destabilising and provocative, but other than words of criticism are there any consequences for the Israeli Government, or do they pursue those policies with impunity?
My hon. Friend makes very clear, by echoing my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s statement, how seriously the United Kingdom takes those issues and how constantly we raise them, but again I have to come back to the fact that Israel sees the issue differently, and accordingly it is one of those things that ultimately will be resolved only by the settlement that every Member wishes to see between the Palestinian authorities and Israel. Differences of opinion on the matter are likely to remain, but we are increasingly concerned about the activities in East Jerusalem, and my hon. Friend is right to raise them, as indeed was my right hon. Friend when he made his statement.
Three hours ago the Foreign Secretary rushed out a statement about the death—possible murder—of a British citizen in China last November. There are so many different aspects to the matter that there is no time to go into them, but the statement makes it clear that the Foreign Office knew on 18 January about the allegations, that they were brought to the Foreign Secretary’s attention on 7 February and that it took two months for him to bring it to the attention of the Commons or the public. May I invite him to give a full oral statement, so that the many worries and questions that need to be raised can be put to him for a full answer?
The points are very clear in the statement that I have issued today—not in a rushed way but after full consideration, putting all the facts together for the House. On the one hand the right hon. Gentleman says that there is a rush, but then he asks for a rush on a great many other things. What is clear is that rumours within the British expatriate community about the matter were brought to officials on 18 January; that the allegations about Mr Heywood’s death, made by former Chongqing vice-mayor and chief of police, Mr Wang Lijun, were made on 6 February; and that on 7 February, the next day, officials brought those concerns to me—the same day that I instructed them to ask China to investigate. I think that puts into perspective some of the ranting of the right hon. Gentleman.
That may be more a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but of course the governance of the European Central Bank is also not primarily for the United Kingdom, given that we are mercifully not part of the euro—and are not going to become part of the euro. So we might not be in a strong position to seek those limits.
Are the Government aware that at least 65 executions, including of women, took place in Iraq in January, and that the Iraqi criminal justice system depends largely on confessions extracted routinely by torture? Surely that is a legacy that shames us all.
We have noted the increase in executions to which the right hon. Lady refers. We have issued a statement of deep concern and condemnation in relation to it. It is a measure of how far the justice system still has to go in Iraq that some of these hangovers of the past have to be overcome. The United Kingdom, as is its declared policy, will continue to work to oppose the death penalty and continue to work for the improvement of justice in Iraq.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the deportation of the Jordanian terror suspect, Abu Qatada. May I first apologise to the shadow Home Secretary for the late receipt of my statement, which was occasioned by this afternoon’s court hearing?
I can tell the House that today officers from the UK Border Agency arrested and detained Abu Qatada and served notice that we are resuming his deportation. The assurances and information that the Government have secured from Jordan mean that we can undertake deportation in full compliance with the law and with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. Deportation might still take time—the proper processes must be followed and the rule of law must take precedence—but today Qatada has been arrested and the deportation is under way.
Let me remind the House briefly of where we are. For more than 10 years, successive Governments have sought to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan because of the serious risk that he poses to our national security. He has a long-standing association with al-Qaeda, he has been linked to several terrorist plots, and in Jordan he has been found guilty, in absentia, of terrorist offences. Despite the judgment of British courts that Qatada should be deported, and despite accepting that our diplomatic assurances from Jordan mean that he would not be mistreated on his return, in January the European Court of Human Rights ruled against his deportation. It did so on unprecedented grounds—that evidence obtained from the torture of others might be used against him in future legal proceedings in Jordan. As I have told this House before, the Government disagree vehemently with this ruling. Qatada does not belong in Britain; he belongs in Jordan, where he deserves to face justice.
We have since been working closely with our Jordanian counterparts to get the certainty we need that Qatada will face a fair trial on his return, and I want to thank Jordanian Ministers for their constructive and helpful approach. Since January, the Prime Minister has discussed Qatada’s deportation with King Abdullah. I have been to Jordan and held meetings with the King, the Prime Minister and several other Ministers. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is responsible for crime and security, has travelled to Jordan. There have also been several official delegations to follow up on ministerial negotiations. These discussions are ongoing.
The result is that we now have the material we need to satisfy the courts and to resume deportation. I can give the House a brief description of the key facts that mean that Abu Qatada will get a fair trial. The state security court, which will hear Qatada’s case, is not a quasi-military court—as Strasbourg suggested—but a key part of the Jordanian legal system that considers a wide range of criminal cases. Qatada’s case will be heard in public with civilian judges. On his return to Jordan, Qatada’s conviction in absentia will be quashed immediately. He will be detained in a normal civilian detention centre where he will have access to independent defence lawyers. In court, he will be able to summon defence witnesses in his support.
