House of Commons
Tuesday 5 March 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Tuesday 12 March (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
We continue to watch events in Tunisia closely. We condemn the assassination of Opposition leader Chokri Belaid. We have watched the peaceful transference of the premiership from Prime Minister Jebali to Prime Minister designate Laarayedh, which has been accompanied by strong statements by those in Tunisia about their adherence to democracy and building democratic institutions.
Matters relating to dates and timings of the constitution and everything else remain unclear. We have seen nothing at this stage to suggest that any date should be affected, but a new Government have not yet been formed. The Prime Minister designate has until the end of this week to create a Government. There may be an extension after that, but hopes are high that that Government will be confirmed. It will then be easier to see what dates will follow for the other parts of the democratic process of rebuilding.
I do not want to accuse the Minister of being complacent, because I tend to agree with him on Tunisia, but there is no constitution and no set date for the elections. Before the leader of the Opposition was assassinated, he said that anybody criticising the Government would be taken out, in effect, and there is video evidence of direct links between the ruling party and al-Qaeda. Should the Minister not reassess his policy?
I am not quite sure what reassessment the hon. Gentleman is asking for. As I have said, we are monitoring events as closely as we can. We are engaged with a variety of projects for democracy building in Tunisia, yet the constitutional processes being undergone are for Tunisians themselves. I spoke to our deputy head of mission just this morning. The streets are calm; people are expecting a Government to be formed at the end of the week. They are well aware of the difficulties of forming the Government and of the pressures between the political parties, but as he said, there are grounds for some optimism. These are obviously difficult days for Tunisia, but the fact that the process has been handled democratically and peacefully to date is much to be welcomed, and we will continue to encourage it.
I am sure the Minister can agree that Tunisia has made remarkable progress in its transition to democracy. For quite some time it has led the way in the region, but the inevitable wobble has now happened. Can he say what role the Deauville partnership has in helping the political, social and economic transition to democracy?
I very much appreciate what my hon. Friend says. There has been good progress, but we must all be clear that each state is different. These events in the Arab world will take time and there will inevitably be progress, both forwards and backwards. Tunisia is facing its own difficulties, but facing up to them well. The Prime Minister has made it clear that, as part of our responsibilities for the G8, the Deauville partnership will be reinvigorated to ensure that economic support is available to countries in transition. We believe that the G8 process this year will be able to deliver economic benefits to countries in transition such as Tunisia, which will be of enormous help to them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that building a stable democracy takes a long time? After all, it has taken us 800 years and it is far from perfect. Should not those of us who support the democratic changes in north Africa and the middle east therefore exercise both patience and perseverance?
My hon. Friend puts it very well. There is a great risk of trying to see all political developments through the prism of 24-hour news or a rolling news programme. These things will not be settled quickly. I suspect that we will not know the outcome of the Arab spring even by the time most of us have finished our period in Parliament. My hon. Friend is right: this will need patience. Equally, the commitment of those such as the United Kingdom to democracy-building institutions—which we are involved in through the Arab partnership and other partners—is a vital part of the process, if it is to be a success.
When President Marzouki came to Britain last autumn, he stressed the vital importance of establishing a broad-based constitution. In view of the difficult atmosphere following the death of Chokri Belaid, what specific actions are the UK Government taking to support the development of democracy, perhaps through Arab Partnership projects? This is an absolutely crucial time for Tunisia.
It certainly is. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to our engagement, through Arab Partnership, in various democracy-building processes. We are expecting a number of projects to be developed during the course of this year, at a cost of some £2.5 million, and we will be looking to develop projects on election monitoring, on the support of political parties and on democracy building. We are constantly looking, with the Tunisians, at what they will find most effective. Last year, one of the most effective projects was to help them to move their state broadcasting company into a public broadcasting company. Such efforts to open up democracy to more people are a vital part of the process that we hope will lead to the establishment of a new constitution in the time scale already set out by the Tunisians.
21. There are 60 British companies currently operating in Tunisia, compared with 1,800 French ones. What steps is my hon. Friend’s Department undertaking with UK Trade & Investment to ensure greater British economic engagement with Tunisia? (145895)
We continue to encourage more UKTI missions to Tunisia. Through the G8 process, there will be a major investment conference later this year for all those countries involved in transition, at which UK companies will be able to look at the opportunities that are available to them in Tunisia. We want UK companies to be prepared to take more risk. We are sometimes told by nations abroad that they see more of other countries’ companies than our own, but we do not believe that that is necessarily the case. We want to encourage British companies to become involved, and Tunisia presents a series of fine opportunities.
