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Commons Chamber

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

House of Commons

Tuesday 20 November 2012

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 27 November (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Constitutional Reform

1. What the Government’s political and constitutional reform priorities are for the remainder of this Parliament. (128848)

The Government have already introduced fixed-term Parliaments, a significant constitutional change, and given people a say on the voting system for this House, as well as overseeing significant transfers of power to both Scotland and Wales. We also have radical measures in train to shift power from the centre to local decision makers, including the recently enacted Local Government Finance Act 2012 and the second wave of city deals, which will accelerate the pace of decentralisation as well as unlocking new and innovative ways to drive growth. Work also continues on party funding, recall and lobbying reform.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer, but he has horse-traded with his coalition partner on Lords reform, electoral registration, our electoral system, and boundary changes. Does he not agree that the country deserves a better collection of policies than those that simply serve an individual party’s needs?

That is a slightly curious allegation coming from a member of a party that had a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the alternative vote yet barely lifted a finger to campaign for it when it was possible to do so, and that has had a manifesto commitment to an elected House of Lords for years but has done even less to make that a reality. Perhaps the hon. Lady should practise what she preaches.

Two weeks ago, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and said that political and constitutional reforms were worth while only when there was a public appetite for them. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think there is a public appetite for any of the proposals he has just mentioned?

Clearly, the priority for all of us is to repair, rescue and reform the damaged British economy—the legacy left to us by Labour—but I have always been of the view that that does not mean that the Government cannot do more than two things at once. Those things could include mayoral elections, police and crime commissioner elections—which I know are close to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s party—or other political reform enthusiasms shared by my party. Those are all things that we have tried to advance over the past two and a half years.

In the light of the Prime Minister’s visit to Northern Ireland today in advance of negotiations in Brussels and other possible announcements, and of the recent report on tax arrangements in Wales, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what discussions have taken place, or will take place, with the Northern Ireland Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Executive?

As the hon. Lady knows, the proposals in Wales have been put forward on the back of the report published by the Silk commission this week, which advocates further tax devolution to Wales. We have said that we will look closely at those proposals. She will also be well aware that there is a long-standing debate in Northern Ireland about the freedom to set corporation tax rates, which would involve an arrangement different from the one that we have now. We have undertaken to look at that very carefully indeed, and there has been a succession of discussions and ministerial meetings on the matter. We will arrive at a definitive conclusion soon enough.

One item on the Deputy Prime Minister’s list of priorities was party funding. Is it not crucial, in the light of the lessons that we can learn from the American presidential election, that the parties in this country should come together and agree on a sensible measure of party funding, so that we can have a balanced electoral system that means all the people getting involved in the elections?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think that anybody, on either side of the House, would want to see our politics being hollowed out by big money as has clearly happened in the United States. That is why cross-party talks are going on at the moment, although agreement has not yet been reached. We are all familiar with the difficulties involved. It will require a bit of political will and a bit of political courage to reach cross-party agreement, but I hope that we will be able to do that as soon as possible.

I note the absence of the elections for police and crime commissioners from the Deputy Prime Minister’s list of his Government’s constitutional reforms. Those elections ended up costing £25 million more because he did not want them to be held on the same day as the May council elections next year. Will he admit that, in order to try to give the Lib Dems a better chance next May, he has wasted an extra £25 million of public money?

I know the right hon. and learned Lady is feeling sore that so many Labour has-been politicians did not get elected. [Interruption.] I know it was not a good day for Deputy Prime Ministers, past or present, and I admit that. Honestly, she knows as well as I do that there were a mayoral contest and Westminster by-elections as well as local by-elections all on the same day. Is she now going to start blaming the November weather for the poor showing of her party at the police and crime commissioner elections? That is beneath her.

I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman is drawing attention to last Thursday’s results because on the showing of his party in the Corby by-election, it will need more than a change of date to save his party’s fortunes. Will he not admit that no one wanted these police and crime commissioner elections, whatever the weather, that they were a complete shambles and that the money should have been spent on front-line policing instead?

If the right hon. and learned Lady dislikes the PCC elections so much, why did her party put up candidates across the country? [Interruption.] I hear “She had to” from a sedentary position, but no one forced her to put up as candidates the recycled Labour ex-Ministers who then failed to get elected. No one obliged her to do that. I really think the Labour party has to get out of this habit of criticising things that are quite close to its own proposals. As I understand it, the Labour party’s position is for directly elected members of the police authority—not a million miles away from the police and crime commissioners. As it happens, that was not my or my party’s policy, but it was a contest that we all entered in good faith. I am only sorry that it did not turn out as the right hon. and learned Lady had rather hoped.

Recall of Members

2. What progress he has made on introducing a process of recall for hon. Members found guilty of serious wrongdoing. (128849)

7. What progress he has made on introducing a process of recall for hon. Members found guilty of serious wrongdoing. (128854)

Last year, the Government published their draft Bill on the recall of MPs for pre-legislative scrutiny by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, whose report was published in June this year. The Government submitted an interim response confirming that we remain committed to establishing a recall mechanism that is robust, transparent and fair. We are now taking proper time to reflect on the Committee’s recommendations.

For some, life in politics can be a bit like a jungle, and a popular vote may help to decide whether or not someone should stay. When a Member of this House is found guilty of serious wrongdoing and does not walk away themselves, should not a popular vote by their constituents provide a chance to “get them out of there”?

Obviously, the devil is in the detail, and the issue is how we as a House define what serious wrongdoing is. I never thought that disappearing to a jungle on the other side of the planet would be one of the things we would have to grapple with on this recall issue. I very much hope to make progress, and we are certainly working actively in government to achieve it. It was a manifesto commitment of all the main parties in this Parliament to introduce a recall mechanism, but to do that we need to arrive at a common understanding of what constitutes serious wrongdoing and what does not.

If I may press the Deputy Prime Minister a little further, does his reply not suggest that it is up to Parliament to define serious wrongdoing, which might give the impression to constituents that it is a case of the poacher turning gamekeeper? Surely it should be up to the majority of our constituents, perhaps through some sort of referendum, to decide what constitutes wrongdoing. Whether it be crossing the Floor, disappearing and not helping constituents, being found guilty of fraud or whatever, it is surely our constituents’ job to determine that.

We have said that there is a sort of double trigger. First, whether in law or otherwise, we need some kind of approximate understanding of what constitutes serious wrongdoing. I do not think anyone would want this recall mechanism to be triggered for frivolous reasons or for partisan point scoring. The second trigger is that 10% of constituents sign a petition calling for a by-election. It is that basic design that we are still working towards.

It is almost as serious as destroying the British economy, which is of course what the Labour party did when it was in office.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister have any plans to extend recall to other posts such as police and crime commissioners? In north Wales, for example, an independent elected last Thursday subsequently turned out to be a member of the Liberal Democrat party. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that that would constitute grounds for recall?

I know the right hon. Gentleman thinks otherwise, but being a member of the Liberal Democrats is not yet a crime. By the way—[Interruption.]

Order. This is Question Time; Members cannot divide the House now. There is no opportunity for that.

This is Labour illiberalism pushed to new extremes—and at least, by the way, it was not necessary for Greenpeace to film that candidate secretly before we knew what his views were, which seems to have been the case elsewhere.

We believe that the principle of recall should be extended—for instance, we should like it to be extended to the European Parliament—but, as I have already said in answer to earlier questions, we must first get the mechanisms and the definitions in the Bill right.

Individual Electoral Registration

The Government are fully committed to delivering individual electoral registration. In the coalition agreement we promised to speed up its implementation to improve the integrity of the electoral register, and that remains the Government’s policy.

Given how critical the Deputy Prime Minister said the Bill on individual registration was, why has it now disappeared?

It has not disappeared, but, as you know, Mr. Speaker, by convention we in this House do not comment on the workings of the other place.

Before I ask my question, may I just say that Labour did not do enough to increase electoral registration during our 13 years in power?

May I ask the Minister, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, what we can do together—as Members of Parliament, as political parties and as democrats—to put the 6 million unregistered voters on to the register and to improve democracy?

I truly welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think it is of concern to everyone in the House that, for example, 36% of people—according to a recent Electoral Commission survey—believe that electoral fraud is a problem. We are introducing safeguards to ensure that the maximum number of people can be individually registered. That includes the use of techniques such as data-matching, phasing in the transition over two years, a write-out to all electors in 2014, and a programme of work to maximise registration among previously under-represented groups.

One of the lowest rates of electoral registration is found where it should perhaps be the highest, namely among our armed services. What can individual voter registration do to help to increase the number of soldiers, sailors and airmen who are registered to vote?

My hon. Friend is right. Much needs to be done to make it easier for those people to register and to place their votes. As I have said, we are undertaking a comprehensive programme of reforms through individual electoral registration. We are also interested in looking into methods such as online registration, which might help the community whom my hon. Friend holds so dear.

The Government told us that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which would introduce individual electoral registration, was a priority and must be introduced as quickly as possible, but we have now been told that the Conservatives are delaying it in the other place. What is the reason for that delay? Has it anything to do with parliamentary boundaries? Yes or no?

Again, Mr. Speaker, you would no doubt remind me not to discuss the workings of the other place here. I have every confidence that the hon. Gentleman can read for himself the speeches of my noble Friend Lord Strathclyde, who made clear what that place must do with potentially inadmissible amendments. I also think it is clear that the programme designed by the last Government—a voluntary version of individual electoral registration—would have led to confusion and significant extra cost, and I therefore do not think it right for Opposition Members to lecture us about such matters.

Royal Succession

Discussions with the other Commonwealth realms are ongoing, but legislation can be presented only when all the necessary arrangements are in place in all 16 Commonwealth nations.

There will be much rejoicing on the streets of the Kettering constituency if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are blessed with a baby girl and she succeeds to the throne even if she has a baby brother. When does the Deputy Prime Minister expect legislation to be presented to us, and what is the legislative timetable likely to be in those other Commonwealth realms?