Those accused alongside Abu Qatada when he was found guilty in Jordan, whose evidence is at the heart of the European Court’s ruling, can give evidence, but what they say in court will have no effect on the pardons they have already been granted. We can therefore have confidence that they would give truthful testimony. Furthermore, Qatada will be able to challenge their original statements. Indeed, one of the more significant recent developments is the change to the Jordanian constitution last autumn that includes an explicit ban on the use of torture evidence.
I believe that continuing the deportation proceedings against Qatada on the basis of those facts will be the quickest route to remove this man from our country. I know that many hon. Members are frustrated by Strasbourg’s ruling and by the time that it is taking to deport him. I share their frustration entirely. I know that a number of hon. Members have specific concerns, which I want to address head-on.
The first is why we cannot just ignore Strasbourg and put Qatada on a plane. In reality, we simply could not do that. As Ministers, we would not just be breaking the law ourselves, but would be asking Government lawyers, officials, the police, law enforcement officers and airline companies to break the law too. As soon as we issued a deportation notice to Qatada, his lawyers would win an immediate injunction preventing us from removing him. Even if we somehow succeeded in deporting him against the wishes of the courts, we would be ordered to bring him back to Britain and perhaps even to pay compensation. Instead, our approach will bring an enduring solution. The truth is that of all people and institutions, the Government must obey the law. That means that as long as we remain a signatory to the European convention, we have to abide by Strasbourg’s rulings.
The second concern is why we cannot deport Qatada when other countries have recently deported foreign nationals. The truth is that although all legal systems and all cases are different, no Council of Europe member state now ignores rule 39 injunctions, which Strasbourg issues to prevent deportations. The recent cases of foreign nationals being deported from France did not involve an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Italy has confirmed that it will no longer deport foreign nationals in defiance of rule 39 injunctions. I am keen to learn from the experience of other countries in Europe, so we will be examining the processes and procedures used in France, Italy and elsewhere to see whether our legislation might be changed to enable us to deport dangerous foreign nationals faster.
In the longer term, we need to stop the abuse of human rights law. The Brighton conference, which begins tomorrow, will examine how to reform the European Court of Human Rights. We are changing the immigration rules to prevent the abuse of the right to a family life and, of course, we need a British Bill of Rights.
Continuing with deportation on the basis of the work that we have done with the Jordanians is the quickest and safest means that we have of removing Qatada from Britain. However, hon. Members must be aware that that does not necessarily mean that he will be on a plane to Jordan within days. There is still a potential avenue of appeal to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission court, and beyond. That appeal process could take many months, but it would be based on narrow grounds, and with the assurances that we have received, we can have confidence in our eventual success. I believe that Abu Qatada should remain in custody throughout that process.
The other option available to us, which is to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, could take even longer and would risk reopening our wider policy of seeking assurances about the treatment of terror suspects in their home countries. That policy was upheld by the European Court’s judgment in January, and it is crucial if we want to be able to deport terror suspects to countries where the courts have concerns about their treatment. There are 15 other such cases pending. I confirm that the Government have therefore not referred the Abu Qatada case to the Grand Chamber.
British courts have found that Abu Qatada is a dangerous man, that he is a risk to our national security and that he should be deported to Jordan. We have now obtained from the Jordanian Government the material that we need to comply with the ruling of the European Court. I believe that the assurances and the information that we have gathered will mean that we can soon put Qatada on a plane and get him out of our country for good. I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s pursuit of the deportation of Abu Qatada in compliance with the law. Given her assessment of the threat that he poses to national security, it is right to try to deport him as soon as possible and to return him to custody in the meantime to protect public safety.
I accept the Home Secretary’s apology for the late delivery of the statement, which I received only 10 minutes ago. Unfortunately, the Evening Standard clearly received the statement at 12.30 pm today, when it reported what she was to say in the House.
I understand that, as the Home Secretary said, SIAC is sitting as we speak, but none of the content of her statement appeared to be contingent on the conclusions of that court hearing, and there is a troubling level of confusion about today’s events that it would be very helpful for her to clear up.
I welcome many of the points that the Home Secretary made, although I have a series of continuing concerns. I welcome the assurances that she has obtained from Jordan. Previous agreements were in place, but she was right to pursue further assurances. I welcome, too, the arrest of Abu Qatada today as part of action through the courts to pursue deportation.
