House of Commons
Wednesday 28 November 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Energy Generation Sector
Before I answer the question, Mr Speaker, with your permission I would like to express my sympathy—and, I am sure, that of the whole House—for the victims of the flooding in north Wales and our thanks for the hard work of the emergency services. I propose to visit the affected area tomorrow.
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on the prospects for the energy generation sector in Wales, particularly in relation to the recent good news that Horizon Nuclear Power has been bought by Hitachi, helping to secure the future for new nuclear on Anglesey.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and join him in paying tribute to our emergency services. On the specific issue of nuclear power, in my constituency of Pendle we have the excellent Graham Engineering, which is part of the nuclear supply chain and supports more than 300 local jobs. In light what he has just said about the Hitachi-Horizon announcement and nuclear generation in Wales, can he say more about supply chain job creation in both Wales and other parts of the UK?
The announcement by Hitachi provides an enormous opportunity for all those involved in the nuclear industry in this country, particularly those in the supply chain. I am heartened that Hitachi has already said that up to 60% of the total cost of the first nuclear reactor will come from British content. I have no doubt that there is a tremendous opportunity for companies such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I welcome the support the Secretary of State has given to Horizon and for the takeover by Hitachi. To get 21st-century technologies such as offshore wind and nuclear power on to the grid, we need to improve the infrastructure, and 21st-century infrastructure should include subsea and subsea stations. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the proposals from National Grid that are in front of the public in north Wales?
I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done in seeking to obtain new nuclear on Anglesey. He knows that I have always been anxious to work closely with him on all aspects of nuclear generation on Anglesey and of course I am prepared to meet him, because he has raised a very important point.
As the Secretary of State knows, Wales is very well placed for energy generation and the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project plans to offer educational services to the university in Swansea to foster skills in green energy creation. Will he commend the project and those similar to it for their commitment to creating jobs and local expertise in Wales?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Green energy presents enormous opportunities to Wales and I commend the project he mentions. We now have the green investment bank, which has just been launched today. It will provide the most enormous opportunity to leverage investment into that important future sector.
I thank the Secretary of State for being so positive. He knows that renewable energy generation in Wales increased by 58% between 2004 and 2010 and employs hundreds of people, including in the solar panel industry in mid-Wales, and of course we have seen the developments on Ynys Môn, the energy island. Does he agree that now is perhaps the time for us in Wales to showcase our skills, our resources and our prospects to the rest of the world at a green energy summit? If he is so minded, would it not be a good thing to place that summit in the enterprise zone at Trawsfynydd?
Actually, I had not thought of that, but it is an excellent idea that we should take further. I was speaking to the leader of Gwynedd council, Councillor Dyfed Edwards, the other day and discussed the important enterprise zone at Trawsfynydd. Let us explore the prospects of a summit at Trawsfynydd.
We continue to work closely with the Welsh Government on their proposal to introduce an opt-out system of consent for organ donation in Wales. We have made considerable progress across the UK over the past four years with organ donor numbers rising by about 40% over the baseline year of 2007-08.
Since the organ donation taskforce was set up by the previous Prime Minister—it reported in 2008—there has been a massive increase in organ donation across the UK, particularly in Wales, where the level of donation is higher. What plans does my hon. Friend have to discuss with the Department of Health at Westminster and the Welsh Government the ways in which we can work together to build on that success?
Extensive discussions are under way involving all the Departments and Ministers that my hon. Friend mentioned with a view to achieving further increases in organ donation across the UK. We have yet to see the detail of the Welsh Government legislation, but we hope it will contribute to a further increase, not cut across it.
Hon. Members may recall the visit of Mr Matthew Lammas of Newport to the House just over a year ago. At the age of just 23, he gave a harrowing account of his wait, the frustrations and delays, for a heart transplant. Tragically, Matthew died two months ago, but is not the example of the frustration and delay that he faced a powerful argument for supporting the proposals of the Welsh Assembly Government?
The hon. Gentleman brings a powerful example to the House of why we need to do more at different levels, in both the UK and the Welsh Governments, to increase the number of organ donors across the UK, and to that end we look forward to seeing the detail of the Welsh Government legislation.
I very much welcome the Welsh Government’s initiative of introducing legislation to increase organ donation, but after the Supreme Court justices described as “bizarre” the referral by the Secretary of State to the court of the Welsh Government’s byelaw legislation, will the Minister give the House unreserved assurances that the Wales Office will not delay this life-saving legislation and will not waste taxpayers’ money by making any more spurious referrals to the Supreme Court?
My Department and the Department of Health have been in close discussion with the Welsh Government about the detail of the legislation, and we are optimistic that all outstanding devolution issues will be addressed before publication of the legislation.
Commission on Devolution in Wales
I welcome the publication of the commission’s first report. It is an important piece of work that is thorough and wide-ranging, and I am giving each of the 33 recommendations my full consideration in consultation with Treasury and other Cabinet colleagues. The Government will respond formally in due course.
I, too, congratulate Paul Silk and his team on the excellent work they have done and on the report they produced. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment to introduce legislation in this Parliament to carry forward some of the recommendations in the Silk report?
The Silk Commission makes a compelling case on the devolution of partial income tax to the Assembly. How swiftly does the Secretary of State believe that we can proceed on this, given the apparent reluctance of the First Minister to countenance reform before full Barnett reform, despite a very good agreement that was brokered in October?
The First Minister’s position is a matter for him, but Paul Silk makes it clear that the commission recommended the devolution of income tax-varying powers within different bands, subject to agreement between the Welsh and the British Governments on issues such as funding. That matter must continue to be looked at.
Does the Secretary of State agree that those who argue that Wales does not have the tax base to partially devolve income tax are fiscally illiterate?
I think it unlikely that the Assembly could raise unlimited amounts of tax, because it would need unlimited levels of income, which everyone would agree it does not have. Paul Silk’s work is important, and it deserves careful consideration, and that is what is happening at the moment.
May I first add my words of sympathy and best wishes to those who have been affected by the floods in Wales, and my thanks to the emergency services and volunteers, and to the Secretary of State for going there tomorrow?
As the Secretary of State will know, the Silk commission’s report is a very important document that has produced recommendations relating to air passenger duty and income tax—issues that affect not just Wales, but the whole of the UK. Does he therefore agree that the whole House ought to be able to debate those issues, and can he explain why he seems to want to limit that debate to the Welsh Grand Committee?
I believe that we should have an early debate in the Welsh Grand Committee on this important issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that my office is in touch with his office and the offices of the leaders of other parties with a view to agreeing that. It should be done as quickly as possible. On the question of a further debate, that is clearly a matter for the Treasury, the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government to progress the work that is being done to discuss the issue, and at that stage we should consider a further debate, which could potentially be on the Floor of the House. Certainly, any legislation would require primary legislation, which would have to be a matter for the House to deal with in the usual way.
I think the Secretary of State said he is in favour of a debate on the Floor of the House, which is welcome, as his predecessor committed to holding such a debate when we last discussed the Silk commission. In anticipation of that debate and outside the Silk commission, so to speak, the right hon. Gentleman will know that borrowing powers are extremely important to the Welsh Government. Can he confirm that the Silk commission’s recommendation that £200 million-worth of non-income tax powers would constitute, in his view, an independent income stream that would facilitate borrowing for the Welsh Government?
EU Regional Policy
In July my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced to the House the launch of the Government’s review into the balance of competences of the European Union. The review will look at the scope of the EU’s competences as they affect the UK and what this means for our national interest. The review will be completed in 2014.
As the Government’s position, set out in the fifth cohesion report in January 2011, is that wealthier states should not receive structural and cohesion funds, what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the impact on the Welsh regions of repatriating regional policy to the UK?
The Government have made consistently clear our belief that wealthier member states have both the ability and the capacity to finance their own regional development policy and hence do not require structural funds. However, as the Prime Minister made clear on Monday afternoon, we also recognise that the more prosperous member states, such as the UK, need to be given time to make the adjustment and so should continue to receive funding during the 2014-20 programming period. The Government will consider the right balance of competences in terms of regional policy in the autumn of 2013 as part of our review.
Does the Minister accept that Wales does not get its fair share of UK funding in either capital or revenue from Barnett, that the money paid, for instance, to Swansea university—£60 million from the European Investment Bank and £30 million from convergence—helps Wales to succeed, and that we would like to see the UK Government help Wales in the same way?
I do not accept that Wales is underfunded. This Government have demonstrated in our announcements on investment in rail infrastructure in Wales and broadband infrastructure in Wales that we are providing funding over and above the Barnett formula for Wales, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition at all.
Information on the expected impact in Wales and across Great Britain of our housing benefit reforms is set out in the relevant impact assessments.
Many of my constituents who are in work on low incomes face an unpalatable choice in April next year. Do they face unaffordable increases in rent, do they downsize to non-existent one-bedroom flats, or do they make themselves homeless? What advice would the Minister give, particularly at a time when the Government are giving a tax cut to millionaires?