I am sure all of us would share the joy of the constituents of Kettering if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a baby girl—or, indeed, a baby boy. If it were a baby girl, the key thing to remember would be that the change to the rule of male primogeniture came into effect from the point of the Perth conference last year, so even if we had not secured all the necessary legislative changes in all the realms, we would none the less be able to proceed on the basis that the outdated rule of male primogeniture no longer prevails. A de facto change has already been introduced pending the legal changes that now need to be made.

It is now more than a year since the Perth agreement, and I appreciate that the Deputy Prime Minister has put a lot of work into this. It is now in the hands of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, however, so will the Deputy Prime Minister consider visiting New Zealand—

Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider visiting New Zealand to try to speed up this process, because it is taking a long time and there is all-party agreement that it should be concluded as soon as possible?

One Member of this House on the other side of the planet is, I think, enough. I do not intend to take a long voyage myself, although I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind suggestion. Thankfully, we do not need to travel around the globe to communicate with each other these days. We have other means by which we can liaise with colleagues and friends in the New Zealand Government—and indeed, with the other realms. As I have said before, I am as impatient as the right hon. Gentleman to see the end of the outdated and discriminatory rule of male primogeniture and also the bar on the monarch or the successor to the throne marrying a Roman Catholic. I am as anxious as the right hon. Gentleman is to see those rules updated and modernised. It just takes a bit of time and a little bit of patience to make sure that all the realms are properly aligned, as they need to be to make this change happen.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister—and the Prime Minister of New Zealand—bear in mind that, but for our law of male primogeniture, the German Kaiser would also have become King of England, which would have produced almost as interesting a coalition as the present one?

We always rely on my right hon. Friend for such erudition and grasp of history, which he possesses but unfortunately I do not. I am grateful to him for pointing that historical quirk out to us, but I hope he will agree that that is not reason enough not to modernise the rules of succession and bring them into line with the 21st century.

We can so rely on the right hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), which is one of the reasons why I particularly enjoy calling him.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives, and within the Government I take special responsibility for our programme of political and constitutional reform.

What are the Government doing to promote access to public office for people with mental health problems? With that in mind, will the Deputy Prime Minister join me and other Members in growing a moustache for Movember, which is not only raising funds for the prostate cancer charity, but raising important issues about men’s health, including mental illness?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and I would be very happy to pay him to take his moustache off as soon as he wishes to do so. [Interruption.] Well, these are the times of austerity, so we will have to be modest.

On the first point, I think there has been a real sea change in how we debate and talk about mental health not only in society but, as we have movingly seen recently, in this House. The taboo has been broken and politicians now speak about mental health problems, which afflict one in four families in this country. That is a very healthy development, and we are seeking to reflect it in legislation by removing the bar on those with mental health problems being in office and remaining as Members of this House.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the House of Lords will tomorrow consider Government plans to allow Ministers the right to have civil actions against them held in secret, thus depriving claimants of the chance to see the evidence. Can he explain to the House why he and the Conservative party are right on this, and the Cross-Bencher Lord David Pannick QC, the Labour party, the Lib Dem peer and former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Ken Macdonald, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Liberty, Reprieve, Justice, the Lords Constitution Committee and other legal experts are so utterly wrong?

This is a very important issue and I am looking forward to the Labour party’s revealing what it believes on this, as on so many other issues. If the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the Bill were accurate, I would agree with him. Of course I would; no one wants to see evidence and matters heard in open court decanted into closed material proceedings. Let me make it clear that the Government’s view—it is certainly mine, as I would find this unacceptable otherwise—is that the provision will apply only to those cases where at the moment the evidence is not heard at all. It is not a question of a choice, with evidence held in open court being moved into closed court, as nothing will be heard—[Interruption.] The judge decides on how the procedure is conducted.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I want to pick up on that if I may. As he knows very well, the Committee has tabled an extensive range of amendments to improve the Bill. I am very sympathetic to a lot of what the Committee says, and the Government are considering its amendments with an open and, in many respects, sympathetic mind. I hope that we will be able to amend the Bill to allay those concerns in line with many of the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

T2. In the interests of fairness, my right hon. Friend is making the case for higher property taxes above a certain threshold. Will he also consider the issue of second, third and fourth homes that might fall below any such threshold? (128864)

On taxational levies on higher value properties, it is no secret that there is a difference of opinion in the coalition Government. There is no point in pretending otherwise. My view is that a police officer seeing 20% cuts in the policing budget, a teacher whose pay has been frozen or someone whose benefits are being reduced would find it very difficult to understand why we are not asking people in large multi-million pound homes to make an additional contribution as we have to tighten our belts further. I do not think that most ordinary people in this country think that it is fair that a family living in a family home, working hard to provide for themselves, has to pay the same council tax as an oligarch living in a £5 million mansion. That is why we will continue to make the case for a fairer approach to taxation. As we tighten our belts, and as I have said on numerous occasions, we should start at the top and work down, rather than the other way around.

T5. The Deputy Prime Minister will at least be pleased that last Thursday his party won the by-election in Wallsend, even though the turn-out was low. As the public largely boycotted the police and crime commissioner elections, which cost £100 million, does he think that it would have been better for his party’s fortunes if that money had been spent on the 3,000 front-line police he promised in his election manifesto? (128867)

I am grateful for a carbon-copy question of one asked earlier. I would suggest a little liaison—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is waving a piece of paper provided to her by her Whips, but I suggest that she cross-checks against the questions asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) from her Front Bench. As I said, there were PCC elections, a mayoral election, local by-elections and Westminster parliamentary by-elections. There will be more Westminster parliamentary by-elections in a couple of weeks’ time. Is she really suggesting that when the clocks change we should stop elections? I do not think that she is, and that would not be a realistic way of proceeding.

T3. The Deputy Prime Minister will know that we have dozens of different deposits for elections, ranging from £500 to £5,000. In this post-PCC world, would now not be a good time to review that, as some of them have not been looked at for about 30 years? (128865)

That is not something that we have considered, but I am more than happy to ask officials to provide information about whether there is something erratic or illogical about the levels of deposit in different electoral contests.

T7. What reaction has the Deputy Prime Minister had from the Secretary of State for Scotland on his reported plans to evict the Scotland Office from Dover house, and why would the Deputy Prime Minister’s small Department apparently want to move there? (128869)

T4. There is much discussion about constitutional reform, especially in Scotland and Wales. However, there is little discussion of arrangements in England, particularly with regard to local government. Lord Heseltine’s recent report recommends that we should move away from two-tier local government to unitary authorities, which would be hugely welcome in Cumbria. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with Lord Heseltine’s recommendation? (128866)

As it happens, I agree with much of what Michael Heseltine set out in his report. Not only do we have a highly over-centralised political system in this country, but we have an economy that has over-relied on the City of London and the south-east, whereas we need to spread prosperity. He is very supportive not only of the regional growth fund and the localisation of business rates, but crucially and perhaps most radically of all, of the new city deals that we are entering into. I do not agree with him, as it happens, on the one point that my hon. Friend raises—moving all of local government on to a unitary basis, but I am well aware that that divides opinion across all parties.

T8. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that figures from Gingerbread and the Library of the House show that 115,000 lone parents in work and on tax credits in Scotland will be worse off working full time than part time when the universal credit is introduced next April and housing and child care costs are taken into account? Would this not completely undermine the Government’s promise to make work pay, and what is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about it? (128870)

First, we are going to improve the provision of child care, which is why as of April next year this is the first Government ever who will provide 15 hours of free child care and pre-school support to the children from the poorest families in the country. Secondly, we are raising the point at which people pay income tax, taking 2 million people on low pay out of income tax. Rather than brandishing figures, the hon. Gentleman should wait and see the details of how the universal credit will work, because the interaction between the universal credit and those tax changes will be some of the most progressive changes that have been introduced by any Government in living memory in order to make sure that work pays.

T6. Yesterday the Silk commission recommended that tax-raising —tax-varying—powers be granted to the National Assembly for Wales, a big decision requiring the approval of the people of Wales. If the party or parties which form the next Government have clearly and openly included this as manifesto commitments, will a referendum be needed? (128868)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Silk commission is divided into two parts. The first report, provided just this week, advocated a substantial change in the fiscal arrangements and the fiscal powers enjoyed by the Administration in Cardiff, analogous to what happened under the Calman process but in some important respects, particularly on income tax, going even further than the Calman design in Scotland. That will then be supplemented by a second report on the wider constitutional future of Wales. Only at that point will we be able to decide exactly how all those proposed changes will be adopted and possibly sanctioned by the people of Wales.

T12. Talking to people last Thursday, I found that few supported the introduction of police and crime commissioners, and even fewer understood why they might be necessary. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that he totally failed to make his case to the electorate? Will he now answer the question that has been asked twice already—would not the money have been better spent on more police officers or the building of affordable houses to kick-start the economy? (128874)

Surely the people who failed to make the case were all those Labour has-been politicians who did not get elected. I am still mystified. Even by Labour’s modern, contorted standards—let me get this right: the hon. Lady does not like police and crime commissioners, but she likes them enough to have Labour candidates. Then, when they do not win, she says that Labour never agreed with the introduction of PCCs in the first place. Who is she kidding?

T10. Many of my constituents think it is somewhat unwise for a Member of Parliament to disappear off to the jungle for a number of weeks. Will my right hon. Friend share his views on whether it is wise or not and, if he thinks it is a wise decision, whether he would disappear off on a reality television show, and which one he would choose to go on?


I have been invited to go to New Zealand and it has been suggested that membership of the Liberal Democrats should be made illegal; I am not going to supplement all of that by commenting on where I end up in a reality TV show. Of course I think it is unwise. Whatever party we come from, we are all elected to do a job for our constituents. That is what people rightly expect of us, and it is no wonder that people have been so unhappy about the decision of one Member of this House to eat insects in the jungle instead.