The Home Secretary will know that our concern remains that the Home Office should have acted faster after the European Court judgment in January, and that had we not had early drift and delay after that judgment, Abu Qatada might not have been released in the first place. When I asked her in February, several weeks after the judgment, whether she had had personal contact with Jordan after the European Court ruling, she had not been to Jordan at that point, nor did she go for a further four weeks. Indeed, the court that gave Abu Qatada bail cited as one of its reasons that there was no sign of progress in getting a deal with Jordan. Indeed, the court said:
“I do not know precisely what the Secretary of State has in mind. Indeed, the negotiations are only at the earliest of stages.”
It is therefore very welcome that the Home Secretary has now got further reassurances from Jordan, which are important and I hope will be sufficient, and it is welcome that she is taking action today, but three important sets of questions remain.
First, can the Home Secretary set out how long this will take? Does she expect to deport Abu Qatada in weeks, months or years? She has previously told the House that she hoped to deport him by the Olympics. Does she believe that she is on track to do so? The media appear this afternoon to be reporting that Abu Qatada is expected to be on a plane by the end of April. Does she believe that that will happen or that it is realistic?
Can the Home Secretary also confirm that the action that she has taken today is simply to start the deportation process again from the beginning by going back to SIAC? Can she confirm that she has decided not to conclude the previous deportation proceedings, which started in 2007, by going to the Grand Chamber, and decided instead to start the process again by going back to square one and to SIAC today?
The Home Secretary and I would agree that the process that started in 2007 has been way too long. The British and European courts should be faster, and reforms are needed to deal with the delays. We are happy to work with her on discussing that. However, I continue to be concerned by her confidence that she has taken the fastest route today. She has said that the route that she is taking is quicker than going to the Grand Chamber. Can she confirm, however, that the process that she has started today is still potentially subject to a whole series of appeals throughout the British court process, or to Abu Qatada and his lawyers taking the matter to the European Courts or the Grand Chamber again? Although she has decided that simply going through the final stage in the process is too long and is ditching the Grand Chamber, in fact she may be starting from scratch a process that will still have the Grand Chamber at the end of it.
We understand, too, that the Home Secretary believes it is too risky to appeal to the Grand Chamber. I understand that she will have had legal advice on that, and I do not want her to pursue an unwise and risky process, but we equally want her to pursue the fastest possible safe process to get Abu Qatada deported. May I therefore ask her to share with the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee and the Opposition, on Privy Council terms, the detail of that legal advice, so that we can understand the judgment that she has reached on not going to the Grand Chamber as the fastest way to get Abu Qatada deported?
Finally, we need to know what safeguards are being put in place in the meantime. We understand that the special court is meeting as we speak, but also that it has been suspended this afternoon. Has the Home Office asked for Abu Qatada to be returned to custody? The Home Secretary did not make that clear in her statement. On the basis of what we know about the case I believe that would be the right thing for the Home Office to do. However, she will know that as Abu Qatada has already been released on bail, there is a significant risk that the court will decide either today or at a future date to continue with bail. It remains, therefore, a serious concern that Home Office delays in January and February led to Abu Qatada being released in the first place, and are also making it harder to return him to prison now.
Given reports that Abu Qatada has been in contact with extremists in Jordan while out on bail, the Home Secretary needs to set out what safeguards she will put in place if the courts do not agree to bail. There are also reports of chaos at the SIAC hearing as we speak. Those proceedings have been held up and we understand that lawyers are being scrambled to court. The BBC is reporting that the hearing is a “bit of a mess”. Can she confirm that the hearing has been properly applied for and planned rather than cobbled together in a rush in order that it sits at the same time as the House?
There is something a little odd about the timing and confusion. We are debating Abu Qatada without knowing what the courts will decide this afternoon and what action the Home Secretary will need to take next. [Interruption.] Will she therefore agree to return this House—[Interruption.]
Will the Home Secretary agree to return to the House this afternoon or tomorrow morning if the court does not agree to revoke Abu Qatada’s bail and return him to custody, so that we can hear what action she will take and what safeguards she will put in place?
I hope Abu Qatada will be back behind bars by tonight in line with the security assessment that the Home Secretary and the courts have previously made, and that we have a clear and reliable timetable for his deportation to Jordan. I hope we will not be back to square one. There was too much drift earlier this year and we have had a troubling level of confusion this afternoon. Will she assure the House that she is in control of events, and that the deportation everyone wants to see is back on track?