Many, many people in work face exactly the same difficult choices about their living arrangements as the ones that the right hon. Gentleman described. One of the central principles of our reforms is that people receiving benefits should have to make the same practical decisions about their living accommodation as people in work.
Many disabled constituents have come to me because, despite having had to make adjustments to their homes simply to accommodate their disability, they now face being kicked out for having an extra bedroom. Does the Minister think that is fair in the 21st century?
The Government are making available transitional funds to help people who have made significant adaptations to their homes in order to cope with serious disability—exactly the circumstances the hon. Gentleman describes—because we recognise that there is a vulnerability and we want to protect those people.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that the housing benefit budget in this country is £23 billion and that 5 million receive it? With a budget of that size, surely it is appropriate that the Government are demonstrating to the taxpayer that they are working to get value for money.
My hon. Friend is exactly right, but our reforms are based not just on the need to achieve value for money for the taxpayer. Underpinning our welfare reforms is the need to elevate the principle of making work pay and to ensure much greater fairness in the way our welfare system is delivered.
UK Trade & Investment
The progress of enterprise zones in Wales has been somewhat patchy, compared with those in England. Will my right hon. Friend agree to work with the enterprise zone in St Athan in seeking to attract major international airlines because of its policy on aerospace?
14. With 11 jobseeker’s allowance claimants chasing every vacancy, we need jobs in Blaenau Gwent. A planning application for a world-class motor sport project will be kick-started this week. Will the Secretary of State help the investors to meet the Treasury to nail down the tax incentives needed for that game-changing development? (129646)
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his efforts on behalf of that enterprise zone. He will know that I have met the potential operators of the race track. I understand that bids for enhanced capital allowances have been made by the Welsh Government to HM Treasury. As he knows, I am always happy to discuss these issues with him in person.
The economy is our top priority, and I am very pleased that unemployment in Wales fell by 5,000 over the last quarter and by 14,000 over the last year. In October 2012 there were 21,000 people in Wales who had been claiming job seeker’s allowance for 12 months or longer.
It demonstrates nothing of the sort. The statistics published yesterday for the Work programme should not be the basis on which its overall success is judged, because it is a long-term programme. Many of the biggest gains from the programme will be seen in the second year, and statistics will follow this time next year.
Recently in Caernarfon 300 people applied for three jobs at a supermarket checkout and 30 people applied for a junior secretarial post, some of them with higher degrees, and I could give further examples. Why are the Government punishing people who are looking for work when that work is not to be found?
We are not punishing people who are looking for work at all; we are incentivising them to go out and find work. I remind the hon. Gentleman that unemployment is falling right across Wales. There are pockets where more needs to be done, particularly in rural and isolated areas, but he should not doubt our ambition to see all of Wales enjoy some of the good things we are currently seeing in the Welsh labour market.
With Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland now having Assemblies or Parliaments of their own, many of us would like to see the three territorial Departments rolled into one to save taxpayer funds. Given that that is not part of the coalition’s programme, will my right hon. Friend at least look at more joint working and shared services between the three Departments so as to save money for the taxpayer?
I am pleased to say that that joint working already takes place. In fact, the Wales Office is working actively with the other territorial offices to identify shared working arrangements and we also have a shared parliamentary team. I must take issue with my hon. Friend: I think that Wales benefits immensely from having a Wales Office here at Westminster and I would not want to see it submerged in a quasi-colonial office.
I am determined that we should maximize the opportunities that enterprise zones can offer in attracting private sector investment and growth into Wales. I am working with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh First Minister to secure this.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proximity of the Deeside enterprise zone with those in Wirral Waters and Daresbury. Does he think there is a case for those three enterprise zones to work together to maximise the potential for economic growth in the economic sub-region?
Yes. As my hon. Friend has said, the Deeside enterprise zone is close geographically to that in Wirral Waters, and I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for synergy between the two zones. In fact, I have already had discussions with the chairman of the Deeside enterprise zone to see what can be done to advance that.
What processes does the Secretary of State have in place to try to resolve some of the issues that Welsh border constituencies have with access to the NHS, road maintenance and other services? They are finding it very difficult to resolve such issues through their local MPs, because the Welsh Assembly and Government will not give time to consider them.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I believe that, in his part of the world, the Mersey Dee Alliance is an appropriate focus and I was very heartened by the proposals in Mrs Elizabeth Haywood’s report to the Welsh Government to create a cross-border city region focused on the Mersey Dee Alliance area.
The Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty and helping people in Wales and across the UK, and especially those in low-income vulnerable households, to heat their homes more affordably.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government cannot, of course, control volatile energy prices on the world markets, but what we can do is ensure that consumers in the UK get access to the very best deals on their energy bills. That is what we are committed to doing, as demonstrated by last week’s announcement by my right hon. Friend the Energy Secretary.
Capital Investment (Rail)
I discussed railway infrastructure with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport when I met him last month. Last week I met local authorities and business leaders in north Wales to confirm my commitment to progressive electrification of the railways in Wales.
I was disappointed to read in a recent letter from the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) that the Welsh Government has not prioritised the electrification of the north Wales line. In view of the fact that the Welsh Government do not seem to be interested in north Wales, will the Secretary of State provide an assurance that the Wales Office will prioritise expenditure on the north Wales line in due course?
As my hon. Friend will know, only last Friday I held a meeting in Llandudno, the consequence of which was the formation of a working group to work towards the electrification of the north Wales coast line. The group has started its work and I hope that it will receive support from hon. Members in this House.
Far from the Assembly’s Transport Minister not being interested in north Wales, he represents a north Wales seat and has been communicating with me about electrifying the Wrexham-Bidston line. Will the Secretary of State please join our communication and work with us to improve public transport networks in north-east Wales?
The Wrexham-Bidston line was also a matter under discussion last Friday. I mention again the two enterprise zones in Wirral Waters and Deeside, which would benefit enormously from the electrification of that line. I am very supportive of what the hon. Gentleman says.
Private Sector Employment
The Government have taken action to protect the economy and have set out a comprehensive strategy to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth. Because of this action, we have seen over 1 million private sector jobs created across the UK since we came to power. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before I answer, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our sympathies to the victims of the appalling flooding that we have seen across our country in recent days, and in giving support and praise to our emergency services—the police, fire and ambulance services—and to the Environment Agency, local councils, voluntary bodies and good neighbours, who have all done extraordinary things to help those in distress.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
The whole House will of course endorse the words of the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our fantastic emergency services in responding to the terrible floods, and those who have been victims of them.
Tomorrow sees the publication of the Leveson report. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who should be uppermost in our minds are the victims, unfairly, of previous media intrusion? Does he also agree that the status quo needs updating?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says. The status quo, I would argue, does not just need updating; the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change. This Government set up Leveson because of unacceptable practices in parts of the media and because of a failed regulatory system. I am looking forward to reading the report carefully, and I am sure that all Members will want to consider it carefully. I think we should try to work across party lines on this issue. It is right to meet other party leaders about this issue, and I will do so. What matters most, I believe, is that we end up with an independent regulatory system that can deliver and in which the public will have confidence.
Let me associate myself entirely with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the victims of flooding. All my sympathies and the sympathies of Labour Members go to those victims, and our thanks go to the emergency services and the Environment Agency for the fantastic job that they do.
Let me also associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the Leveson report, which will be published tomorrow. I hope that we can work on this on an all-party basis. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change, and I hope that this House can make it happen.
When the Work programme was launched in June 2011, the Prime Minister described it as
“the biggest and boldest programme since the great depression.”
Eighteen months on, can he update the House on how it is going?
Yes, I can update the House. Over 800,000 people have taken part in the Work programme, over half of whom came off benefits. Over 200,000 people have got into work because of the Work programme. It is worth remembering that the Work programme is dealing with the hardest to employ cases in our country; these are adults who have been out of work for over a year and young people who have been out of work for over nine months. On that basis, yes, we need to make further progress, but it is the right programme.
But the scheme is supposed to create sustained jobs for people, and in a whole year of the programme just two out of every 100 people got a job—that is a success rate of 2%. The Government estimate—[Interruption.] I do not know why the part-time Chancellor is chuntering—yesterday in Cabinet he was telling off the Work and Pensions Secretary for the failure of the Work programme.
The Government estimate that without the Work programme—this is the basis on which they did the tender—five out of every 100 people would get a job. Is it an historic first to have designed a welfare-to-work programme in which someone is more likely to get a job if they are not on that programme?
I have to say to the Leader of the Opposition that I listened very carefully to what he said, and what he said was wrong. He said that only 2% of people on this programme got a job. That is not correct. More than 800,000 people have taken part, and more than 200,000 have got into work. The specific figure that he referred to concerned people continuously in work for six months—but of course, he is only looking at a programme that has been going for a year, and the figure is 19,000 people. He should listen to the CBI, which said that
“the Work Programme has already helped to turn around the lives of thousands of people”.