T13. It was claimed last week that one of the reasons why we had police and crime commissioner elections was that police authorities had no democratic legitimacy—indeed the Conservative party chairman said that PCCs are 5 million times more legitimate than police authorities were. If that is the case, what legitimacy is held by Ministers of State who have no direct democratic input from this country but who are, in fact, appointed in a way that is much less transparent than appointments to police authorities? Where is the legitimacy for any Minister of State? (128875)

If I understand it correctly, the Labour party’s position is that there should be direct elections to police authorities, so it agrees that there should be a change in the arrangements to give the public a greater democratic say in how policing is organised in their local area. The policy happens to be one that was not advocated by my party, but it was, rightly and understandably, in the coalition agreement, having been brought in by the Conservatives, so it is right that we should deliver it. I remain nonplussed that the hon. Gentleman is now so critical of the policy when the posts were so ferociously contested by numerous—failed, as it turns out—Labour politicians last week.

T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Prime Minister, the House of Commons and the majority of the British public that prisoners should not get the right to vote, and will he oppose the will of the European Court of Human Rights on this matter? (128873)

As the hon. Lady well knows, this is a vexed subject. We have the Court ruling that, in its view, the blanket rule is not consistent with the law, and it set a deadline. The House has made its contrasting views very well known, and I know that the Secretary of State for Justice is to set out the next steps on the whole issue very shortly.

T14. I know the Deputy Prime Minister is an avid reader of the ConservativeHome website, written as it is by his coalition partners. In a recent article about the Boundary Commission review, and with particular reference to his party, it said:“the next election is our best opportunity in a generation to significantly cut their numbers. While they are down…we shouldn’t show mercy. We must finish them off.”Given those views from his coalition partners, can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House that his party’s Commons votes cannot be bought for some sort of short-term deal on state funding? (128877)

The hon. Lady does not normally welcome my views on most issues, but I will do as she asks. My view is that because of the failure to deliver the wider package of constitutional reform we entered into, it is entirely reasonable—a deal being a deal—that other parts of the package are not proceeded with. That is why my party wants the implementation of boundary changes to be delayed beyond the next general election, and that is how we will vote when the opportunity arises.

What progress has the Deputy Prime Minister made on additional support for disabled people to achieve elected office, and might that be in place by the 2015 general election?

I know that a great deal of work has been done across party boundaries to make sure that people with disabilities have greater access to this place. In July, we launched the access to elected office strategy, with the aim of doing just that; a new £2.6 million fund will help disabled candidates to meet the additional costs they face; we have three paid internships for disabled people on the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme; and there is new guidance for political parties on making reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of disabled members and candidates.

While the Deputy Prime Minister continues to discuss getting additional support for disabled people to achieve public office, which is an important matter, will he also ensure that impediments are removed from polling stations where disabled people wish to exercise their right to vote?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that local authorities and returning officers have an obligation to ensure unimpeded access for all voters so that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, can exercise their right to a democratic vote.

We now elect police commissioners, yet up and down the country, including in my constituency and in the Yorkshire dales and the Lake district, we have national park authorities, which, in effect, perform the function of a local council but are totally unelected by, and unaccountable to, the people they serve. Is it not time the Government looked at making our national park authorities democratically elected, too?

I, too, have a significant chunk of a national park in my constituency and know that this issue divides opinion among those who are familiar with our great national parks. I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s view that it would be a good thing if local people’s preferences were reflected more fully in the way national parks are governed, and I know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is actively looking at the issue.

In view of the miserable turnout at last Thursday’s elections for police and crime commissioners, will the Deputy Prime Minister and other members of his Government give a cast-iron guarantee that never again will they bleat about the turnout at trade union elections, which on average is more than double what we saw last Thursday?

The big difference is that police and crime commissioners do not write parliamentary questions for Government Members, which is what the trade union bosses do for Opposition Members, spoon-feeding them questions while funding 90% of all the Labour party’s financial needs. Police and crime commissioners do not fund either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat parties. That is quite a difference.

It is not just national park authorities that are unaccountable; many quangos up and down the country make decisions that affect many of our constituents. Does the Deputy Prime Minister have any plans to ensure that more of those decisions are made by elected representatives, rather than unaccountable bodies?

I think that the general principle that there should be greater legitimacy when people take decisions in the name of the public and which affect the public is an important one, and it is not one that found a great deal of favour across both sides of this House when we debated it as it applied to the House of Lords. We have made considerable efforts to streamline some of the extraordinary blizzard of unaccountable quangos that developed under Labour. I know that various Ministers have made considerable efforts in their Departments to reduce the number of quangos and introduce greater legitimacy in public decision making.

The Deputy Prime Minister has taken an admirable position in relation to the Leveson inquiry. Would it not be in the interests of transparency for all the e-mails between Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, while he was working at No. 10 Downing street and corresponding about the future of the licence fee and many other issues, to be in the public domain before the inquiry publishes its findings?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister has made it quite clear that he has provided all the e-mails and information required of him by the Leveson inquiry. On the inquiry generally, the hon. Gentleman also knows that my view has been for some time, given that we established the inquiry, which the previous Government did not do, that if the recommendations are workable and proportionate, we should proceed and seek to implement them.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Specialist Rape and Child Abuse Prosecutors

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128878)

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that the CPS’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128883)

9. What steps he is taking to ensure that the CPS’s networks of specialist rape and child abuse prosecutors are adequately funded. (128886)

The prosecution of rape and child abuse is and will remain a key priority for the Crown Prosecution Service and will continue to be funded accordingly.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that rather brief response. Will child abuse cases always be prosecuted by specialist advocates or, as is now the case in rape trials, only when the specialist happens to be available?

That is not correct. All Crown Prosecution Service advocates have been trained in how to deal with domestic violence cases. Some 800 have been fully trained as rape specialists, and they are always involved in any rape case, so it is not right to say that that is not so. A network has been set up, under Mr Nazir Afzal, the chief Crown prosecutor for the north-west, to look at child sexual exploitation and improve prosecution, and it is proving successful.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has indicated that the Crown Prosecution Service’s failings in child grooming cases go well beyond Rochdale, and he said that a whole category of crimes has not been well treated by the criminal justice system. Does the Solicitor-General know how many cases the DPP is referring to and whether any of them will now be revisited by the CPS?

Whenever a case is the subject of further evidence or it is suggested that the right prosecution decision has not been made, the CPS takes that very seriously, and, as the hon. Lady will know, it reviews cases as appropriate. It is worth making the point that the CPS is improving its performance in rape and sexual abuse cases. Rape convictions are up by 4% year on year, and that is continuing in the current year, and there is an improvement across the area of sexual violence generally.

Rape convictions may be up, but they are still woefully low. Given that next Sunday is international day to end violence against women, will the Solicitor-General expand on his earlier comments about the number of specialist prosecutors? The key question is whether there are enough of them for justice to be pursued swiftly, which makes things better for the victim and more likely that a prosecution will be secured.

The hon. Lady is right to say that this is a key priority. It is extremely important that the Crown Prosecution Service deals effectively with these cases, which are so important. That is why a huge effort is going on, with improvements to guidance and ensuring that prosecutors are properly trained in this area. As she may know, the Director of Public Prosecutions himself led the training for prosecutors in the past year and made sure that particular reference was made to supporting witnesses. This is an area of vital concern. I could go on for hours, but I will not.

Does the Solicitor-General share my concern at the delay in prosecutions being brought in North Yorkshire because of the lack of a sexual assault and rape centre? Will he use his good offices to ensure that we have one at the first available opportunity not only to enable counselling to be given but forensic evidence to be taken to enable rapid prosecutions to take place?

It is important to have very good arrangements for the support of witnesses. As somebody who has prosecuted rape cases, I can say that they are not easy. It is very important that witnesses feel confident that they can give their evidence, and that is all about support. I will certainly look into the situation that my hon. Friend has mentioned, but she should not think anything other than that the Government take this extremely seriously, as does the Crown Prosecution Service.

Deferred Prosecution Agreements

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements on the level of economic crime. (128879)

It is not possible to quantify exactly what the effect of the new deferred prosecution agreements will be on the amount of economic crime, but we do believe that they will contribute to the welcome trend of an increase in self-reporting by organisations. That will enable the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service to obtain better evidence so that prosecutors will be able to bring more cases and restitution will be obtained, and this could lead to a reduction in the amount of economic crime.

What steps will the Minister take if the proportion of cases resolved by the CPS creeps higher than the Government have forecast in the impact assessment? Does he agree that a sunset clause of five years would be a sensible safeguard?

It is certainly important to recognise that this is not an alternative to prosecuting in serious cases, and the SFO and the CPS are very anxious to ensure that that is the case. It is particularly important that individuals should not feel that they have any way out of their liabilities, but this relates purely to organisations. A sunset clause is not contemplated at present, but the hon. Lady has put the idea forward and of course I will look at it. I thank her for making that important contribution.

But all too often directors of companies are, in effect, complicit in what has been going on when economic crime is involved in their organisation. They want to protect the company rather than self-declare. Indeed, this surely must lead the Crown Prosecution Service to take very seriously the idea, when directors are negligent, of bringing prosecutions under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 or the Data Protection Act against the body corporate—for instance, News International.

I clearly cannot comment on a particular case, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is important that this should be about self-reporting by companies. That does not let individuals off the hook, but it means that the business and jobs can continue and that these business entities have certainty, while ensuring that they are on tough conditions. The whole point of this is that a company should pay a penalty and be on tough conditions that will be monitored by a judge, to ensure that it cleans up its act and provides all the information necessary to the prosecution authorities.