May I first say that I welcome the support the shadow Home Secretary has given to the resumption of deportation and to the work that has been done to receive assurances from the Jordanian Government? A number of the points she made in response to my statement were made in her press release yesterday, but I recognise that she received my statement late. Although I covered a number of her questions in my statement, I will respond to the points she has made.
The right hon. Lady asked whether the SIAC proceedings this afternoon were properly applied for. Of course they were, but I am sure she will understand that when we are moving to arrest an individual whom we intend to deport, there is a limit to the number of people we tell before we move.
The right hon. Lady seemed to suggest that the Government had done nothing about the Strasbourg ruling until the bail hearing a few weeks later, and quoted Mr Justice Mitting, the judge at the bail hearing. The quote she gave made clear that negotiations with the Jordanians had already begun at the time of the bail hearing. I know she is always keen to attack, but her arguments might have a little more strength if they did not contradict each other.
The right hon. Lady asked about my estimated timetable for Abu Qatada’s deportation. As I said in my statement, we have resumed deportation against him and he was arrested earlier today. He has the right to appeal to SIAC, and I understand that he or his lawyers have made it clear that he intends to appeal and to ask for revocation of the deportation, possibly beyond SIAC—there are rights of appeal beyond SIAC. Because any appeal will be based on narrow grounds and because of the quality of the assurances we have, I am confident of our eventual success, but the process could take a number of months. I have been clear about that and said it in my statement.
The right hon. Lady appears to misunderstand the process. She says that we are going back to the beginning. In fact, we are resuming the deportation, which was set to one side during the appeals that went through to the European Court. She asked why we were not referring the case to the Grand Chamber. Again, I covered that in my statement. I said absolutely clearly that referring to the Grand Chamber would open up the whole of the judgment set down by the court on 17 January, part of which was positive for us. We have looked at the issues involved and taken the decision that the appropriate and right course of action that will ensure we can deport Abu Qatada is to follow the action we have taken of gaining assurances from the Jordanian Government and resuming the deportation.
The right hon. Lady asked about the length of time it is taking to deport Abu Qatada. May I remind her that deportation proceedings began in 2001, nine years before the end of the Government of whom she was a member? The time it is taking to deport Abu Qatada is not down to political will, but down to the nature of our legal system. As I said in my statement, I am willing and keen to look at how other European countries deport dangerous foreign nationals quickly, which is something that the last Government never did. We are following what I believe to be the right course of action to ensure that we can deport Abu Qatada. I have been clear in my statement—and I am willing to repeat it—that I believe that Abu Qatada should be in custody. That is why we arrested him this morning, have taken him to SIAC and are asking for his detention. The work that we have done has resulted in assurances from the Jordanian Government that I believe will enable us to deport Abu Qatada. That is what the whole of this House should want: Abu Qatada deported from this country, back to Jordan.
Having made a powerful statement in favour of the deportation of Abu Qatada, will the Home Secretary confirm that at the Brighton conference, which begins tomorrow, it will be made clear that, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, a British Bill of Rights will be determined by legislation passed in this House, and not based on the European convention on—but increasingly against—human rights?
My hon. Friend is right to refer to the Brighton conference, which starts tomorrow. It will be chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary, who has been working with the other 46 members of the Council of Europe to do what I believe we all want, which is to ensure that the European Court operates appropriately and in a way that reflects its original intentions. The Prime Minister made a speech earlier this year in which he made it clear that there were a number of issues that we wanted to look at, such as subsidiarity and the efficiency of the European Court. It is those matters which the Brighton conference will be discussing.
As the Home Secretary who originally certificated Abu Qatada, it would be churlish of me not to congratulate the Home Secretary on making at least some progress on the back of the change in Jordan’s constitution and on getting agreement. However, does she agree that much of the delay has been caused by the operation of the European Court, and that the proposals originally put forward by the Prime Minister for deliberation by the Council of Europe in Brighton this week have now been watered down? Is it not a contradiction to come here and be quite belligerent about believing that something can be achieved by words, when actually, in deliberation in Brighton this week, we will go in exactly the opposite direction?