There is a clear need for the United States to lead an effort to revive the peace process. This was top of the agenda of my recent discussions with Secretary Kerry, and I welcome the focus that he has brought to bear on the issue since his appointment. We will make every effort to mobilise European and Arab states behind decisive moves for peace.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the starting point for negotiations should be the legal status quo—that is, that the whole of the west bank and east Jerusalem, within the 1967 borders, is Palestinian land, as agreed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council in resolution 242—and not the facts on the ground created by illegal settlement building?
Across the House, all of us have commented clearly about illegal settlement building on occupied land, but I think the starting point for negotiations has to be a common political will. That needs to be there in Israel, where a new Government are being formed, and among Palestinians, who continue to discuss reconciliation among each other. The true starting point is a common willingness to enter again into negotiations and to develop the middle east peace process, with the leadership of the United States but with the support of us all.
The Foreign Secretary seems to expect the Palestinians to have the patience of Job. He might be aware that, in the coming months, Israel is set to demolish hundreds of homes in the Palestinian town of Silwan to make way for a tourist attraction. Is he also aware that that is the single largest proposed demolition of Palestinian homes since 1967? What will he do to try to instil a sense of reality among the Israeli authorities to stop this unlawful theft of Palestinian land, which can only hinder the search for a two-state solution?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that such actions hinder the search for a two-state solution. Our condemnation of illegal settlement building and of demolitions on occupied land has been very clear across the House, as I have said. The important thing in the coming months is to move beyond that and to get into successful negotiations. The only answer, in the end, will be an agreed two-state solution, and the time for that is slipping away. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned patience. The world has been patient, but the time in which a two-state solution can be agreed is now slipping away, partly because of changing facts on the ground. That demonstrates the urgency, and I believe, in the light of all the discussions I have had with Secretary Kerry so far, that he is fully seized of the importance and urgency of the issue.
I visited Lebanon the week before last, and it is a country whose stability we want to support. While I was there, I announced additional support for the Lebanese armed forces as well as for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. We do our best to contribute to the stability of the Lebanese state, but that is often fragile—not least because of what is happening in Syria at the moment. I believe that we have many friends in Lebanon and that our announcements were strongly welcomed there.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Israeli Prime Minister has recently given Tzipi Livni Cabinet responsibility for negotiations with the Palestinians. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the appointment of a known vocal campaigner for a two-state solution is a welcome development? When will he or his Ministers meet Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterparts to see how Her Majesty’s Government could extend support for negotiations?
Of course we should and do welcome the appointment of Mrs Livni, although I stress that the final composition and make-up of the Israeli coalition has not yet been agreed—these things have not been finalised. Mrs Livni has worked hard in the past to try to bring about negotiations on a two-state solution. We are indeed in regular touch with her and have been even when she was out of government. The negotiations, which failed to reach a conclusion by 1 March now have a further 14 days to produce an Israeli Government by 15 March. We hope that, whatever the composition of that Government, they will be committed to serious negotiations and have the same sense of urgency that we in this House have just expressed.
From what I have said many times about the illegality of settlement building on occupied land it will be clear to the hon. Gentleman where we stand on matters of international law. Now, however, we have to find a solution to all of this, and that will come only from a successful negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. I do not know anyone who thinks that there will be any other way of bringing about an end to building on occupied land and peace both for Israelis and Palestinians. That is what we want to promote: settlements are obviously a major issue in any such negotiation.
My right hon. Friend said a moment or two ago that the possibility of a two-state solution was slipping away. Does he understand that a large number of people, including well-informed commentators and analysts, believe that that time has now gone. If the position now is that the two-state solution is incapable of achievement, what are the prospects for any stability in Israel in the future?
If, indeed, that possibility has gone, the prospects for stability in the whole region—for Israel and others—would be greatly worsened. We should be clear about that, as it is part of the argument to Israeli leaders to get them to use the time remaining for a two-state solution to be brought about. On that, I differ from my right hon. and learned Friend in that while I think this may be the last chance for a two-state solution and that the time is slipping away, I do not think that the time for it has yet gone. That is why it was at the top of the agenda in all our discussions with the United States at the beginning of this year. We will do everything we can to support American efforts as President Obama arrives in Israel in three weeks’ time.