4. What recent representations he has received on an inquest into the death of Kevin Williams in the Hillsborough disaster; and if he will make a statement. (128881)

In relation to the death of Kevin Williams I have received a number of representations. I acknowledge the significant public support for Kevin Williams’s case to be accelerated. However, the evidence that supports a new inquest into Kevin Williams’s death is basically the same as that in relation to the deaths of all the other victims of Hillsborough. My duty is to act in the public interests of all the victims of Hillsborough and I consider that the wider public interest requires a single application to be made in relation to the inquests. I have made good progress on preparing an application to the High Court for new inquests in these cases and I expect to make the application in December.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will he join me in recognising the role that Mrs Williams has played in fighting for justice for the 96 in setting up the charity Hope for Hillsborough?

I entirely acknowledge her key role in this matter and am particularly troubled to hear of her ill health. As I have said, I will do everything I can to take this process forward as quickly as possible, but I have to consult properly. There are a number of things that I simply cannot short-cut. I am endeavouring to do it as fast as possible and, as I said a moment ago, I hope that I can stick to the timetable that I have identified.

I know that the families will welcome what the Attorney-General has said about making an application in December and I thank him for that. Anne Williams is seriously ill and all she wants is official recognition of why her son died. I know that the Attorney-General understands that, but could I urge him to do all he can to grant her wish before it is too late?

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he must also appreciate that my application is to quash the existing inquest verdict and, if that happens, for the court to order a fresh inquest or inquests. Once I have carried out my task of presenting the case to the court, my function will be at an end and I obviously cannot predict the time it would then take for the fresh inquests to take place. I have no doubt that, if the original inquest verdicts are quashed, it would be greatly in the public interest for the matter to move forward as quickly as possible, although, as I have told the House before, some criminal investigations might affect the time scale.

The e-petition calling for a speedy new inquest into Kevin’s death has passed the 100,000 mark in the past hour. May I add my voice to those of Government and Opposition Members calling for a speedy inquiry into Kevin’s death?

I fully appreciate the good reasons why many would sign such a petition. I acknowledge that entirely. I can only do my job properly and professionally. As I have said, a number of things have to take place, such as consultation with each individual family. Medical evidence also has to be reviewed so that I can reassure the court that any new inquest could reach an informed decision on the cause and time of death even on the basis of the paper documentation available. For that purpose, I have retained the services of an expert forensic pathologist. That just gives the House a flavour of what I have to do.

Could the Attorney-General assure the House that he has all the resources available to him to expedite this matter as quickly as possible?

Yes, this is not a resource issue; it is a mere time issue. We have written, for example, to the families—we have to consult them—and I think it is reasonable to give them a calendar month in which to respond, and that date has not yet expired. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that no short-cuts can be taken to take the matter to the court.

Prisoner Voting Rights

5. Whether he has given legal advice to the Secretary of State for Justice on the potential financial penalties the European Court of Human Rights could impose on the UK in respect of its policy on prisoners’ voting rights. (128882)

By long-standing convention observed by successive Governments, the fact and substance of advice from the Law Officers is not disclosed outside government. I hope that my hon. Friend will therefore understand why I cannot say whether I have given any legal advice in relation to this matter.

It may be helpful for my hon. Friend to know that the Strasbourg Court can order the payment of compensation and of legal costs and expenses, but cannot impose any other financial penalty. Non-financial sanctions are a matter for the Committee of Ministers and, ultimately, for the Council of Europe itself.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does he agree that this instance of judicial activism by the European Court of Human Rights seeks to undermine the democratic mandate of this House? Does he recognise that talk of the UK meeting its international obligations with respect to the Court’s judgment seems a bit premature when one considers that hundreds of unimplemented judgments are pending review by the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe?

No, I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. I do not believe that the democratic mandate of this House is challenged. Parliamentary sovereignty remains. It is open to Parliament to decide not to change the law. However, if Parliament chooses not to implement the judgment, it would be a serious matter, because it would place the UK in breach of international obligations to which it is a signatory. I accept that other countries are in breach of their implementation obligations, but that does not provide an excuse for not honouring our own.

In addition, it is right to point out that only one other pilot judgment, besides the Greens and MT judgment, has not been implemented. That is in a case concerning Ukraine. There are, of course, many hundreds of judgments at various stages of implementation, but that is a slightly different issue.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s answers are invariably works of scholarship, from which no matter that he judges could be of any conceivable interest would ever be excluded.

Does the Attorney-General agree that there are two good reasons why we should implement legislation on prisoners’ voting rights? Firstly, we would be adhering to our obligations under the European convention on human rights. Secondly, it is a useful part of the rehabilitative process that prisoners do not lose all their rights when they go to prison, but rather lose their liberty. The opportunity to vote is actually quite helpful, as the South Africans have found out now that they have universal voting rights for prisoners.

On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman may be correct. That is a matter for robust debate, which this House has had and may well continue to have on this subject. On the former point, it is right to say that the UK has always, in modern times, adhered to its international obligations. There are good reasons why a country should adhere to its international obligations, such as to set an example and to provide international confidence. Ultimately, of course, it is a matter for the House to determine.

Law on Contempt

In February 2011, an undertaking was given to the House that I would conduct an informal review of the law on contempt. As part of that process, I started consultations with various interested parties. However, my review has been overtaken by recent developments: Lord Neuberger’s report on super-injunctions, the Leveson inquiry and, of particular significance, the Law Commission’s review of the law on contempt. This last is a detailed and comprehensive formal review and the commission’s findings will doubtless inform what, if any, action is required from the Government.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that jurors are made aware of the sanctity of the jury room at the start of their jury service, and that possible offences under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, including use of social media, will be followed up?

Yes, I share my hon. Friend’s concern. The judiciary makes it clear to jurors that they must respect the sanctity of the jury room and avoid research on the internet. That message has been reinforced by a number of contempt proceedings that I have brought, including in the cases of Mrs Fraill, who revealed details of the jury’s deliberations, and Dr Dallas, who conducted research on the internet. Both received terms of imprisonment. I can also confirm that yesterday, the president of the Queen’s bench division issued a protocol on jury irregularities, which provides guidance to the judiciary and practitioners on how best to address contempt committed by jurors.

Jimmy Savile

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of cases referred to it in 2009 involving alleged sexual assaults by Jimmy Savile. (128885)

Neither I nor the Attorney-General have yet had discussions directly with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the case. This week, the Attorney-General was briefed by the principal legal adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Levitt QC, on her draft review, and I understand that that draft review is now with the director for consideration.

What consideration has been given to proposals by the Director of Public Prosecutions that the Crown Prosecution Service should be able to refer cases to other relevant agencies—such as social services—where it concludes that there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution?

The hon. Lady is right and it is an important point. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering its policy on how it shares information with other relevant agencies. It is, of course, important that disclosures and information that may be helpful in protecting a vulnerable person are shared where possible, and the Attorney-General and I feel that that process should be considered carefully and in a positive way.

Serious Fraud Office

I have appointed a new director to the Serious Fraud Office who started work in April. David Green QC has restructured the office, made high-profile appointments and built in layers of quality control. He has clearly restated the intent and purpose of the SFO, and I am confident that, as a result, we will see improved efficiency and performance. I have placed in the Libraries of both Houses the report of the inspection of the SFO by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, which I requested. I thank the chief inspector and his team for that helpful report, and confirm that the new director of the SFO has accepted all its recommendations and is already implementing them.

I thank the Attorney-General for that helpful reply. Does he agree that the SFO has a vital role to play in the drive against crime linked to corruption and bribery, but that UK exporters must know where they stand and be treated fairly? Can he confirm that the current guidelines are fit for purpose and that no major or fundamental changes will be made to them?

Bribery and corruption are serious offences. Guidelines have been published to help companies in that respect, and I have every confidence that no company will be prosecuted unless it has committed a serious offence. I cannot, however, give an undertaking that the guidelines will not be subject to review. The guidelines will evolve over time, and they are just that—guidelines. Ultimately, it is for the director of the SFO and the Director of Public Prosecutions to make a decision based on an evidential test and the public interest.

Two weeks ago we were astounded to learn that the former chief executive of the Serious Fraud Office had received an unauthorised send-off of £440,000 for just two years in the post. Last week we learned that the outgoing chief operating officer struck a confidential deal similar to that offered to Ms Williamson. What is the scale of that second payment and can it be stopped? Who knew about both payments, and when? Is this negligence, incompetence, or a deliberate bypassing of the system? Finally, what guarantees can the Attorney-General give the House that he is no longer asleep at the wheel?

First, neither I nor anyone in my office was aware of the irregular payments that were made. They came to light subsequently on the appointment of the new director, and are a matter of great concern to me, as are all irregular payments. I am satisfied that the new director has put in place all necessary measures to ensure that such a matter will not occur again. The hon. Lady asked about dates. I would be happy to write to her so that she is aware of exactly when the matter came to light, although I am afraid I do not have that recollection in my mind at the moment. I will ensure that her point about the chief operating officer is also answered.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that a request for further resources for the SFO to investigate the LIBOR scandal will be met favourably by the Government?

I reassure my hon. Friend that the matter has already met a favourable response from the Government in terms of ensuring that adequate funds are made available. My hon. Friends and colleagues in the Treasury will want reassurance that the money is being well used, but I am quite satisfied that money and resources are available for the SFO. The director and I are also quite satisfied that he has the necessary resources to carry out the investigation properly.

Middle East

Mr Speaker, with permission, I will make a statement on Gaza, the middle east peace process and Syria.

The whole House will be united in concern both at the intolerable situation for the residents of southern Israel, and at the grave loss of life and humanitarian suffering in Gaza, including the particular impact on children. On 14 November, the Israeli defence forces began air strikes against the Gaza strip in response to a sharp increase in rocket fire. Hamas and other militant groups responded with even greater rocket fire, although those attacks have been reduced in the last two days. As of today, three Israeli citizens have been killed, including one woman and one child, and at least 109 Palestinians have been killed, including 11 women and 26 children.