I welcome the comments of the right hon. Gentleman, the Home Secretary who, as he said, first initiated proceedings for the deportation of Abu Qatada. What I would say to him about the Brighton conference is that the Prime Minister was quite clear earlier this year about those areas where we would be working to get some change in the operation of the European Court. Of course, all Members of this House will have to wait until the proceedings of the Brighton conference are complete to see the package that comes out of it, but I have every confidence that the work that my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary has done will indeed enable us to achieve the changes we want.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s action in obtaining assurances from Jordan. Although it is rather odious to have to wait for this man Abu Qatada to avail himself of all the rights and procedures that are available under our system, we should be clear that we want to live under a system that has rights and protections, and not the kind of regime that he and his friends would prefer to bomb us into.
My right hon. Friend makes a very valid point. It is precisely those sorts of freedoms and rights that we have in this country—the ones that we value in our justice system—that Abu Qatada and too many others would wish to destroy. As I said, we should accept that one body above all others that should obviously abide by the rule of law is the Government.
Is not the real issue in the case of Abu Qatada the fact that the Home Secretary has been engaged in a race against time as a result of her Government’s reckless decision to abandon control orders and replace them with measures that the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation has said will weaken national security?
I congratulate the Home Secretary on the tenacity that she has shown; it makes her a formidable Home Secretary. On the question of assurances, will she respond to the recent comment about Abu Qatada from Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights? He stated:
“There must be watertight guarantees that he should not be tried with evidence obtained under torture”.
Is that the nature of the assurance that she has received from the Jordanians?
I thank my hon. Friend for his words. I have set out a very brief description of the assurances that we have received; more details will obviously be put forward to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission at the deportation hearing. One of the key changes that has taken place in Jordan involves explicit changes to the constitution that outlaw the use of evidence that has been gained by torture.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. I also congratulate her on the efforts that she has made, and especially on her visit to Jordan. Will she tell us the exact date on which she received the assurances from Jordan that satisfied her that a deal could be made? What worries me are the 15 other cases that she has told the House about today. At the Brighton conference, we need to establish a fast-track system so that cases involving dangerous people in this country can be fast-tracked through the European Court as well as through our own courts. That has been the view of successive Governments as far as Abu Qatada is concerned.
No. The right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that he knew first, but we were still in discussions with the Jordanian Government about the assurances and, as I have made clear in my statement, the work will continue. We have assurances, we are confident in the case that we have, and we will continue to work with the Jordanian authorities.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the wider use of deportation with assurances, one of the issues that my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary and others across Government have been working on in relation to changes to the European Court is the efficiency of the Court. Another issue relates to subsidiarity and the relationship between national courts and the European Court. It is on those issues that I believe we will see some movement this week.
I am clear that we need to make some reforms. We all value human rights and we want to ensure that we uphold them, but we need to ensure that we have legal structures that will enable us to do so in a way that is proper and appropriate. That is why it is entirely right that the Government have been looking, in conjunction with others, at how the European Court works.
Observing the rule of law is even more important when we are dealing with an individual like this, but I want to ask the Home Secretary the same question as I have asked on previous occasions. This individual has been here for a very long time; he came here in the early 1990s. If there is evidence against him, why cannot he be charged with any crimes that he is alleged to have committed? If there is evidence against him—and there might well be—it is puzzling that he is not being tried in the United Kingdom.
I thank the Home Secretary for her assurance that Abu Qatada will be deported in the fastest possible way, and I share her sentiment that the proper place for him is in detention. Does she not agree, however, that one of the major reforms to the European Court of Human Rights must involve addressing the backlog? Will she also assure the House that the Government will show real leadership at the Brighton conference and ensure that we make progress on this matter, once and for all, because it is seriously undermining public confidence in the justice system?
My hon. Friend has made a valid point about people’s confidence in the Court when they see that backlog. That backlog is precisely one of the issues that we have been addressing in discussions with other countries, and I expect the Brighton conference will consider how to deal with it. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to welcome the outcome of that conference.
It is potentially unhelpful, if not confusing, that the Special Immigration Appeals Commission is deliberating at the same time as the Home Secretary is making her statement. None the less, I, too, welcome the progress that she and her ministerial colleagues have made in their discussions with the Jordanian authorities. I have to put it to her, however, that if she had not been successful in her endeavours, Abu Qatada would not today be on a 22-hour curfew, but on a TPIM or terrorism prevention and investigation measure—a watered-down control order—with access to the internet and able to roam the streets of London. Would she be confident in that level of protection for the people of this country?
Yes, we are confident in the level of protection given by TPIMs—otherwise we not have introduced them. On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point about the timing, I am tempted to say that if SIAC had sat before I had made my statement, I would have received complaints from Labour Members that I should have come before the House before it had taken any decision.