Those are people who Labour left on the scrap heap. The right hon. Gentleman should be apologising, not attacking the Work programme.
I think that is as close as we get to an admission that I was right and he was wrong.
The Prime Minister boasted that his flagship policy, the Work programme, was about tackling the scourge of long-term unemployment. Will he confirm that since the Work programme was introduced in June 2011, long-term unemployment has risen by 96%?
Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the employment numbers: a million more private sector jobs over the past two years; since the last election, 190,000 fewer people on out-of-work benefits; in the last quarter, employment up by 100,000 people and unemployment down by 49,000. While we are at it, let us remember Labour’s poisonous legacy: youth unemployment up by 40%; unemployment among women up by 24%; and 5 million people on out-of-work benefits. That is the legacy we are dealing with, and we are getting the country back to work.
I wish for once that the Prime Minister would just answer the question. I asked him a very simple question about whether long-term unemployment has gone up by 96% since the Work programme was introduced, and the answer is yes. While he is talking about Labour’s programmes, let us talk about the future jobs fund. Last Friday, the Government issued a very interesting document. The Prime Minister spent two years rubbishing the future jobs fund but what did this document say? It said that the scheme provided
“net benefit to participants, their employers and society as a whole.”
In other words, it was a success. The Prime Minister rubbished the programme yet it helped 120,000 young people into work. His Work programme has helped only 3,000—[Hon. Members: “What does it cost?”] They shout, “What does it cost?”, but we cannot afford not to have young people in work. Is the truth that the Prime Minister got rid of a Labour programme that was working, and replaced it with a Tory one that is not?
Once again the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong so let me give him the figures. The Government’s work experience programme sees half of the young people who take part get into work. That is the same result as for the future jobs fund, and it costs 20 times less. That is the truth: our programme is good value for taxpayers’ money and it is getting people into work. The right hon. Gentleman wasted money and left people on the dole.
The more the Prime Minister blusters, the redder he gets and the less convincing he is. That is the reality. We know in real time what happened at yesterday’s Cabinet—they were at each other like rats in a sack. The Chancellor blames the Work and Pensions Secretary; the Work and Pensions Secretary blames the Chancellor for the lack of growth. The Prime Minister is doing what he does best and blaming everyone else for the failure. Is the reality that the Government’s failure on the Work programme is a product of their failure to get growth, and the failure of their whole economic strategy?
The right hon. Gentleman worked in a Government where the Prime Minister and the Chancellor could not be in the same room as each other—rats in a sack does not even cover it.
Why not have a look at what the right hon. Gentleman has achieved on welfare this week? Once again this week, Labour voted against the welfare cap. Today, the Opposition are asking us to vote on a motion in the House on welfare. Last night, the motion specifically said they wanted further reform of welfare, but today the motion mentions nothing about it. The truth is that they are against the benefit cap, against the housing benefit cap and against the Work programme. They are officially the party of something for nothing.
I will tell the Prime Minister the reality. His welfare reform programme is failing because there is not the work, and his economic strategy is failing. That is the reality. He has a Work programme that is not working, a growth strategy that is not delivering, and a deficit that is rising. The Government are failing, the Prime Minister is failing and the British people—
I think what we can see is a leadership that is drowning. This Government have cut corporation tax, scrapped the jobs tax, introduced enterprise zones, backed the regional growth fund, and funded 1 million apprenticeships, and we are rebuilding our economy so that we see 1 million more people in private sector work. We are putting the country back to work; Labour wrecked it.
Q2. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Milton Keynes-based Red Bull Formula 1 team on winning the world championship for three years in a row? They are another fine example of British technological innovation. (130300)
I am delighted to praise and pay tribute to the Formula 1 team based in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which sadly beat the Formula 1 team—Lotus Renault—based in mine. It is a remarkable fact that almost all of the Formula 1 cars, wherever they are racing in the world, are built, designed and engineered here in Britain. It is an industry in which we lead the world, and we should be very proud of it.
Q3. The Prime Minister must have studied his Government’s own report that shows that the future jobs fund had a net benefit to participants, employers and society. Given that report, and that youth unemployment is now higher in Leicester than it was at the general election, why did he tell me in questions a year ago that the future jobs fund provided only “phoney jobs”? (130301)
The hon. Gentleman needs first to explain why youth unemployment went up 40% under the Labour Government. The facts of the future jobs fund are these: the figures show that 2% of the placements in Birmingham under the future jobs fund were in the private sector, but the rest were in the public sector. The cost of the scheme was 20 times higher than the work experience placement, which is doing just as well.
My right hon. Friend is aware that the Government are consulting on the compensation people will receive if High Speed 2 goes ahead. This is critical for people in my constituency. Will he give me a personal undertaking that he will study the proposals for the final packages for compensation and ensure that those people whose homes, businesses and lives will be totally disrupted by the scheme if it goes ahead are both fairly and generously compensated?
I absolutely give that undertaking that I will look carefully at the scheme. As my right hon. Friend knows, we are consulting at the moment. The proposals we have put forward are as good as the scheme for HS1 and better than the compensation scheme for previous motorway developments. As she also knows, there is an advance purchase scheme for property purchase to simplify the process for property owners in the safeguarded area. There is also a voluntary purchase scheme to allow home owners outside the area to have their homes purchased. I am very happy to discuss with her and others how we can ensure that the scheme works properly for people.
Q4. On Monday, the police and crime commissioner, Bob Jones, and Chief Constable Chris Sims, called for a fair deal for policing for Birmingham and the west midlands, which arguably has the highest policing needs outside London. How can the Prime Minister hope to build one nation if areas such as Birmingham and the west midlands lose 800 front-line police officers while low-crime areas such as Surrey get an extra 250 bobbies on the beat? Do not we all deserve to live in safe communities? (130302)
The point I would make to the hon. Lady is that yes, we have asked the police to make funding reductions. They have been able to do that, keeping a higher proportion of bobbies on the front line, which has been effective, and taking people out of back-office jobs. At the same time, crime has fallen and public confidence in the police has risen. Yes, we are asking the police to take difficult decisions, but they are doing it and they are delivering.
Q5. I congratulate the coalition Government on introducing regulations to protect the welfare of wild animals performing in travelling circuses. This House voted overwhelmingly for a complete ban in 2011. While we wait for a draft Bill to be published, will the Prime Minister commit to introducing legislation so that this ban can be introduced in this Parliament? (130303)
Petrol prices in this country are among the very highest in the EU, and diesel prices are the very highest. Given that the Prime Minister is introducing minimum limits on alcohol pricing, can he turn his mind to maximum limits on fuel duty and start reducing the price of petrol and diesel for hard-pressed families and businesses across the UK?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Because of the changes we have made, petrol and diesel are 10p less a litre than they otherwise would have been if we had kept the tax increases that were put in place by the Opposition. That is the effect of this Government and we want to go on making that progress.
Q6. I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Buckfastleigh with me yesterday, a town in my constituency severely affected by flooding. What the people of Buckfastleigh wish to know is how they are now going to get flooding insurance at affordable rates, particularly given that many homes have been blighted. Will he join me in pressing the Association of British Insurers to stop grandstanding in its negotiations with the Government, to get down to the table and thrash out a deal so that my constituents can get the insurance they need? (130304)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I very much enjoyed visiting his constituency with him yesterday, seeing at first hand the appalling damage done by the floods and speaking with local people, the emergency services and the Environment Agency about all the work that is being done to protect more houses in future. We need to address the insurance issue and negotiations are under way. The Minister for Government Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) is leading for the Government. I want us to get a resolution so that insurance companies provide what they are meant to provide, which is insurance for people living in their homes who want proper protection.
I thank the Prime Minister for his expressions of sympathy for the family of my elderly constituent who died in the floods. I join him in expressing sympathy to the families of all those—I think four people—who have died in the floods. Will the Prime Minister immediately reverse the 30% cuts he has made to flood defences in the past two years? What part will he play in the issue of flood insurance for those who live in flood risk areas?
Let me join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to his constituents, who have had to bear some truly terrible floods. The pictures of floods in St Asaph were of biblical scenes. The emergency services have performed extraordinary feats to rescue people and to help people at what is a very difficult time. On flood defence spending, the Government are planning to spend more than £2 billion in the next four years. That is 6% less than in the previous four years, but we believe that by spending the money better, and by leveraging money from private and other sectors, we can increase the level of flood defence spending. The spending that is already under way will protect an additional 145,000 homes between now and 2015, but if we can go further then of course we should.
Q7. More than 3 million people a year fall victim to postal scams, telephone calls and e-mails making false promises of lottery wins, windfalls and inheritances. Is my right hon. aware that £3.5 billion a year is lost by UK consumers? Will he commit to working with the Home Office to amend existing legislation to protect the predominantly elderly and vulnerable victims? (130305)
I think my hon. Friend makes an important point. This is a growing area of crime and criminality that takes advantage of people using the internet and often those who are vulnerable. That is why, as part of the National Crime Agency, we are setting up a new unit dedicated to tackling this problem that will work across agencies to catch criminals and take the steps she rightly speaks about.