We have made clear both that Hamas bears principal responsibility for the start of the current crisis, but also that all sides have responsibilities. We quickly called on Israel to seek every opportunity to de-escalate its military response, and to observe international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties. At the meeting I attended in Brussels yesterday, EU Foreign Ministers condemned the rocket attacks on Israel and called for an urgent de-escalation and cessation of hostilities. We have also warned that a ground invasion of Gaza could lengthen the conflict, sharply increase civilian casualties, and erode international support for Israel’s position.

We wish to see an agreed ceasefire that stops the rocket attacks against Israel and ends Israeli military operations. Efforts to agree a ceasefire are continuing as I speak, and the UN Security Council will continue discussions on the situation today. More open access in and out of Gaza is part of any longer-term solution. We pay tribute to the efforts of the Egyptian Government and the UN Secretary-General to secure an agreed ceasefire, and have supported those efforts over the past few days. I discussed them with my European colleagues yesterday, and with the Egyptian, Israeli and Turkish Foreign Ministers over the weekend, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Morsi. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is in Ramallah today, where he will meet President Abbas, after visiting southern Israel yesterday.

There is no military solution to the crisis in Gaza or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace becomes harder to achieve with each military confrontation, each loss of life, and the creation of facts on the ground. The only way to give the Palestinian people the state that they need and deserve, and the Israeli people the security and peace they are entitled to, is through a negotiated two-state solution, and time for this is now running out. It requires Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations; Israel to stop illegal settlement building; Palestinian factions to reconcile with one another; and the international community, led by the United States and supported by European nations, to make a huge effort to push the peace process forward urgently.

While there is any chance of achieving a return to talks in the coming months, we continue to advise President Abbas against attempts to win Palestinian observer state status at the United Nations through a vote in the UN General Assembly. We judge that that would make it harder to secure a return to negotiations, and could have very serious consequences for the Palestinian Authority. Our collective goal must be a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the capital of both states, and a just settlement for refugees, so while we support Palestinian aspirations and understand the pressures on President Abbas, we urge him to lead the Palestinians into negotiations and not to risk paralysing the process, but we also urge Israel equally to make every effort to restart negotiations, before the window for a two-state solution closes altogether.

The urgency of all of this is underlined by the conflict in Syria. The whole House will join me in condemning the barbaric violence by the Assad regime, which continues its aerial warfare against Aleppo, Homs and Damascus itself. Thirty thousand people have died already, and more than 100 are still being killed each day. Countless homes, clinics, hospitals and essential infrastructure, such as water and sanitation systems, have been destroyed or severely damaged, and between 1 million and 3 million people have been displaced from their homes. There are appalling reports of rape and sexual violence by Government forces and militia, and as a form of torture in regime detention centres, which the UN Human Rights Council-mandated commission of inquiry has said could be prosecuted as crimes against humanity.

There are now well over 400,000 refugees in neighbouring countries. The impact on young Syrians is particularly acute, since 50% of all Syrian internally displaced persons and refugees are children. We are increasing our humanitarian assistance as the crisis grows and winter approaches, and our appeals to other members of the international community to give far more to UN relief efforts have been intensified. Our £53.5 million in humanitarian assistance so far includes £9.7 million for the World Food Programme to feed 80,000 people inside Syria each month; £4 million to the UN Refugee Agency to provide shelter and other basic relief items; and £9.7 million to other relief agencies for medical services and supplies, food parcels, water and sanitation services, distribution of blankets and hygiene kits.

In neighbouring countries, we have given £10 million for the UN Refugee Agency to provide shelter, protection, registration, and water and sanitation services to refugees; £5 million to the World Food Programme to feed 20,000 people; and £6 million to UNICEF to provide education and trauma support for children, and water and sanitation services. In Cairo last week, I called on other countries to increase their contribution to the relief effort, which the UN has described as “critically underfunded”. But what is urgently needed is a political transition to new and legitimate leadership that reflects the will of the Syrian people and that can end the violence and begin to rebuild the country with regional and international support. On 11 November there was a major breakthrough in Doha, with the establishment of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has been welcomed by many Syrians.

Last Friday, I met the president and two of the vice-presidents of the national coalition on their first visit to Europe. I sought assurances from them in three areas. First, I urged them to commit themselves to developing their political structures, widening their support among all sections of Syrian society, and agreeing a detailed political transition plan for Syria. Secondly, I encouraged them to use the next Friends of Syria meeting, which we hope will be held in Morocco next month, to set out a plan for Syria’s future in detail. Thirdly, I urged them to show a clear commitment to human rights and international humanitarian law, including the protection of all religious communities and unfettered and safe access for humanitarian agencies. In response, they stressed their determination to build on the Doha agreement and to leave the door open to other opposition groups to join them. They spoke of their intention to win the trust of Syrians from all communities, to be a moderate political force committed to democracy, and not to repeat the abuses of the Assad regime. They told me that their priority was protecting the civilian population against attack, and focusing on achieving a political transition. It would be for the people of Syria, they told me, to approve a future Government.

These are important and encouraging statements by the national coalition. They have much to do to win the full support of the Syrian people and to co-ordinate opposition efforts more effectively, but it is strongly in the interests of Syria, of the wider region, and of the United Kingdom that we support them and deny space to extremist groups. On the basis of the assurances I received and my consultations with European partners yesterday, Her Majesty’s Government have decided to recognise the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. As the president of the national coalition said to me on Friday, recognition imposes responsibilities on the coalition, and we will continue to press them to uphold their commitments.

I can also announce a significant increase in practical support for the Syrian opposition by the United Kingdom. First, we will invite the coalition to appoint a political representative to the UK, and we will offer support to them as they set up their political and humanitarian structures. Secondly, we will provide a £1 million package of communications support, which could, for instance, include mobile internet hubs and satellite phones to improve their ability to communicate inside Syria. Thirdly, we will urgently deploy a stabilisation response team to the region to work with the coalition to develop its plan to meet people’s basic needs in opposition-held areas. This team will draw up recommendations for areas for further UK assistance.

Fourthly, and separately, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is looking at increasing our assistance to Syrians affected by the conflict. This could include increasing our humanitarian medical assistance for wounded Syrian civilians by providing UK funding for hospitals and mobile clinics, and training for health workers. We also intend to launch new work to build on our existing work to support victims of sexual violence in Syria.

This new package of support amounts to about £2 million of immediate commitments, and we will look to expand this considerably in the coming months. This comes on top of the training of citizen journalists, human rights advocates, doctors and Syrian activists that we have already provided, and the generators, communications equipment and water purification kits for unarmed opposition groups and civil society that I announced during the summer. Alongside that increased political and practical support, we are pressing the EU to increase its support to civil society in Syria.

We will continue to increase the pressure on Assad and those who support him through EU sanctions, including seeking accountability through the UN’s commission of inquiry. We also expect there to be discussions in NATO in the coming days about supporting the security of Turkey, and we will continue to work with all of Syria’s neighbours to help them mitigate the effects of the crisis. We will also step up our support for political transition and our planning for the day after Assad.

Finally, we will continue to support the work of the UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, whom I met a few days ago in Cairo, and we will renew our efforts to persuade Russia and China to work with us at the UN Security Council. I will take every opportunity to urge my Russian and Chinese colleagues to support a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria. Without such a solution, everything that they and we most fear is coming closer, including ever greater loss of life, instability in neighbouring countries and an opportunity for extremists to pursue their own ends.

The basis for such a political settlement is clear. A credible alternative to the Assad regime is emerging that has the growing support of the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and an increasing number of other countries, and we have an agreed basis for a transition in the form of the Geneva communiqué, which all permanent members of the UN Security Council signed up to in June. In the absence of that political and diplomatic solution, however, we will not rule out any option in accordance with international law that might save innocent lives in Syria and prevent the destabilisation of a region that remains critical to the security of the United Kingdom and the peace of the whole world.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for making his statement and for giving me early sight of it today. I shall first address the issue of Syria and the announcement that the Foreign Secretary made in his statement, and I wish to note my recent visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which has been appropriately registered.

As we have just heard from the Foreign Secretary, only a credible and inclusive transition plan and a united opposition hold the prospect of being a bridge between conflict and a sustainable peace in Syria. Until now, not only the Security Council but the Syrian opposition have been disastrously divided. Over many months, the Russians have continued to ask the west, “So if Assad goes, what comes next?” On 11 November, however, we saw the establishment of the new Syrian national coalition in Doha.

Last week, the Opposition called on the Government to recognise the new Syrian national coalition, so I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement today that the British Government have taken the decision to recognise it as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Recognition is a vital step forward, but can he tell us whether he intends to use this new-found unity within the opposition as the basis for a fresh diplomatic approach to the Russians?

The Opposition are clear that the correct focus for the UK’s efforts on Syria in the days and months ahead must be helping to unify the Syrian opposition, not helping to arm them, so will the Foreign Secretary give the House a guarantee that the recognition of the Syrian national coalition is not a precursor to arming the Syrian opposition fighters, which he must acknowledge would be against the European arms embargo currently in place?

The emergence of a political process must not distract us from the pressing humanitarian crisis. On my recent visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, I saw for myself the sheer scale of the human suffering that is a devastating consequence of this war in Syria.

As winter approaches, with more than 2.5 million of Syria’s 23 million people now displaced and non-governmental organisations warning that 200,000 Syrian refugee children are at serious risk from freezing temperatures, action is needed. I therefore welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcement that the British Government will be increasing British aid, but will he set out what specific steps he and his colleagues in Government will take to encourage others in the international community to increase their support in the face of the growing humanitarian crisis to which he referred? There is still a significant shortfall in the funds for the UN appeal for Syria. Britain must play its part in encouraging others to contribute and make up this inexcusable shortfall.