The European convention is incorporated in law by the Human Rights Act. On that basis, our supreme court has already ruled that it would be lawful to deport Abu Qatada. Why, therefore, does the Home Secretary say that it would unlawful?
Obviously, for the past three months, a rule 39 injunction against the deportation of Abu Qatada has come from the European Court. As I outlined in my statement, if any move were made to deport him immediately—we have a memorandum of understanding with Jordan about how a deportation would take place, including a timetable that we should abide by; it was a part of our arrangements supported by the European Court and was supported in the UK courts—it would be open to Abu Qatada to issue an injunction. If he were to be deported contrary to that injunction, it would of course be unlawful.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, but will she explain why, if it is in the public interest to deport Abu Qatada, it is in the public interest to allow terror suspects based here in the UK to have increased access to the internet, increased access to mobile phones and the freedom to come to London in the run-up to the Olympics and the Queen’s jubilee celebrations? Does she agree with the conclusions of the Anderson review that getting rid of control orders was a “political decision” and
“one that is unlikely to further the requirements of national security—rather the reverse.”?
Is that not a damning indictment of the Government’s decision to weaken our anti-terror laws?
First, as I said in response to an earlier question, I am confident in the TPIM measures that we have introduced and put in place. I note that not only a number of Labour Back Benchers, but the shadow Home Secretary herself have raised a number of questions about the issue of terrorism, anti-terrorism and national security. I simply say to them that they should ask themselves this: if they care so much about that issue, why is the Labour party campaigning to stop the extradition to the United States of a known terror suspect?
May I, like others, welcome the Home Secretary’s determination? As already said, the House of Lords has already approved this deportation without the requisite assurances that the Government are now able to provide. I seek some clarification of the rule 39 injunction to which my right hon. Friend has referred. Given the nature of how the UK implements international law, on what basis in UK law would such an injunction be directly enforceable in the UK courts?
I apologise to my hon. Friend. I thought that I had implied the answer to that question in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), who is a member of the Home Affairs Committee.
The point is that if we were to act against the rule 39 injunction, it would be open to Abu Qatada—or, indeed, to anyone else in the same position—to go to our UK courts to obtain an injunction against deportation, and we would then find ourselves acting against the law that exists here in the UK. It is on that basis, apart from any other, that I say that we would be acting illegally.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement, and assure her that my right hon. and hon. Friends will wholeheartedly support her efforts to ensure that this dangerous man, who is a risk to national security, is out of our country as soon as possible. Can she assure me, however, that she is confident that the European Court will not interfere again to hinder the deportation of this terrorist?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for assuring me of his support and that of his right hon. and hon. Friends. A legal process can now be obtained. Obviously Abu Qatada will have an initial right of appeal to SIAC and further potential rights of appeal in the UK courts and then the European Court, but it cannot be guaranteed that the hearing of those appeals would be accepted. The confidence that I feel is based on the fact that we are considering a narrow definitional issue as we take the matter through the courts.
I welcome the announcement that the Government can now deport Abu Qatada, and that they have addressed the concerns about the possible use of evidence obtained under torture. I also welcome the Home Secretary’s clear statement that we should not be in the business of breaking laws ourselves, ignoring Strasbourg, and simply putting Abu Qatada back on a plane. May I, however, follow up an earlier question from the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick)? Will the Government now make every effort to pursue cases such as this through the UK courts whenever possible, so that we do not become involved in such lengthy legal shenanigans in the future?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. I suspect that more lies behind it than merely the deportation of Abu Qatada.
In cases such as this, when we are dealing with individuals who are a danger to the United Kingdom and are suspected of terrorist offences, the Government explore every avenue. However, as I pointed out earlier and as my right hon. Friend will know, decisions about prosecution in the UK are not decisions for the Government. As I have said in response to a number of questions, we and other members of the Council of Europe are looking at the efficiency of the European Court, because the matter was before it for a significant period.
Does the Home Secretary recognise that the vast majority of the British public who have heard her statement today will not understand why we, a so-called independent country, cannot get rid of someone who is a risk to our security? She has said, and I accept it, that we do not want to be seen to be breaking the law, but the law is clearly wrong, and we must find ways of changing it so that we can deport, as soon as possible, people whom we do not wish to be in this country.
I thank the hon. Lady for what I think is her support for my statement. We will be considering, in particular, the systems that are available to other countries to establish whether there is anything that we should be doing here in the UK to ensure that we can deport people who are dangerous to the United Kingdom, who are suspected of terrorist offences, and who pose a national security risk, far more quickly than we do now.