Q8. A moment ago, the Leader of the Opposition asked whether long-term unemployment had risen by 96% since the introduction of the Work programme, but he did not receive an answer. I ask the Prime Minister again: has long-term unemployment risen by 96% since the Work programme was introduced? (130306)
I have given the figures for the Work programme: 800,000 people taking part and 200,000 people getting work. That is against a background where, over the last quarter, unemployment and the rate of youth unemployment have been falling and there have been more people in work. That is a record we can build on.
A free press is a necessary counterbalance to a strong state and the British people also have an inherent sense of fairness, so we do not need to restrict the press; we need to focus on redress when the press cross an unacceptable line. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend look at access to justice in this country to ensure that the libel and defamation laws we already have are available to everyone, not just the rich and famous?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about access to justice, but one of the key things that the Leveson inquiry is trying to get to the bottom of is: how can we have a strong and independent regulatory system, so that we do not have to wait for the wheels of the criminal justice system or the libel system to work? People should be able to rely on a good regulatory system as well in order to get the redress they want, whether prominent apologies, fines for newspapers or the other things that are clearly so necessary.
Q9. The Department for Education is proposing to close its Runcorn site, with the loss of at least 220 jobs. It is in the 27th most-deprived borough in the country. How will that help with unemployment and social deprivation in my constituency? It is a pity that the Education Secretary has refused to meet me to discuss this matter. (130307)
I know that the hon. Gentleman has met the permanent secretary at the Department for Education to discuss the matter, and I will certainly discuss it with the Secretary of State as well. Of course, there will be consultation with affected staff and other local MPs, but let me make this important point: we all know that we have to try and find savings in departmental overhead budgets in order to maximise the money going into the schools. The Government have managed to maintain the per-pupil funding, and I am sure that hon. Members who think about it will consider that the most important thing for our schools, our children and our education system.
Last year, more than 10,000 men in Britain died from prostate cancer, the silent killer. Survival rates have increased from 20% to 70%, because of earlier diagnosis and better drugs. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister’s commitment to the NHS cancer drugs fund. Will he join me in welcoming the Movember campaign’s work to raise male health awareness and champion British leadership in cancer research?
I not only join my hon. Friend in praising the Movember campaign but praise his efforts lurking tentatively under his nose. This is an important campaign, because it raises awareness of cancers, including cancers such as the one he mentioned, which people are sometimes worried about mentioning and talking about. Raising awareness is important, as too are things, such as the cancer drugs fund, that ensure we get the drugs to the people who need them.
Q10. I once represented a seriously injured car-crash victim who was hounded and hurt further by an irresponsible press. When he set up the Leveson inquiry, the Prime Minister said: “I accept we can’t say it is the last chance saloon all over again. We’ve done that.”For the victims—for the McCanns, the Dowlers—will he keep his word? (130308)
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), in saying that uppermost in our minds, as we consider the report, should be the victims of press intrusion and invasion of privacy, and the appalling things, in some cases, written about them and their families. We owe them a regulatory system that will work for them and which the public will have confidence in, and that is what we hope Leveson will produce.
Leaving home before it is light and returning from work when it is dark, hard-working families in my constituency have a gross household income of just £25,000. Does my right hon. Friend think it right that their neighbours living on benefits currently earn more?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Only this week we have yet again had a vote on our welfare benefits cap—which most people would see as generous at £26,000—and once again Labour has voted for unlimited welfare. We have long memories: we can remember that under Labour, some families were getting £70,000, £80,000, £90,000 or £100,000 of housing benefit. Labour did nothing about it because it believes in something for nothing.
Q11. Since the Prime Minister denounced aggressive tax avoidance as “morally repugnant”, why are his Government now actively promoting aggressive tax avoidance by cutting the tax on multinationals that open a finance company in a tax haven from the current 23% to just 5%? How can we be one nation when the Government are on the side of the tax dodgers? (130309)
We were all inspired by the amazing London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, in an incredible summer of sport, but it is so important to get people involved in grass-roots community sport. Will the Prime Minister meet me, the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the county sports partnership network and Sport England to discuss the “Be Inspired, Get Involved” initiative, the first fair of which is this evening in my constituency?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend about this issue. It is important that we take the legacy of the Olympics and turn it into increased rates of participation. That means, yes, working with the organisations that he spoke about, but also recognising the many heroes and heroines right around our country who run the Saturday morning football clubs, rugby clubs and cricket clubs. It is those clubs that provide so much of the answer for getting more sport into our communities and more sport into our schools as well.
Q12. Will the Prime Minister, like me, welcome the ceasefire in Gaza last week and regret all those who died as a result of the conflict, but also recognise that, fundamentally, the future of the middle east lies with peace and justice for the Palestinian people, be they in Gaza, the west bank or refugee camps? We have to recognise the Palestinian people, so tomorrow, will the British Government accordingly cast our vote at the United Nations in favour of Palestinian recognition without any preconditions—such as suggesting they should not have access to the International Criminal Court—as an independent, recognised nation? (130310)
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the fact that there is a ceasefire and that that conflict has ceased. I do not go all the way with him on the rest of his question, but my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be making a statement about this from the Dispatch Box in a few moments. I do not want to steal his thunder, but I think it is important that we use our vote to try to say to both sides in this conflict: “We need talks without preconditions.” In the end, as I said on Monday, the only way we are going to see a peace process that works is when Israelis and Palestinians come to the table and talk through the final status issues, including Jerusalem, including refugees and including borders—when they do it themselves. We can wish for all we want at the United Nations; in the end, you have got to have direct talks between the direct parties to get the two-state solution we want.
The Prime Minister will be aware that tomorrow’s business on the Order Paper includes a debate in my name to mark the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians by Idi Amin from Uganda and their arrival in the UK. However, because of the need for a statement on the Leveson inquiry, it is likely that my debate may not now take place. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I and the community at large fully appreciate the circumstances. However, does the Prime Minister acknowledge the need for and the importance of such a debate, and will he also do whatever he can to ensure that I am given another debate as soon as possible?
The reaction of colleagues from right across the House shows that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House—and I believe the whole country—in wanting to speak up for the Ugandan Asians who came to our country in the 1970s, who have made the most fantastic contribution to our national life. It is very good to see. I remember meeting my hon. Friend’s parents and how proud they are of him—second generation, coming to this country, sitting in the House of Commons and speaking up so well on these and other issues. Although I do not have control of the House of Commons agenda—sadly—I very much hope that the people who do will listen carefully to the point he made and reschedule his debate as fast as possible.
What I can confirm is that, at 45p, the top rate of tax will be higher under this Government than it was in any of the 13 years of the last Government. That is a fact. The richest in our country will actually be paying more in income tax in every year of this Government than in any year of that Government.
In Harlow, Comet has made 80 home delivery and shop staff redundant, and the jobs of at least 65 transport and logistics staff are now at risk. Many of the redundant workers are suggesting that there has been malpractice. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Business Secretary to investigate this, to ensure that anyone who has lost their job gets the proper support and help that they are entitled to?
I am very happy to look carefully at what my hon. Friend has said. Clearly, what has happened at Comet is a tragedy for those who work for that business. I will talk to the Business Secretary about this, and see what can be done in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.
Q14. Last week, the Prime Minister told me and the House that the Government were investing an extra £900 million to combat tax avoidance. In fact, as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will confirm, no such investment is taking place, and HMRC is facing a 15% cut in its budget. So is the Prime Minister guilty of fact avoidance or fact evasion? (130312)
The truth is that this Government have put £900 million into the specific measures of getting hold of tax avoidance. All these schemes grew up under years and years of the Labour Government, but they never did a general anti-tax avoidance. They presided over a system where people in the City were paying less tax than their cleaners, and it took this Government to sort it out.
May I warn my right hon. Friend not to be remembered as the Prime Minister who introduced state regulation of the press? A free press is an essential part of a free democracy. Does he agree that state regulation of the press is like pregnancy? Just as someone is either pregnant or they are not, so we can either have state regulation or not. There is no alternative third way.
Where I would agree with my hon. Friend is that a free press is absolutely vital for a healthy democracy. We should recognise all that the press has done, and should continue to do, to uncover wrongdoing and to stand up to the powerful. That is vitally important and, whatever the changes we make, we want a robust and free press in our country.
Q15. Research by the charity Save the Children reveals, shockingly, that one in seven children in our country do not have a warm coat this winter. The Government are now cutting child benefit support to 100,000 families who look after disabled children—[Interruption.] Whatever our views on how our economic problems were brought about, surely it cannot be right that children, the poorest and the most vulnerable pay the most for this economic crisis. (130313)
I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and the point that I would make is that we are removing child benefit from people earning over £60,000 a year. We think that that is the right step to take, because those with the broadest backs should be bearing the greatest burden. We have frozen child benefit for other families, but we have increased the child tax credit that goes to the poorest families.