Let me turn now to the issue of Gaza. In common with those on the Government Benches, we abhor the loss of life that we have seen in recent days. The Foreign Secretary has reiterated today that principal responsibility for the start of the crisis lies with Hamas. Of course the recent rocket attacks into southern Israel, targeted at a civilian population, deserve our categorical condemnation, but does he accept that although the rockets were the proximate cause, the deeper causes of the latest crisis reflect the failure over years and decades to achieve a two-state solution? Every time a military solution is prioritised over a political solution, greater future problems are generated. Indeed, there is and can be no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israelis have stressed that their response is justified by the recent escalation of Hamas rocket attacks. No civilian population should have to live in such constant fear, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that acknowledging—as I do—Israel’s right to defend itself does not oblige the British Government to suspend judgment on the wisdom of its chosen actions? As a response to the rocket attacks from Gaza four years ago, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, in which 13 Israelis and more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed. Operation Cast Lead had the aim of

“destroying the apparatus of terror”,

yet four years on Hamas is still in power in Gaza. More than 1,000 missiles have been launched from Gaza into Israel this year, and in recent days rockets have reached Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem. Since Operation Pillar of Defence began on Wednesday, three Israelis and more than 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore accept that the scale of the casualties in Gaza, together with the continuing blockade, fuels hatred and emboldens those seeking to isolate Israel internationally? Does he also accept that the marginalisation of the Palestinian Authority by these events further diminishes the prospects for immediate negotiations—and, indeed, Palestinian unity—and that Hamas will undoubtedly claim itself to be the victor, whatever the outcome of the operation or, indeed, the negotiations currently under way in Cairo?

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that if the operating logic of Hamas is terror and the operating logic of Israel is deterrence, then pleas for restraint risk simply falling on deaf ears? We on the Opposition Benches have for a number of days been urging not simply restraint, but an immediate cessation of violence. We have been clear that a full-scale ground invasion would be a disaster for the peoples of both Gaza and Israel. It would risk escalating the already spiralling death toll and further damage the hope for peace and security. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that, given reports of overflowing wards in Gazan hospitals and the prior degradation of those facilities as a result of the blockade, free and unfettered access, including free passage through crossings, should urgently be guaranteed for medical and humanitarian personnel? Will he also set out what discussions he has had with the Egyptians about humanitarian access and stemming the flow of arms into Gaza—specifically Iranian missile technology—not only in these volatile days of conflict, but in the longer term?

On Saturday, Opposition Members called for a full-scale UN diplomatic initiative to end the violence. We urged the Secretary-General of the United Nations to travel to the region, and we welcome the fact that he has now done so, because sustained international engagement will be vital in helping to bring the conflict to an end. Past military action has failed to bring a durable peace. The fear of the Israeli population today stands alongside the suffering of the Palestinian people. Permanent occupation and blockade is not a strategy for peace; it is a recipe for repeated conflict. Talk of the “middle east peace process” ignores the fact that, sadly, today there is no peace and there is no process. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the long-term security of Israel will depend on its readiness to be as bold in seeking peace as it has been in using military force? At a minimum, that means that Israel must immediately end illegal settlement expansion, which is currently a key barrier to advancing negotiations.

Labour urges the Government to reconsider their stated opposition—repeated again today—and instead support the Palestinians’ bid for enhanced status at the United Nations at this month’s General Assembly meeting. This is not an alternative to negotiations, but a bridge for beginning them. The Foreign Secretary in his statement argued that recognition at the UN could “risk paralysing the process”, but when will he understand that there is at present no process, only paralysis? There is continued illegal settlement building. There are continued rocket attacks. There is continued fear and anxiety. There is continued occupation. There is continued blockade. But there are no meaningful negotiations, and there have not been any for a number of years. The suggestion that enhanced recognition of the Palestinians could somehow imperil progress in the peace process implies that progress is being achieved—and, indeed, that a peace process exists. At present, sadly, neither statement is true. Let us acknowledge this fact. After decades of diplomatic failure, increasingly some are questioning whether a two-state solution is any longer possible. That is why it is vital that as an international community, amidst the undoubted despair and the disappointment, we encourage the Palestinians to take the path of politics and reject the path of violence, and we rekindle hopes that there is a credible route to a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel achieved by negotiations. The British Government, among others, have a heavy responsibility to advance that goal at the United Nationals in the coming weeks.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Although there is one difference between us, on the UN General Assembly, I welcome his support and the fact that there is so much accord across the House on so many of these subjects and—taking them in the order he raised them—certainly on the new national coalition of the Syrian opposition. As he said, he has called for their recognition. Before the Government gave that recognition, I very much wanted to look into their eyes and ask the questions that I set out earlier, but I have given that recognition, and it is right to do so. All of us across the House have referred for a long time—as the right hon. Gentleman did in his questions—to the need for a unified opposition and the absence of that in the past as one of the obstacles to peace in Syria. Now that the Syrian opposition have done their utmost and made so many compromises to form a national coalition, it is right that we get behind them and that as much as possible of the world gets behind them. It is right for us to join in that, and we now look to the Syrian opposition to fulfil the commitments they have made.

We have taken no decision consequent on that—or no decision at all as things stand—to change our policy on the EU arms embargo. We look at all options, as I have repeated today. We rule out no options. It is the job of the National Security Council to look at all options, particularly as the crisis worsens. At the moment it is going in the wrong direction, but we have taken no decision as things stand to change the policy. We are certainly putting other nations under a lot of pressure—there is a lot of persuasion—to increase the aid they are giving to address the huge humanitarian suffering that I and the right hon. Gentleman have seen on the borders of Syria. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development convened a meeting of many nations on this issue at the UN General Assembly. Since then some of them have increased their aid. Last week I attended the meeting of EU and Arab League Foreign Ministers in Cairo, and that was one of the main points I made to them—that increased contributions, particularly from the Arab world, will be necessary as winter comes and the number of refugees continues to increase—so I think I can readily agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman said on that subject.

Of course we will now—again, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested—use the fact that the opposition have come together in an unprecedented way to renew our diplomatic efforts with Russia. If one of Russia’s objections is—and it always has been—that there is no single interlocutor on the opposition side, that objection at least has now been removed to the possibility of diplomatic progress. I stress that it remains the case that the only real solution in Syria is a diplomatic and political solution. Neither side has anywhere near the military strength to overthrow or remove the other. Even if they did so, they would then be dealing with a deeply fractured society for generations.

There is a lot of agreement on many aspects of the middle east peace process. Whenever a conflict such as this one in Gaza occurs, it is vital to remember the wider picture. At the root of all this is the failure to make progress on the middle east peace process. It is absolutely right to point to the sharp increase in rocket attacks—they have gone up steadily over the years since Operation Cast Lead—producing the current crisis, but it is also quite right to make clear the need for improved access in and out of Gaza in order to allow humanitarian assistance and trade to proceed. It is a mistake by Israel to have such tight restrictions on Gaza; we have often made that clear.

The one point of difference between the right hon. Gentleman and me has been over the tactics of the UN General Assembly, and I want to explain the reason for the Government’s position. Time is running out for the two-state solution. Owing to unacceptable settlement building on the west bank and in east Jerusalem, we are not far from a two-state solution becoming impossible and unviable. With the Israeli election coming to an end in January, with the US election now over, and with time clearly running out, this coming year will be a critical one. People always say, “This will be a critical year,” but this really is one. If progress towards a two-state solution is not made in the coming year, it will, in all probability, not be made.

The message that we have given to the United States is that it is vital that they and we and the major EU countries put our full weight behind this over the coming months. However, we have to ask whether a motion on observer status being carried at the UN General Assembly now would make that easier or more difficult. There is a perfectly respectable and legitimate case for saying that it would be right to pass such a motion because this has gone on for so long and because Palestinian frustrations are so intense, for understandable reasons. I believe, however, that the balance of judgment comes down on the side of saying that to do so would be more likely to retard efforts to restart the peace process than to advance them—[Interruption.] Hon. Members will make different judgments about that. We will see, over time, what the reality is.

If such a motion is carried, we must of course move heaven and earth to prevent it from retarding the peace process and the attempt to restart negotiations. Our message to the United States would be the same. As things stand, however, because of the possible reaction of the US Congress and the possibility of Israel withholding tax revenues, the position of the Palestinian Authority could be made worse by the passage of such a resolution. We will therefore use our vote on this in whatever way we think will keep open the best prospect of negotiations. We will consult closely with our partners in the European Union about this, as I was doing yesterday. I hope that there will be a large measure of European agreement on how to vote on the resolution.

That is the reason for our position on the matter, and it has the best interests of the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state at heart. In international diplomacy, when our heart and our head pull in different directions, we have to give precedence to the considerations of our head, and the best way to pursue the peace process is to put our full weight behind it in the coming months.

Order. Inevitably, I have granted some latitude to the two Front Benches to enable them to treat of all the various matters involved. In trying to accommodate this level of interest, given other pressures on time, it would help if right hon. and hon. Members could confine themselves to a single short question, rather than covering all the terrain. Such questions will, I know, be followed by a typically succinct reply from the Foreign Secretary.

In view of the increasing gravity of the situation in the middle east, will my right hon. Friend ask the Leader of the House and Mr Speaker whether they will arrange a full-scale parliamentary debate on the middle east in prime time next week, with time limits on Back-Bench speeches of not less than 15 minutes, so that we can have a proper Back-Bench debate and not a series of soundbites?

I think that that is a question for my colleagues, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House has heard that request. I must say, however, that it would be a tragedy if the comments of my right hon. Friend the Father of the House were limited to 15 minutes.

Given that the experience of the past decade or more is that Israel pockets any concession made by the west to accommodate its position and then not only does nothing but makes the situation worse—by illegal settlement building, for example—will the Foreign Secretary please reconsider his position on the British Government’s refusal to vote for the United Nations General Assembly resolution? He is a man of great fluency, and he normally convinces the House with his arguments, but I find his reason for that refusal utterly incomprehensible. It is not that I disagree with it; I simply do not understand why our voting for the resolution would make the situation worse. Surely it would make it much better.