I too congratulate the Home Secretary on setting in train the process of deporting Abu Qatada. Many people in this country will welcome her action. However, although the matter has not been helped by the European Court of Human Rights, there are rumours that our proposals to the Brighton conference will be watered down. Will the Home Secretary, here and now, give us an unqualified assurance that that will not happen when the conference opens tomorrow?
I am not in a position to predict what will emerge from the deliberations that will take place during the three days in Brighton, but I can assure my hon. Friend that—as I said earlier—the Prime Minister in a speech earlier this year clearly defined the areas in which we felt that it was necessary to work with other countries on reform of the European Court, and I have every expectation that they will be addressed at the conference this week.
May I again draw hon. Members’ attention to the forthcoming entry in the register? The Home Secretary may be aware that the all-party group on Jordan was also in Amman last week. I believe that it was on the same day as the Home Secretary spoke to the Jordanian Prime Minister that we were able briefly to raise the Abu Qatada issue with him, explaining the great public concern in the UK about it. I must agree that he emphasised at that time that Jordan wished to do what it could to facilitate the deportation and to make progress on human rights. It is also important to put on the record today that when we spoke to the Jordanians—I am sure that the Home Secretary will do this as well—we said that we in no way wish them to lighten up on human rights standards in their country; we want them to continue the progress they are making towards political reform, constitutional reform and human rights.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I have said, the Jordanian Government have been very helpful in our discussions about Abu Qatada. What is significant is that the way in which the Jordanian system operates today is different from the portrayal given by the European Court; a significant number of changes have taken place. Indeed, when I was in Jordan, everything that people were saying to me, both at Government level and through officials and others, was that they see Jordan continuing to move forward on this issue of human rights.
The Home Secretary has remained admirably calm in her responses to a string of former and wannabe Home Office Ministers on the Labour Benches, whose bluster has not concealed the fact that they utterly failed, over the course of nine years, to make any progress in getting this man out of this country. Will the Home Secretary assure me that Abu Qatada will no longer be residing in the United Kingdom long before there is next a Labour Home Secretary?
My hon. Friend tempts me down a route of prediction. What I will say to him is that, as everybody in this House knows, it has taken considerable time to get to where we are at the moment. There are further processes to go through, but I believe that what the Government have done is to take absolutely the right course, which is to get together the assurances that we need to be able to resume deportation. I have every confidence in our eventual success in being able to achieve that deportation.
I am well aware of the strength of feeling on that, in this House and outside it. As I have said, and as has been made clear in this Chamber on a number of occasions, one of the issues raised by the Prime Minister in his speech earlier this year on the European Court—one of the issues that is being looked at—is the question of subsidiarity and when it is right that decisions, having been through national courts, should be considered final, without reference to the European Court.
I congratulate the Home Secretary on her leadership in getting a grip on this issue, which has gone on for far too long. Does she agree that we can take great pride in this country that, however frustrating it may be, even those who despise our values and our freedoms are accorded the full protection of due process under the law? Does she agree that for those frustrations to disappear in future, we need to reform the European Court of Human Rights, as the Prime Minister has said, at source?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we can take pride in the justice system that we have here in the United Kingdom. I know that many people find it frustrating when they see such decisions coming out of the European Court and when they see us having to take our time to get the assurances we need. But as he has said, it is absolutely right that we seek reform of the European Court, and that is why the Brighton conference this week is so important.
May I, too, pay tribute to the work that the Home Secretary has carried out on this difficult issue? Can she give the House any assurances that as and when Mr Abu Qatada is deported from this country he will remain deported from this country, notwithstanding the fact that he has family residing in the UK?
One reason we have been pursuing this case in the way that we have is that I want what I have called a sustainable deportation, in that I do not want us to be required by some court here in the UK to bring Abu Qatada back into the United Kingdom. That is why we have been pursuing the case in the way that we have.
I am sure the residents of the Kettering constituency would want me to congratulate the Home Secretary on her tremendous efforts to deport this wretched man. Reassuringly, she said she would look at how France, Italy and other countries do this sort of thing rather faster. Who is going to lead that review, and when will they report?
I will come back to my hon. Friend with more details on that in due course, if I may. I have already initiated some work on this within the Home Office, and we will be looking at the matter as soon as we can. If we were to require legislative changes, we would have to look at the legislative timetable.