Palestinian Resolution (United Nations)
With permission, I will make a statement on the Palestinian resolution to be moved at the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow. The resolution calls for the upgrading of the Palestinian UN status from observer to non-member observer state. I wish to inform the House of the discussions the Government have had about this with the Palestinian leadership, and of how we intend to proceed.
Achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of our top international priorities. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and with a just, fair and agreed settlement for refugees. That is the only way to secure a sustainable end to the conflict, and it has wide support in this House and across the world.
There has been a dangerous impasse in the peace process over the last two years. The pace of settlement building has increased, rocket attacks on Israel have increased, frustration and insecurity have deepened on both sides, and the parties have not been able to agree a return to talks. The crisis in Gaza and tragic loss of Palestinian and Israeli life shows why the region and the world cannot afford this vacuum in the peace process.
I pay tribute today to Egypt, the United States and the UN Secretary-General for their role in bringing about a ceasefire in Gaza, and we now need to build on it to bring about a lasting peace, including an end to the smuggling of weapons and the opening up of Gaza for trade as well as for aid.
I set out in the House last week our belief that the United States should launch a new initiative urgently to revive the middle east peace process. If progress on negotiations is not made next year, the two-state solution could become impossible to achieve. Yesterday, I said to Secretary Clinton that such an effort led by the US would need to be more intense than anything seen since the Oslo peace accords, and it should backed by a more active role for European nations as well.
Given the overriding need for both Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations as soon as possible, we asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to move a resolution at the UN General Assembly for the time being. Our view was that it would be better to give the US Administration the opportunity to set out a new initiative. We pointed out that a UN resolution would be depicted by some as a move away from bilateral negotiations with Israel. We were also concerned about the considerable financial risks to the Palestinian Authority at a time when their situation is already precarious, if a vote led to a strong backlash from Israel and within the US political system.
Nevertheless, President Abbas has decided to press ahead—a decision we must respect. No one should be in any doubt that he is a courageous man of peace. Our central objective remains that of ensuring a rapid return to credible negotiations in order to secure a two-state solution. This is the guiding principle that will determine the way in which we will vote on any resolution at any time.
The frustration felt by many ordinary Palestinians about the lack of progress in the peace process is wholly understandable. Illegal settlement activity in the west bank, which we condemn, threatens the very viability of the peace process, and after many decades the Palestinians still do not have the state they aspire to. That is why we have consistently asked Israel to make a more decisive offer to Palestinians than in the recent past, and have also called on Palestinians not to set preconditions for negotiations.
We want to see a Palestinian state and look forward to the day when its people can enjoy the same rights and dignity as those of any other nation. For us to support a resolution at the UN, it is important that the risks to the peace process are addressed, so that the chances of negotiations beginning after it are enhanced rather than diminished.
I spoke to President Abbas on Monday and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke to him yesterday. We explained that, while there is no question of the United Kingdom voting against the resolution, in order to vote for it we would need certain assurances or amendments. The first is that the Palestinian Authority should indicate a clear commitment to return immediately to negotiations—without preconditions. This is the essential answer to the charge that by moving the resolution, the Palestinians are taking a path away from negotiations. Given the great difficulty in restarting negotiations in recent years and the risk that some will see this resolution as a step that is inconsistent with such negotiations, this commitment is indispensable to us.
The second assurance relates to membership of other specialised UN agencies and action in the International Criminal Court. Our country is a strong supporter, across all parties, of international justice and the International Criminal Court. We would ultimately like to see a Palestinian state represented throughout all the organs of the United Nations. However, we judge that if the Palestinians were to build on this resolution by pursuing ICC jurisdiction over the occupied territories at this stage, it could make a return to negotiations impossible. This is extremely important, given that we see 2013 as a crucial year—for the reasons I have described—for the middle east peace process.
We have also said to President Abbas that we would like to see language in the resolution that does not prejudge any deliberations by the UN Security Council, and for it to be clear that the resolution does not apply retrospectively. We believe these changes would not be difficult to make; that if they were made either in the text of the resolution or in accompanying statements as appropriate, they would win wider support for the resolution without any prejudice to final status issues; and that they would increase the prospects for negotiations moving ahead.
Up until the time of the vote itself, we will remain open to voting in favour of the resolution if we see public assurances by the Palestinians on these points. However, in the absence of these assurances, the United Kingdom would abstain on the vote. That would be consistent with our strong support for the principle of Palestinian statehood, but also with our concern that the resolution could set the peace process back.
We call again on the Palestinian Authority to make every possible amendment to win the widest possible support and to give the strongest possible assurances. We call on Israel to be ready to enter negotiations, and to agree a two-state solution before it is too late. Whatever happens at the General Assembly, we call on Israel to avoid reacting in a way that would damage the peace process or Israel’s international standing. We would not support a strong reaction that undermined the peace process by sidelining President Abbas, or risked the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. We also look to the US, with our strong and active support, to do all that it can in the coming weeks and months to restart this process.
The only way in which the Palestinian people can be given the state that they need and deserve, and the Israeli people can be given the security and peace to which they are entitled, is through a negotiated two-state solution. That requires—now—Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations, Israel to stop illegal settlement building, Palestinian factions to be reconciled with each other, and the international community —led by the United States and supported by European nations—to make the necessary huge effort to revive the peace process.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for early sight of his statement, and welcome his decision to come to the House to debate this matter today.
Only last week, the Foreign Secretary admitted in the House that
“Time is running out for the two-state solution.”
I agree with his assessment. Belief in the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution is today haemorrhaging, and haemorrhaging badly, across the region. The Foreign Secretary is an eloquent man, but I struggle to reconcile his statement of today with his analysis of last week. Exactly eight days ago, he told the House:
“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”.
Following his statement today, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he has, in fact, changed his mind?
Let me now address the criteria that the Foreign Secretary tells us that he will use to determine how the United Kingdom votes. First, let me turn to the issue of the International Criminal Court. It is a matter of record that, as the Foreign Secretary repeated today, our country is a strong supporter of international justice and of the ICC. It is also a matter of record that Israel is not a party to the ICC treaty, and does not accept its jurisdiction within its own boundaries. Given that, as recently as two weeks ago, the British Government were urging Israel to adhere to international law, will the Foreign Secretary explain why the UK Government now apparently wish to exempt it from possible actions in the ICC for any future breaches of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?
The second criterion that the Foreign Secretary mentioned was a return to negotiations without preconditions. Only eight days ago, he told the House:
“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.”
So why, just eight days later, is he apparently suggesting that Israel’s refusal to suspend the expansion of illegal settlements—changing the very facts on the ground as the basis of the negotiations, even as future talks get under way—is a reasonable position for the Israelis to adopt? Is it not the truth that, for all today’s sonorous words from the Foreign Secretary, he let the cat out of the bag eight days ago when he explained his own thinking on the issue? He stated then that
“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.”—[Official Report, 20 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 450.]
Let me ask the Foreign Secretary this. Does he really believe that threats issued by a Republican-controlled Congress to punish the Palestinians for taking this diplomatic step are a reasonable basis on which to determine British policy? Does he really believe that Israel’s threat to withhold tax and customs revenues that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, which legally belong to the Palestinians, are a reasonable basis on which to determine British policy on this vote? When will the Foreign Secretary understand that statehood for the Palestinians is not a gift to be given, but a right to be acknowledged?
I warn the Foreign Secretary that if the United Kingdom abstains tomorrow, it will not be a measure of our growing influence; it will be a confirmation of our growing irrelevance to meaningful engagement in the search for peace. Across Europe, countries such as France and Spain have already made it clear that they will join what I believe will be an overwhelming majority of the 193 members of the UN General Assembly in voting for enhanced observer status for the Palestinians. That vote can, and must, send a powerful signal to the Palestinians that diplomatic efforts and the path of politics, not the path of rockets and violence, offer the route to a negotiated two-state solution.
Let us be honest: in recent days Hamas-run Gaza has, in the midst of conflict with Israel, welcomed the secretary-general of the Arab League, the Prime Minister of Egypt and the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In his statement today, the Foreign Secretary rightly lauded President Abbas as a “courageous man of peace”. If, as the Government assert, they genuinely want to support moderate Palestinians and efforts to engage in meaningful negotiations, what signal would an abstention tomorrow send about whether violence or politics secures legitimacy and results?
Just eight days ago the Foreign Secretary sought to explain his position by telling the House that recognition at the UN could “risk paralysing the process”. He spoke again of the process today, but when will he understand: there is no process; there is only paralysis? Indeed, can the Foreign Secretary explain what process he was referring to today? In the last two years, there have been continued illegal settlement-building and continued rocket attacks. There has been fear, anxiety and continuing conflict. There has been continued occupation. There has been continued blockade. But there have been no meaningful negotiations. That is why, for more than a year, Labour has been clear that recognition at the UN for the Palestinians is one of the steps required to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. Abstention tomorrow would be an abdication of Britain’s responsibilities.