I always listen carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, for obvious reasons. For the sake of clarity, I should say that the Government have taken no decision yet on how to vote on the resolution. We are arguing against the holding of such a vote, which would be carried in the UN General Assembly, because of the number of nations in favour of it. As I mentioned earlier, we will consult closely with our EU partners on this matter. There was a time when the right hon. Gentleman used to place great weight on the views of European Union Foreign Ministers, and after yesterday’s discussions, I believe that most of them have the same view as ours. That is the majority view for a reason: there is genuine anxiety about whether it would be possible, in the remaining short window, to restart the middle east peace process negotiations if the motion were carried now. It is therefore a tactical difference. There is a respectable difference of opinion on the matter, but I come down on that side of the judgment.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the emergence of the Syrian national coalition, and this Government’s welcome recognition of it today, removes a major barrier to the supply of defensive military equipment to the Syrian resistance? As the European embargo is due to expire on 1 December, and as President Hollande of France has said that France is now willing to reconsider the supply of defensive military equipment, will the Foreign Secretary look at this matter constructively? Does he recognise that what he rightly described as the barbaric violence of the Syrian regime against the civilian communities will not come to an end unless and until the Syrian resistance is able to defend itself?

My right hon. and learned Friend has consistently made the case for the active arming of the Syrian opposition by western countries. In response, I have often pointed out some of the disadvantages of that course of action. There is no automatic change in our policy on that as a result of the recognition of the Syrian opposition. I have discussed the issues with the French Foreign Minister. The arms embargo is due to be rolled over and continued from 1 December, as part of the entire package of Syrian sanctions. Whatever one’s views on the arms embargo, we very much want to maintain all those sanctions, so any changes would rely on a subsequent amendment to the overall sanctions package. There has been no request from France to the EU to change that position at this stage. We will keep all the options under review, but we have made no decision to change our policy on arms supplies, as things stand.

But surely the Foreign Secretary must accept that his specific and chilling refusal to rule out western, British-backed military activity in Syria will make a disastrous policy even more disastrous. Nobody can win this civil war. Assad’s savage regime has the backing of at least a third of the population, including Christians and other minorities. The conflict is also a proxy for Sunni versus Shi’a, for Saudi Arabia versus Iran and for the west versus Russia and China. We have to resolve this by political settlement, not by upping the military stakes.

I think I made the point a few moments ago that there can only be a political and diplomatic solution. It is also important to point out that no one knows exactly how events in Syria will proceed in the coming months and years. Situations such as the one that arose in Libya last year and the present one in Syria are uncharted territory in international affairs. It is foolish to rule out options when we do not know how the situation will proceed. However, it is right to place huge emphasis on diplomatic and political progress and on humanitarian assistance, as I have done in my statement.

Israel has an unambiguous right to defend itself, but along with such rights go duties, and in this case the duty is to use only proportionate means to effect that defence. Does my right hon. Friend believe that targeted assassination, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the imposition of casualties on women and children are consistent with that duty?

Of course all our efforts have to be directed to making sure there is a ceasefire, and only at a subsequent stage could one make the judgment that my right hon. and learned Friend is inviting me to make. I have not shied away from it in the past, as he knows; in fact, during the Lebanon war when we were in opposition, I was very clear about the disproportionality of what happened. In this case, we have to ask ourselves whether the current conflict in Gaza would be taking place without the increase in rocket attacks, which have gone up from 200 in 2010 to more than 1,300 before this conflict began and up to last week. That is clearly an intolerable situation in the south of Israel, so we have to bear that in mind as well.

Does the fact that Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel, that in 2005 Israel removed all its 9,000 settlers and soldiers from Gaza and that that was followed by Hamas firing thousands of rockets from civilian centres in Gaza targeted at Israeli citizens mean that Israel deserves full support in defending its citizens against this aggression?

We are rightly critical of Israel when there are civilian casualties, but we have to bear in mind that for Hamas and other groups firing rockets out of Gaza, the sole intention is to cause civilian casualties; that is the entire purpose of what they do. We are right to stress the responsibilities on Israel and the need to stop settlement building and restart the peace process, but also the responsibility on Hamas to renounce violence, to recognise previous agreements and to recognise the right of Israel to exist. Such things would also be immense steps forward in the peace process in the middle east.

Over the weekend, Israel was widely condemned for a military strike on an international media centre in Gaza in breach of the Geneva convention. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it was in fact a base for Islamic Jihad and that the only person who lost their life was its military commander?

I have heard that, but I hesitate to confirm the actual fact definitively. Certainly the Israelis explained that, rather than targeting a media centre, they were targeting a different organisation. We have also been in touch with the media organisations concerned. I very much take my hon. Friend’s point.

Is it not interesting that when Assad lethally represses the Syrian people, he is the bad guy, yet when Netanyahu lethally represses the Palestinian people, he is the goodbye—[Interruption.] I mean the good guy—I wish it was goodbye! Also, when the Syrians respond with brutal force to that repression, they are the good guys, yet when Palestinians respond with brutal force to that repression, they are the bad guys. It is this kind of discriminatory attitude by the international community that will prevent there being peace in the middle east.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I always have a great deal of time and respect for him, although I think that in that question he tends towards a caricature of the situation in the middle east. I do not think that is the attitude of anybody in this House; there are responsibilities on all sides. Our response—the response of the western world—is, yes, to give assistance to the Syrian people, but it is also to give a huge amount of assistance to Palestinians. DFID’s current programme provides £359 million for the Palestinian Authority and for humanitarian assistance, including in Gaza. We are trying to assist everyone in desperate need in the middle east—Palestinians and Syrians.

I draw the House’s attention to my interests as declared in the register. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a world of difference between Hamas, which specifically targets Israeli children, and Israel, which does its best to avoid killing Palestinian children, although both sometimes fail?

Yes. As I pointed out a moment ago, it is important to remember that the rockets launched against Israel have no other purpose than to cause civilian casualties. That is the only reason they are fired. It is important to bear that in mind. Of course Israel’s Iron Dome system means that it is able to stop a large part of them, and some rockets are inaccurate in any case, but that is little consolation to the people who have to be within 30 seconds of a shelter in southern Israel. My right hon. Friend thus points out an important difference.

Is not the lesson of the last decade that meaningful progress towards a two-state solution is made only when American Presidents in their second term use that freedom to make the huge effort that the right hon. Gentleman says is required? What, then, are he and the Prime Minister doing to persuade Barack Obama that he needs to make such an effort?

The right hon. Gentleman is broadly right. We have already had that discussion with President Obama earlier in the year, and I have discussed the issue many times with Secretary Clinton and, just a few days ago, with Senator Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The United States must now make its decision. As the re-elected Administration, albeit with many new personnel, is established, they must now take their decisions. Throughout that, the US will hear very clearly from us at every level that this provides an opportunity—perhaps the last opportunity—to push this forward. If that does not happen within a year from now, the US would probably find the votes of many European nations very different, the process very different and American leadership of that process in considerable doubt.

In his statement, my right hon. Friend said that the security of Israel and the security of the region have a direct impact on UK national security and the peace of the whole world. Given that the current diplomatic efforts, and indeed efforts over the last few years, have failed, would he consider a new possible solution: an EU security treaty with Israel in return for substantive and meaningful negotiations over land?

There is an important role for the European Union and its nations, but for the moment or for the coming months, we must not take our eyes away from the goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the United States playing a leading role. The US still has a unique degree of leverage over all concerned and a particular influence on Israel, so it is important for the Americans to be able to lead such efforts. The EU should act in a way that buttresses and supports those efforts—unless they are not made or come to an end.

The Foreign Secretary has rightly drawn attention to the impact on children. The 13,000 rockets fired into Israel since 2001 have led to many children and young people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, while the children in Gaza must fear the terror from the Israeli action and also from Hamas. I urge the Foreign Secretary to redouble his efforts to call for peace, because of the impact of these events on these children’s future, which will be lifelong.

Yes, the hon. Lady makes a very important point. That is why we support the current efforts to bring in a ceasefire. I pay tribute again—I referred to it in my statement—to the efforts of the Egyptian Government over the last few days. This is a new Government with a new presidency and a new system of government. Our impression is that the presidency, the Foreign Ministry and other Egyptian agencies have worked together cohesively, talking both to Hamas and Israel to try to bring about a ceasefire. We have to support their efforts.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the greatest stride towards peace was made when President Sadat signed the treaty between Egypt and Israel? Does he share my disappointment at the recent statement by President Morsi of Egypt that the present situation constitutes an act of aggression solely by the Israelis?

While that statement is different from what my hon. Friend or I might say about the origins of this, I hope that he will bear in mind the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) about the very constructive role being played by Egypt. My experience, and the Prime Minister’s experience, of meeting President Morsi suggested to us that he wants a peaceful future for his country, that he has not turned against the peace treaty with Israel, and that he knows the importance of building up the economy and society of Egypt and not having conflict on his borders. I think that we should give him the space and time in which to accomplish those things.

No one is trying to justify rocket firing into Israel, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that Israeli air strikes have caused so many civilian casualties in Gaza that the killing of children—the burning to death of children—should be considered a war crime? As for the overall position, is not the truth of the matter that since the state of Israel was created in 1948, and even more since the 1967 war, the Israeli authorities have refused to recognise the legitimate entitlement of the Palestinian people to statehood, dignity and a proper life? That is the real issue that faces the international community now.

There have been failings on all sides. I do not want to agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. On other occasions, he has heard me criticise both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships from the Dispatch Box for their failure to make progress in the peace process. Many opportunities have been missed by both sides, but it is our job in the international community to try to bring them closer together and to ask for de-escalation rather than inflaming these situations. I will not, therefore, take up his invitation to go down a more dramatic rhetorical path.

Given that it is firing missiles on civilians while hiding behind civilians, is it not Hamas that is guilty of war crimes?

All these terms and accusations are flung around in the world and across the House, and the extreme feelings engendered by these situations are completely understandable. Indeed, we have referred several times to the targeting of civilians by Hamas, and to the way in which they have sometimes shielded themselves behind civilians. I stress, however, that our job now is to de-escalate and use the language of de-escalation, and to encourage that to happen over the coming hours.