Torture is abhorrent no matter where it happens, and we must all be happy that Abu Qatada’s deportation will be achieved without implicitly condoning such behaviour. The Secretary of State must agree, however, that that is still the second-best option, behind the option of trying Abu Qatada in this country. Will she therefore redouble her efforts to remove any remaining barriers to that happening in future, such as by addressing the use of intercept evidence?
As I have said in answers to a number of other Members, the Government have, of course, at all times looked as widely as possible at what action could be taken in relation to Abu Qatada, as I assume the previous Government also did. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of intercept as evidence. As he will know, we have a Privy Council group that is still looking into that issue, and the only comment I would make is that very often it is assumed that that is the one answer that will solve all our problems when all the evidence is that it is not.
May I, as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, congratulate the Home Secretary on the personal role she has played in securing Jordanian co-operation in this matter? Although the shadow Home Secretary kept referring to this as going back to square one, will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is, in fact, a resumption of proceedings that were already ongoing, having herself now obtained assurances from the Jordanians; and that this process will be faster than going through to the Grand Chamber of the European Court?
I obviously welcome the statement and I admire the Home Secretary’s persistence in this case, but I believe it is a huge waste of her time to have to spend so much time trying to rid the country of this particular individual. There are now a number of cases where our national security is under threat because of rulings from a foreign court whose judgments undermine both confidence in the judiciary and human rights in general. I know reform of the Court is high on the agenda, and we would all like to see that, but you mentioned the Bill of Rights in your statement. May we please speed up the timetable for that, so we have it in place as soon as possible?
Yes, I did refer to the Bill of Rights, and as my hon. Friend will know, my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary has set up a commission to look into this whole question of a Bill of Rights. It will report in due course. As I have said, I am looking into how we can ensure that we can deport people who are a risk to our national security, and have a speedier and more secure process of doing so than we currently have.
I warmly welcome the Home Secretary’s strong statement. Has this whole sorry episode convinced her and the entire Government that, as others have said, what we need is a British Bill of Rights declared senior to Strasbourg, and a supreme court over the road that lives up to its name?
The Bill of Rights was, of course, a commitment that was made in the Conservative party manifesto at the last general election, and what we have done in government is put in place a commission to look at a British Bill of Rights, and it will report in due course.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s approach. Those who are called upon to exercise judgment in striking a balance in this matter would do well to regard the evidence over a long period about the seriousness of this gentleman’s connections and the threat he poses, and to take into account the judgment of an eminent British judge, who called him a “truly dangerous individual”.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I assure him that the case the Home Office will be putting forward at various hearings—both at bail and otherwise—will of course draw on the past evidence that this is a dangerous individual. That is why we wish to deport him and why I believe that, prior to deportation, he should be in detention.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Of course, this is not purely my effort; the Minister with responsibility for crime and security, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup went to Jordan, and a significant number of Home Office and Foreign Office officials have been working extremely hard over the past weeks and months since the original judgment to ensure that we reached the position we are in today, whereby we have been able to arrest Abu Qatada and resume deportation. It has taken a long time overall, and part of the reason is the lengthy legal process that has taken place. That is one of the reasons why I believe it necessary to look at whether we could make any changes to enable us to make these deportations quicker.
May I join in the congratulations to the Home Secretary on the progress she has made? Without asking her to predict failure, if the Brighton conference fails to produce a suitably robust reform for the Strasbourg Court, do the Government have a fall-back position for getting these things into a far better, more streamlined state?
I am rather more optimistic than my hon. Friend is about the Brighton conference, because I know of the considerable work put in by my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary, and by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and others across government, to work with the other 46 member states—remember, 47 countries will be around the table to discuss this. I am confident that the areas of change the Prime Minister has set out will indeed be addressed.
At the Brighton conference, what steps will we take to ensure that cases such as this, which raise important and serious issues of national security, can be expedited and take their place over and above the thousands of cases heard by the European Court that raise no new issues of law whatsoever?
My hon. Friend raises a valid point. On the length of time taken, there are two issues, one of which relates to the European Court. As I have said, the question of its efficiency will be addressed at the Brighton conference, as I understand it. The other issue is the time that proceedings here in the United Kingdom take, which is why I am looking at the systems and legal structures that apply in countries such as France and Italy, to see whether there is something we should be learning and changes we should be making.
My right hon. Friend is quite right—the British Government must not break the law, but she will know that the British Parliament must make the law, and make it quickly. Can she say when the day will come—can she indicate a timetable—when the findings of British courts and the decisions of my right hon. Friend will not be subject to overthrow by the European Court of Human Rights?