Let me appeal to the Foreign Secretary as a historian, by referring to a figure from history whom he and his party rightly revere. The phrase “to govern is to decide” is attributed to Winston Churchill. I urge the Foreign Secretary, even at this late hour, not to dither, but to decide to vote for enhanced recognition for the Palestinians tomorrow at the United Nations.
Although there are clearly some differences between us, the shadow Foreign Secretary expressed common ground when he said that time is running out. The analysis of all of us in all parties on both sides of the House starts from that point, although we draw some different tactical conclusions from it. Indeed, my statement, and our attitude, is based on a sentiment the right hon. Gentleman expressed: we support the right to a Palestinian state. I supported that very strongly in my statement. I have not, however, changed my mind about anything. The right hon. Gentleman was looking too hard for changes between what I said last week and this week because, so far as I am aware, I said the same things about the risks to the peace process, the risks in the US Congress and the risks in Israel.
The right hon. Gentleman asked: is there a process? One of the main points I have been stressing is the need to revive—to restart—that process. There have been many attempts to do that over the past year, and, in particular, the Kingdom of Jordan has played a very constructive role. There are many obstacles to achieving that, however, including Israeli settlement building—which I think is condemned across the House—but another obstacle has been an unwillingness by Palestinians to remove all preconditions for negotiations. It is important to have the commitment from Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions, which is why that is one of the criteria we have set. We need both sides to do that, and to be ready to do so whatever happens at the General Assembly. We would welcome that—and, of course, we would particularly welcome it if it could be made clear before the vote. It would be the single most crucial factor that would enable us to vote for the resolution. We will still welcome it if the Palestinians can say that after the vote.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the International Criminal Court. We are certainly not arguing that Israel should be exempt from the ICC, but it is important to remember that, given the urgency on which we all agree, our overriding objective is for negotiations to resume and to succeed. The right hon. Gentleman appealed to me as a historian, and the lesson of history in respect of negotiations is that we have to have enough common ground to bring the two sides together, and that it is important to avoid doing things, certainly in the short term, that make it harder to bring the two sides together. That is the reason for that criterion. So these are sensible criteria for us to have put forward. The right hon. Gentleman expressed his support for voting for the Palestinian resolution even before seeing the resolution. I have waited to see the resolution and then looked at how it can be improved and how we can react to it in a way that maximises the chances of successful negotiations.
It is very important for the Opposition to ask themselves this: if we succeeded and the Palestinians did give the assurances I have asked for, would the chances of negotiations taking place and succeeding be improved? Yes, they undoubtedly would if the Palestinians made those commitments. If they do not give those commitments and we abstain, will the United Kingdom still be in a position, with the Palestinians, with the Israelis, and with the United States, to advance whatever we can make of the peace process? Yes, we will. Therefore, what I have expressed is the optimum position for the United Kingdom and the best for the middle east peace process.
This is not about just agreeing with a resolution because we sympathise, as we do, with the position of the Palestinians; we are a country, not a newspaper or a pressure group. We have to use our vote with all considerations and the ultimate objective in mind. It does not help the Palestinians to help them celebrate for one day while at the same time failing to address the wider needs of the peace process. That is the reason for our position. Whatever happens with this resolution and in the vote tomorrow, the United Kingdom will continue to be at the forefront of working for peace, stability and security in the middle east.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend has said about the urgent need for talks. I also agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has said that for the Palestinians
“there is no path to statehood except through talks with Israel.”
Both territory and security for Israel must be addressed in the course of that. Will the Foreign Secretary give us some indication of the precise nature of the assurances he has sought from the Palestinians about membership of the International Criminal Court and the other international bodies? Have any assurances so far been offered from the other side and the Palestinians?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The assurances are those I have described in the statement. On the recourse to the ICC, at this stage, in the occupied territories because of the impact on the ability to bring about a negotiated settlement, we are not talking about that. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), we are certainly not advocating some permanent exemption. We have not received any assurances on those points, which is one of the reasons why we continue to seek them and why, as things stand, we cannot vote for the resolution. We will continue to seek them over the coming 24 hours.
Will the Foreign Secretary please understand that this complex conditionality of which he speaks is too clever by half and that what it will most achieve is to undermine Britain’s influence, both with the Israelis and in the Arab world, and at the same, and more crucially, to undermine the position of the man he has praised, President Abbas? What has happened in the past three weeks is that Hamas has seen its power and influence enhanced and that the message has gone out, not least from Israel, “If you send enough rockets over the border, you can get to negotiations”, while one condition after another is imposed on the peace-seeking Palestinians. This approach, I am afraid, is not going to help.
I do not agree with that, although the right hon. Gentleman has a lot of experience in these matters. I can tell him that in all the conversations that we have had with Palestinian negotiators, and that the Deputy Prime Minister and I have had with President Abbas in the past few days, our relations have been excellent. That deep friendship will continue. The financial and political support that this country gives, with very strong cross-party support, to the Palestinian Authority, which is among the foremost in the world, is understood well by the Palestinian Authority and will, of course, continue. That is very clear, and so I do not believe that anything we have said or done is in any way undermining of President Abbas. It is also important for us to maintain our close relations with all the other countries involved in the peace process. So I do not accept the premise of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that I certainly understand the fiendish difficulties of this matter, but I profoundly disagree with what he says? Whatever this resolution says, these conditions are unnecessary, one-sided and grossly unfair. What further steps does he plan to take to help and encourage the Palestinians to proceed with these vital peace talks, without which the middle east will continue to sink into an abyss?
Clearly my right hon. Friend and I have a different view on this point, as is very apparent to the House, but we will go on arguing for the same things. Although the concentration at the moment is, understandably, on tomorrow’s vote, what is very important is what happens on Friday. Whatever the result of the vote and however individual nations vote, we must discourage any steps by any parties involved, including Israel, that would be damaging to the peace process and negotiations. We will continue to urge the Palestinians to do the things that I have described—in particular, to enter into negotiations without preconditions. As he knows, I have been very, very critical of Israel on settlement building and on not making a big enough, generous, decisive enough offer to the Palestinians, but we also have to be critical of Palestinians at times, when opportunities are not taken. They have failed on several occasions to take the opportunity of negotiations, because too many preconditions have been set, and we have to be frank about that. So I will encourage them in that direction.
Does the Foreign Secretary think it would be reasonable for this country or the international community to make Israel’s continued full membership of the United Nations dependent on meeting conditions laid down by him or by the international community? If he thinks that would be unreasonable, as I do, why does he apply different standards to the Palestinians? Does he not realise that the position he has articulated today will again be seen as a classic double standard on the part of the United Kingdom? Why will he not join the more than 100 Members of this House who have signed an early-day motion calling for recognition? Why will he not join France, Spain, the majority of the United Nations General Assembly and the more than 1.5 million people who, in an online poll, supported upgrading the Palestinian recognition? Is it not time to drop the double standards?
What we want is, as I have explained, a successful negotiation. We deal with the hand that history has dealt to us all. Decisions about Israel’s membership of the United Nations were taken long ago, but decisions about Palestinian membership were not, so now we have to try to resolve that. We want to see Palestine in the United Nations, at the United Nations and in all the organs of the United Nations. However, I stress the point the Prime Minister made at Prime Minister’s questions in answer to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn): this will come about only as a result of a successful negotiation with Israel. If that is true, and I have not heard anyone argue that it is not, everything we do should be consistent with promoting, facilitating and bringing to a success such negotiations. That is our guiding principle; it is an overriding principle set against all the other factors that, understandably, people raise.
May I applaud the Foreign Secretary for bringing Britain closer to a yes vote in support of Palestinian aspirations than any previous British Government have done, but say that Liberal Democrat Members, too, would have preferred a British yes vote with no preconditions? In anticipation of the General Assembly as a whole voting yes, will he tell us what representations he has made to the Governments of Israel and the United States to discourage either of them from giving a punitive response to this peaceful diplomatic initiative?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, and he will be pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister has been so much involved in our efforts over the past few days. Of course, we have made such representations, doing so directly in Israel and in the United States. I referred to the conversations that I had with Secretary Clinton yesterday, which of course covered this subject. We will make urgent such representations if the resolution is passed by a large majority, as is expected, on Thursday night. So those representations will be strong and continuous.
For two years, the Palestinians have refused to go back to the negotiating table. What will convince the Foreign Secretary that enhanced status for the Palestinians at the UN will encourage them to go back to the negotiations in which they have refused to take part for the past two years?