It is welcome that the British Government followed France in recognising the Syrian national coalition, but merely saying that it is the sole legitimate representative does not make it so. What action is being taken to deal with the problem that has already arisen in Aleppo, where groups have rejected the coalition’s leadership, and to secure international recognition for it as well as its effectiveness in Syria?

I think that there will be further international recognition for the coalition—I think that, for example, other EU countries will recognise it, in stages—and that growing international recognition will in turn lead to an increase in practical support. I have announced several areas in which we would increase our own practical support and channel it through the coalition, and if other countries do the same, that will steadily add to their credibility inside and outside Syria. Obviously we cannot control or dictate the reactions of all groups in Syria, but from all that we understand, the coalition has received a warm welcome from many people there. I do not think that we shall see a better attempt to create an umbrella opposition group, and I think that we should therefore get behind this one.

Egypt surely has a key role to play, given its proximity to Gaza and its Government’s proximity to Hamas. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore continue to encourage it to broker a genuine ceasefire, and, together with others in the region, to enforce both the ceasing of fire and, crucially, the ceasing of the supply of weapons to terrorists?

Yes, we are fully engaged in that process. I have spoken to my Egyptian counterpart twice during the last few days, and the Prime Minister spoke to President Morsi at the weekend. We are strongly encouraging Egypt in that regard. However, it has more than a responsibility to try to bring about a ceasefire. In a diplomatic context, in the aftermath of the tragic sequence of events over the last week, there is an opportunity to work with Israel to deal with security challenges as well as improving the overall situation in Gaza, and I hope that Egypt will move on to that.

Will the Foreign Secretary encourage fairer and more balanced reporting of the middle east conflict, rather than the anti-Israel bias that seems to be featuring in the news? Will he do all that he can to ensure that Hamas stops hiding behind the civilian population, deliberately putting them in the line of fire and in danger of death, and using that as political propaganda?

The hon. Gentleman has illustrated well the fact that serious accusations can be made on all sides. Hamas certainly seems, as so often, to have had little regard for civilian life. As for the question of balanced reporting, it is not in my remit or in the power of Her Majesty’s Government, but it is very much to be encouraged.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence does not extend to a pre-emptive attack on Iran?

My hon. Friend has introduced a different subject, and one on which he has often given his views to the House. He knows from my earlier answers that we have counselled Israel against a military attack on Iran in circumstances in which we are pursuing a twin-track policy of intensified sanctions and negotiations with Iran, and that remains the position.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that unless the blockade of Gaza is ended, there will be little chance of a permanent end to the violence?

More open access into and out of Gaza is an important part of the solution there. That includes access for more normal items of trade as well as people. I made that point briefly in my statement, but I am happy to reiterate it.

Since the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, nearly 7,000 missiles have been fired on Israeli towns by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In this year alone, 47,000 tonnes of food and provisions and 300 trucks went from Israel into Gaza. Does my right hon. Friend think that Israel’s response in taking out missile silos in Gaza is proportionate?

I will not expand on the answer that I gave to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and become involved in defining different degrees of proportionality. I have, I think, laid out clearly the responsibility for precipitating the current crisis—the exchange of fire with Hamas that has taken place over the last five days—and I do not want to enter into any finer judgments than that. We would now like an agreed ceasefire between both sides.

The right hon. Gentleman gave us an up-to-date account of the involvement of our Department for International Development, along with NGOs, in the relief effort in Syria. Can he give us a similar update on their contribution—it must be a dreadful situation—in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel?

Yes, if the right hon. Gentleman would like me to. DFID’s Palestinian programme is contributing £359 million to—among other things—provide primary education for more than 36,000 children, immunise 2,000 children a year against measles, train and equip the Palestinian police so that they can provide a more professional service, provide basic services for refugees across the region, and help to develop the private sector in order to stimulate the economy. Until 2015, £106 million of that funding is going specifically to UNRWA and one third of that to Gaza.

Will the Foreign Secretary congratulate President Morsi of Egypt on his moderating role in this crisis and heed his advice to vote yes to the recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, thereby demonstrating some small progress for those Palestinians who are promoting the path of diplomacy, not violence?

This is the debate that we entered into earlier, and I have had that discussion with my Egyptian counterpart a couple of times already, understandably. There are wholly legitimate points of view about that. My judgment is that it is important to do whatever is necessary to support a return to negotiations, and that a vote now in the General Assembly does not support that. That is the Government’s considered view. We will continue to discuss with our European partners how we should respond to any actual vote.

Can the Foreign Secretary have a word with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is apparently in Ramallah today, and who visited southern Israel yesterday? Will he suggest to the Under-Secretary that he should go on to visit Gaza, and talk to the people of Gaza and their elected representatives and examine for himself the destruction Israeli war planes have wrought on the people of Gaza? That would be a way of promoting the unity of all the Palestinian people, which is what the Foreign Secretary says he wants. This opportunity should not be missed or wasted.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is very busy in the region today. I am not going to comment on his programme, for security reasons, but he has not only visited southern Israel—he is in the west bank today. He has now had his meeting with President Abbas. I am not going to speculate about where my hon. Friend will go next, but of course we will want to understand the humanitarian needs in Gaza and the extent of the damage that has been caused, as well as to alleviate that problem for people in Gaza and in southern Israel.

First, I declare an interest: I have just returned from a trip to Israel and the west bank. Israel has made genuine efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza, to maintain the fabric of civilian life there, and that has been done despite the current hostilities and increased number of rocket attacks. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his Israeli counterpart as to the importance of this humanitarian support?

My Israeli counterpart frequently makes that point, and it is true that Israel sends that humanitarian support. Nevertheless, I think there are additional steps that it is important for Israel to take. We have been talking about some of them, including freer access for others into and out of Gaza. That must be part of any longer-term solution for Gaza.

What conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office to ensure that relations between different British communities are not adversely affected by the violence in the middle east?

Since one of our Ministers of State, Baroness Warsi, has a DCLG hat as well, we are in constant—hourly—discussion about such matters. They are important, of course, but it is also important to pursue the right foreign policy for the United Kingdom bearing in mind the whole interests of the UK, and that is how I regard these subjects as Foreign Secretary.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the aim of our diplomacy is not only to reduce these rocket attacks but to bring them to an end? Surely we in this country would not have put up with hundreds of long-range missiles being fired into our centres of population? If some of those rockets had landed in Fife, even the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) might have had something to say about that.

I am sure he would, although he is no longer in the Chamber and I will not put words into his mouth. My hon. Friend makes a wholly legitimate point, but at the same time we must, of course, recognise that it is important to bring the entire conflict to an end, of which the violence in the last week is another tragic symptom. It is important for Israel to address itself to doing that, as well as to the immediate security of its population.

Palestinian victims of Israeli atrocities are so many that they often go unnamed. I would like to name the four youngest members of the El Dallo family: Sara, 7; Jamal, 6; Yusef, 4; and Ibrahim, 2. They were four of nine family members and of 26 children killed in Israeli air strikes in the last week. Does the Secretary of State accept that hundreds more Palestinian children will die, as they did four years ago, if he and other western leaders do not put more pressure on Israel not to launch a ground assault?

I think I have made very clear what we believe about a ground assault, and in my statement I briefly gave several reasons why that would lose Israel a great deal of international support. The Israelis are very clear about the message they are receiving from the United Kingdom on that. The best thing we can do to avoid more names being added to that list is to support those trying to bring about an agreed ceasefire, but that has to be a ceasefire on both sides, of course, and it has to include an end to rocket fire against Israel as well as an end to Israeli military operations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is easy to call for Israel to show restraint from the safety of this Chamber, but showing such restraint is difficult for those living with the daily threat of seeing their family and friends wiped out by the rockets fired from Gaza?

That is true, of course. We heard earlier about the need for balanced media reporting. Some of the recent media reporting has brought out what a terrifying experience the current situation is for people in southern Israel as well as for people in Gaza. It is important to understand that, and to direct ourselves to bringing this situation to an end.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that his repeated claim that Hamas bears principal responsibility for the current crisis is gravely misleading, as it completely ignores the five-year blockade Israel has put on Gaza, which the UN has called a policy of collective punishment? It is illegal under international law. What more will he do to put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade?

I have already addressed the need to do that. I hope the hon. Lady heard that, but I also hope she is clear that if there had not been rocket fire—and an increase in rocket fire—in recent days and weeks, we would not now be debating this situation or the deaths of so many people on either side, so I think she should think again about who is misleading people about that.

I took the use of the word “misleading” by the hon. Lady a moment ago to be a reference to inadvertent misleading. I am sure she would not suggest the Foreign Secretary would seek knowingly to mislead the House. We do not entertain such thoughts in this Chamber.

Does my right hon. Friend have any information on the supply of sophisticated weaponry to Hamas from the Iranian regime?

I do not have any information I can give the House of Commons on that, but I do believe Iran is involved in sending weapons to Hamas, as I mentioned on the television a couple of days ago. That contributes further to this type of crisis, of course, instead of turning people’s minds to a negotiated settlement and a peaceful way forward, and Iran should desist from that.

The Foreign Secretary will no doubt be aware of the understandable concerns of many about the nature of Israel’s response to the rocket attacks, but may I press him to say something more about an issue that many of my constituents are concerned about, and to which the shadow Foreign Secretary alluded: the growing crisis in the Gaza hospitals, and whether they are able to cope with the number of casualties they are seeing?

Those hospitals, particularly UNRWA health centres and food distribution centres, benefit from the support of some of the DFID money I was talking about earlier, and which has been established for several years. My information is that at the moment the majority of those health centres and food distribution centres are managing to operate, and valiant attempts are made to continue that, of course. We will watch what is happening very closely, however. We are in touch with the situation, and I know my DFID colleagues are following it very closely as well.