This is the other side of the argument. I have pointed out that as well as our criticism of Israel, which has been very strong, I am also critical of Palestinians for sometimes, including over the last year, setting preconditions for going back into negotiations that meant that such negotiations did not take place. I believe in their wish to enter into and conclude such negotiations, so I do not go as far the other way as the hon. Lady. Since those negotiations are the only way to bring about a settlement of the issue for Israelis and Palestinians, we must promote them, however difficult they are.
My right hon. Friend has correctly told the House that time for a two-state solution is running out. He has also told the House that that is the only thing that can guarantee statehood for the Palestinians and peace for Israel. How long have we got?
I think that we do not have very long and that is why urgency has been expressed across the House. The pace of settlement building is steadily reducing the time available for a two-state solution, as has the sheer time that has been exhausted over so many years of trying to bring it about. Although I would not count the time in months, we do not have many years. We might have only one or two years to bring this about, hence the urgency of restarting negotiations.
So the right hon. Gentleman offers President Abbas all support short of actual support. May I warn him, just as I warned Yitzhak Rabin when he was Prime Minister of Israel? I said to him personally in conversation that if he failed to give validity to Fatah, all that would be left would be Hamas. Mr Rabin shook hands with Arafat on the White House lawn; the right hon. Gentleman sits on his hands.
I do not think that that is what the Palestinians would think after all the discussions we have had with them over the past few days. Of course, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that point. Support takes many forms and our strong support for the Palestinian Authority as well as the huge financial and other support we give are maintained and much appreciated by the leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Of course there are disagreements about our vote tomorrow, but I hope that no one in the House will pretend that we do not have good relations with and support for people, particularly those of a moderate persuasion, in the Palestinian Authority. There is no doubt that we have such relations and that they continue.
The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to seek those assurances and I give him credit for that. I think he said that he wanted to see public assurances by the Palestinians. Will they be in writing and will he ensure that they are not time limited?
They could take many forms, of course, and I have made that point to the Palestinians. What we are seeking could be in the resolution, which can be amended at a very late stage—even right up to the vote tomorrow—it could be in the speech we expect President Abbas to deliver in New York tomorrow, or it could be in writing and published. Such assurances could take many forms and there is still time to give them.
In the House in October, the Foreign Secretary described the Palestinian application as a “divisive symbolic” gesture. In the absence of the assurances or amendments he seeks, does he stand by that statement? Will he update the House on the progress that has been made in getting Hamas to renounce its commitment to the absolute annihilation of the state of Israel?
Sadly, no one has made that progress with Hamas yet. Indeed, it is vital for Hamas to recognise previous agreements, forswear violence and recognise the right of Israel to exist. It is good that talks are taking place under Egyptian auspices on Gaza and that those talks include how to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza as well as how to open it up. It is important and good that those talks are taking place. As I said in the statement, we asked the Palestinians not to proceed with the resolution at this time because our fear is that although it could be symbolic, which is why many people want to support it, the fact that it could be divisive in the peace process is a danger. The assurances we have sought would make it more than symbolic and would mitigate any divisive effect. That is the logic of what we are doing.
Following the answer my right hon. Friend gave to our hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), what will happen if the two-state solution fails? Will the Palestinians for ever remain an occupied people? Will they for ever remain stateless? Will they for ever remain in a situation where more and more of their land is being taken by illegal settlements?
The outlook is very bleak if a two-state solution fails, but the outlook is bleak for Israel, too. That is the message in our constant conversation with Israeli leaders: unless they conclude a two-state solution within the kind of time frame that I have been talking about, they are faced with one-state solutions, which pose many profound challenges for Israel and the nature of its society. That is why it is so important for both sides that this is addressed and such challenges would be so difficult that I do not want to speculate about what they would lead to at this time.
A yes vote would mark an historic and very welcome shift in British Government policy. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary for edging towards that position and my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary for encouraging him to do so, although I regret the conditions. The Americans, as ever, are critical. How hopeful was the Foreign Secretary after his discussion yesterday with Mrs Clinton?
After my discussions with Secretary Clinton yesterday, I think there is a good understanding of the strength of view across the world, including in countries such as ours as well as in other European countries, and of the urgency of the matter. It is very important for that understanding to be shared across the American system. I have worked closely with Secretary Clinton over the past two and a half years, but she intends to depart office as Secretary of State in the coming weeks. This will be the No. 1 item we discuss with the incoming Secretary of State of the United States; indeed, I have already discussed it with some of the people who might become Secretary of State. It has been prominent among our discussions with President Obama, and the Prime Minister and I have both put the point strongly to the President. The understanding is there in the United States but we now need to help them translate it into real action.
I pay a great tribute to the Secretary of State for not only ensuring that this is a UK Government foreign policy priority but trying to ensuring that it becomes a second-term American Administration foreign policy priority. On the difficult issue he has addressed of the ICC jurisdiction, I understand exactly what he is trying to do. Is it his hope not that the ICC should not have a jurisdiction but that if the Palestinians and Israelis come to the table for peace talks, the question of the ICC can be parked for a time so that the attempt to get a peace deal is not skewered by sending the question to courts that would take much longer to resolve it?
My right hon. Friend is right, of course, about the second-term priorities. Given the urgency of the situation and given that from January the Israeli elections will have taken place and the United States will be at the beginning of a second-term Administration, if we are not going to address and resolve the problem then, when on earth will we ever do so? We see this question as very important for the re-elected US Administration. He is also right about the ICC and that is what we are saying. We are saying not that anyone should be exempt from the ICC for the long-term future, but that since a negotiation must succeed everybody has to accept some things that are temporary or unpleasant. We had our own experience of that—many hon. Members have much experience of it—in the Northern Ireland peace process. We had to do things we were very reluctant to do but that were necessary to bring about a settlement. That is true in the middle east, too.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary set out the very powerful case that support for the resolution could act not as a block to peace but as a bridge. Earlier this year, I met President Abbas and I was convinced that he was a man of courage who wanted to get back to negotiations. How has the Foreign Secretary weighed the importance of empowering President Abbas to kick-start the negotiations against the assurances he has set out, which although they are important are a very high bar? That balance is key if we are to make progress for both Israel and Palestine.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is the judgment—how to weigh those things. We want the Palestinian Authority to succeed, and we believe that President Abbas is the best interlocutor that Israel will have to bring about peace. We also believe, however, that the other factors that I have described are essential for that to work. Our way of weighing those two factors in the balance is to try to combine them in a successful resolution.
I make again the point that I made in response to the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South: if these assurances were received, and we could vote for the resolution, and it was passed with a large majority, would the chances of negotiation beginning again and succeeding be greater than they are today? The answer is undeniably yes, and that is the logic of our position.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. When I was in Israel and the Palestinian territories, I did not detect any appetite for overreacting to the passing of the resolution. What has he heard that has changed his mind?
As my hon. Friend can imagine, we have discussed this with the United States and Israel in detail, and there are people who do not in any way hold extreme views on these things who are concerned about possible reactions and about—we certainly hope that there will not be—any sudden, dramatic, adverse reaction to the passing of the resolution. They are concerned that the result might be stagnation and that it could make it more difficult for the United States to do the sort of thing that we have all called for in the House today. That is why we have asked for additional assurances.
The Palestinian people deserve the support of the British people and the British Government. Why does the Foreign Secretary ask the Palestinian people not to set conditions, only to set conditions on his support for the Palestinians at the United Nations?
We are simply trying to frame the resolution and what goes with it in the right way to remove preconditions. An obstacle to negotiations in the past year, as I explained, has been preconditions on the Palestinian side. We want to get rid of that obstacle and secure a commitment to return to negotiations without preconditions. I do not see any problem with that condition.
I understand that the Foreign Secretary had a conversation with President Abbas about the resolution. In that conversation, at any point did President Abbas indicate that his priority was to return to peace talks without preconditions? If he did not, does the Foreign Secretary agree that this is just a distraction?
We have had many conversations with President Abbas on this subject, and we have discussed many times over the past two and a half years how to get back into negotiations. At one stage, for a brief period, that happened at the end of the 10-month settlement freeze. I have no doubt of President Abbas’s sincerity in wanting to bring about successful negotiations, but he did not respond to my request by saying that he would say publicly that there would be no preconditions. We will continue to encourage him to do so, but we should not draw any adverse conclusions about President Abbas on that either. We simply have to keep encouraging him in that direction.
How Britain votes at the United Nations will surely be a test of how genuine our commitment is to the Palestinian cause. Arising from previous questions, does the Foreign Secretary accept that the choice is really for Israel, leaving aside the resolution at the UN, on whether it accepts a viable and independent Palestinian state—the Palestinian people are certainly not going to disappear any more than Israelis are—or a one-state solution with safeguards for both communities? That may not be the best choice for Israel, but the choice lies with Israel.
Well, I will go so far with the hon. Gentleman: absolutely, of course that is an important test for Israel, which is why it needs to enter negotiations in the right spirit and with the right generosity. However, the Palestinians need to play their part. Any such negotiation requires both parties to conclude it successfully, and they must be prepared to make the necessary compromises. There are important tests for both sides, and our vote in the UN General Assembly should be determined by our determination to see them make a success of those negotiations, rather than to demonstrate that the Palestinian cause is more important than Israeli security, or the other way round. The test for us is supporting negotiation.
We have heard today the consequences for the Palestinians if they place any preconditions on entering peace talks, but what consequences does the Foreign Secretary see for the next Israeli Government, both political and economic, if they fail to end the illegal settlement activity that he said threatens the viability of any peace process?
As I mentioned, there will be serious and accumulating consequences for Israel of failing to bring about a two-state solution. Settlement building is a major contributor. It is the single biggest factor in removing the time and opportunity to create such a two-state solution. So, yes, Israel will face greater problems in future. As for other measures—my hon. Friend is seeking diplomatic penalties and so on for Israel in future—that arises when we turn our minds to how the United States should restart the peace process, and how European nations can support that. We will want to do so in a very active way, but I do not want to speculate about what measures we could take at this point.
The Foreign Secretary must be aware of the misery of refugees living for 60 years in the camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria; of the people of Gaza, imprisoned effectively by the Israeli blockade; and of the west bank under occupation. Why has he made a statement that effectively says that the diplomatic objectives of the US and Israel are holding a veto over our vote at the UN tomorrow? Will he not put himself on the side of history, rather than talking about the hand of history, and vote for the unconditional recognition of Palestine?
I do not think that I was talking about the hand of history. That was a Tony Blair phrase—I have not adopted it. The lesson of history—I shall return to that point—is that we need a negotiation to succeed. The hon. Gentleman asked why the opinions of Israel and the United States matter so much. It is because we will only alleviate these problems and help decisively the people to whose plight he rightly drew attention with a negotiated settlement with Israel. Of course, one has to allow for opinion in Israel as well, and the nation with the closest relationships with Israel and the biggest leverage over its foreign policy decisions is the United States. That is why we must have due regard for its opinions. That is the practical and diplomatic approach that foreign policy must allow for. As I said, we are exercising the vote of a country and exercising our foreign policy, not making gestures.
In 1947, His Majesty’s Government abstained on the admission of a Jewish national homeland into the United Nations. Sixty-five years later, it looks as though we will do the same again. Now, we are a constant friend of Israel, and in recognition of the fact that the resolution will be passed tomorrow whatever we do, should Her Majesty’s Government not change gear and work over the next few years with both Israelis and moderate Palestinians to bring about the real game-changing event in the middle east—Israeli sponsorship of eventual full Palestinian admission to the United Nations, with both states living in peace behind secure borders?
Yes, my hon. Friend puts it very well. This has moved rapidly to the top of the list of international priorities, and this is the time to do so. Given that, as we discussed, it is the beginning of a second term in Washington and the Israeli election campaign concludes in January, it is an important moment to try to achieve exactly what he describes.
May I ask the Foreign Secretary to show a little less neck to the Palestinians and a little more backbone to the Israelis? He referred to the Northern Ireland peace process. One of the lessons of that is that when give and take is not happening between the parties immediately involved, responsible external weight can be used to establish necessary givens, even against the shrill opposition of key elements at the time. Has he no fear that an abstention tomorrow will only undermine President Abbas and underwrite an Israeli veto in terms that will be seen to underwrite the very Israeli violations that he himself has condemned?
No, I do not think so. I gave the reasons earlier why I do not think that undermines President Abbas at all. Indeed, in his phone call last night with the Deputy Prime Minister, President Abbas was clear about the strong and continuing friendship between us, irrespective of the vote tomorrow. I defer to Northern Ireland Members on some of the lessons of the peace process, but here that requires external parties to say, “Above all, you are going to have to be pushed back into negotiations.” That means pressure on both sides. This is an example of us exerting that pressure on both sides, so the hon. Gentleman should welcome that.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank my right hon. Friend for his reasoned statement and particularly for the work of the Minister with responsibility for the middle east. Inevitably, Hamas will see tomorrow’s vote as a victory for its missile attacks on Israel. The Palestinian Authority say that recognition will help bolster the moderate Palestinians. If the Palestinian state is voted for and Hamas is strengthened and resumes its missile attacks on Israel, what actions will the Government take?
My hon. Friend paints a range of unwelcome events that could come about, and he knows many of the things that we do to discourage those things, including rocket attacks on Israel. Of course we will continue to advocate the revival of the peace process. Of course we stand by the security and legitimacy of Israel, as he knows, but we also want Israel to do what is necessary for the peace process to succeed and Palestinians to enter negotiations with them, so we will do our utmost to guard against the outcomes that he fears.
The Secretary of State said that he had spoken to Mahmoud Abbas. I would be interested to know which Israelis he spoke to before putting together this miserable little offer that continues to treat the Palestinians as second-class citizens, if citizens at all. What, apart from the fact that Israel wants it, should lead the Palestinians to fetter their access to the Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and what in particular should make them enter negotiations for their own land when the colonisation of that land continues?
The hon. Gentleman can make that case and it is very powerfully felt among Palestinians, but I remind the House again that their plight will be alleviated only if there is a successful negotiation between both parties—between Israel and the Palestinians—so it would not be wise to disregard all Israeli concerns. Those concerns have to be met as well. Israel has to know that it can reliably live in peace and security, just as Palestinians need to know that they can live in a viable sovereign state. So it is very important to understand both sides of the argument, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s question was a very good example of that.
A two-state solution demands, in my view, bilateral talks, not unilateral grandstanding. As such, does my right hon. Friend have any views on the numerous peace initiatives of the Israeli Government over the past three years, all of which have been rebuffed by the Palestinian Authority?
It does require bilateral talks; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is, as I indicated a few moments ago, fault on both sides when it comes to efforts to have negotiations over the past few years. Israel has been, on the whole, readier to enter into negotiations, but Israel has not made the decisive offer, or the more decisive offer than anything seen in recent years, that I have called for. The Palestinians have not always been ready to enter into negotiations at all. Both those things will have to change if we are to see a successful peace process.
The Foreign Secretary said that he was worried about a backlash from Israel and others. Given the blockades, the illegal settlements, the wall, the destruction of Palestinian farms, the arrests, the imprisonment, the decades of ignoring UN resolutions, the refugee camps, the abject poverty and the rest, how much worse does he think it can get for the Palestinians?
Unfortunately, the position could get worse. The Palestinian Authority is in a precarious financial position, although the United Kingdom, under Governments of all parties, has a very strong record in that regard, and we will maintain that strong record. But it is a difficult position. Given the nature of the west bank, the proximity of Israel and the obviously very difficult relations with Israel, yes, things could get worse. There are ways in which they could get even worse, so the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to all the factors to which he drew attention, but we still need the parties to be able to restart negotiations, taking into account the concerns of both sides.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s thoughtful and considered statement, which I know will be closely examined by many in my constituency. Will this country continue to pursue a two-state solution with every effort, if for no other reason than that we have an historical and moral responsibility to assist in ending that conflict?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We will do that. I have referred many times today and on previous occasions to the vital importance of this issue over the coming months and to its urgency. That will be fully reflected in the way that we conduct our foreign policy over the coming weeks and months.
May I first express the regret of my right hon. and hon. Friends who sit on this Bench in respect of the conditions set out by the Foreign Secretary? May I ask him a genuine question? What assessment has he made of any change for good or ill in the stance of the Israeli Government with the forthcoming election and with the departure of Ehud Barak?
This is a matter for the Israeli people. I will not intervene in their politics. We have always had close and good relations with Mr Barak. Indeed, he is one of the Israeli leaders I speak to most frequently, so in that sense we will regret his departure. But it is up to the Israelis who they choose to lead them in their elections in January. Whoever that is, we will make the case powerfully to them about the urgency of the issue and about the importance of it being in their own long-term strategic interests to tackle it decisively over the coming year. So we will not be shy of doing that, just as we are not shy of saying to Palestinians what we need from them.
I welcome the news that the UK will not oppose or veto greater recognition for Palestine. The House should support all those on both sides who strive for peace and lay aside violence. Although I hope that the Secretary of State’s conditions can be satisfied, does he agree that enhanced recognition would mark a step towards the sovereign Palestine and secure Israel that we all want to see and increase the accountability of Palestinian organisations to the UN?
Whether that would mark a step towards that depends on what happens next. As I mentioned earlier, it is important that Palestinians can celebrate success not just for one day at the United Nations, but that then there is a sequence of events that they can celebrate and that will give them hope for the future. That is what we are trying to provide in the assurances that we have asked for, to maximise the chances of further progress being made after a vote at the UN tomorrow, rather than the peace process going backwards. So we can answer my hon. Friend’s question fully only when we see what happens next.
The Foreign Secretary told us about the conditions that he put to the Palestinian Authority. What I am interested in is what he said to the Israeli Government about their threat to withhold the taxes that they owe the Palestinians. What is he doing to prevent that threat from being carried out?