When the Israelis unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, the result was 7,000 missiles from Hamas on to Israeli towns and cities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any negotiation on the administered territory on the west bank should be accompanied by a guarantee from Hamas of an end to its terrorism?
It is very important that rocket fire comes to an end. I am very concerned at reports of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel last week, which was the first such incident since the ceasefire agreement in November. We call on all parties to respect in full the November ceasefire. We have consistently condemned the firing of rockets into Israel, which is not, of course, a helpful backdrop to peace negotiations.
I share the Foreign Secretary’s view that this is the last chance for a decisive move for peace. Is it not time to make it clear to the Israeli authorities that if it does not work on this occasion—if this move for peace ends as all the others have—the flagrant breach of international law that is represented by illegal settlements over 46 years, since 1967, will finally have to be met by some serious consequences, from the European Union and from ourselves?
It will be important for EU nations, including us, and for Arab nations to give careful and well-calibrated support to the American efforts. I have already been discussing that with Secretary Kerry. We need to allow time and space for this American effort to develop as President Obama visits the region later in the month, but I believe that it will important for us to be able to say in concrete terms, at crucial stages of any negotiations that may develop, what we will do to support the process and to incentivise the parties involved. Of course, it may also be open to us to disincentivise—if I may use that word—those parties at crucial moments.
In the context of conditions for peace, the right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that last Saturday, in Palestine, I visited the mothers and surviving family members—for some have been killed by the Israelis—of Ayman Ismail, who is being held in administrative detention and has been on hunger strike for 246 days, and of Samer Issawi, who is being held on trumped-up charges after being tried twice, once by a civil court which said that he should be released tomorrow and once by a military court which is holding him for 20 years, He has been on hunger strike for 223 days, and is in a critical condition. Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear to Netanyahu that if these men die, their blood will be on his hands?
I think we can be absolutely clear that it is important for justice to be properly done and human rights to be observed on all occasions, for a justice system to be properly upheld, and for problems that have arisen in relation to hunger strikes—of which we have seen many in recent times—to be dealt with through successful talks between the Israeli authorities and those concerned whenever possible. We have urged that. There have been such successful talks in the past, and I hope that the same can happen in this case.
On 18 February, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister told European Union Foreign Ministers that the Bulgarian Government took it as a justified assumption that two members of Hezbollah’s military wing had been involved in the terrorist attack in Burgas last July. Since then we have received representations from the United States and Israel about Hezbollah’s activity, and we have called on our European partners to respond robustly to terrorist actions on European soil.
I warmly welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said. This was a terrorist attack which cost the lives of six people, tourists innocently going about their business. Is it not high time the European Union acted against Hezbollah and banned it in its entirety? Otherwise, will not the EU be left looking a little bit casual, if not shoddy, in its approach to terrorism?
As my hon. Friend knows, we are clear about this. The United Kingdom proscribed Hezbollah’s external security organisation back in 2001, and extended that proscription to the military wing in 2008. We are now discussing the issue in the European Union, and we would like to see the EU follow what we have done. We are engaged in active discussion with EU countries. Some are supportive of this, some are awaiting evidence from Bulgaria before making a decision, and some have other concerns. We are seeking to persuade them that those concerns are not warranted, and that the European Union should take a decisive position.
24. The recent murder of Israeli tourists, together with a Bulgarian national, in Bulgaria is just the latest in a string of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah, from Argentina in 1994 to Cyprus and Turkey in 2011. Just what will it take for Europe to act against this terrorist organisation? (145898)
As the hon. Lady will gather, that is what we are discussing in the European Union. My Bulgarian colleague briefed us on the matter at the last meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, and we are now having the discussions that I just described. As I say, some countries wish to look at the evidence in more detail, and some have other concerns about the impact on relations with Lebanon. However, I made it clear on my recent visit to Lebanon that we supported the Lebanese authorities’ statement that they would co-operate fully with the investigation and that there is no need for any decision we make about Hezbollah to have a damaging impact on Lebanon’s stability.
Hezbollah makes no distinction between its military activities and its political activities, so why does the EU feel the need to make such a distinction before it reaches a view about sanctions against Hezbollah?
The United Kingdom made that distinction and we believe that those wings are organisationally distinct, even if they both come under the same overall leadership. It is important to recognise that Hezbollah’s political wing is and will remain an important part of Lebanon’s political scene, and we have to be able to act in the interests of the stability of Lebanon. We do not believe that an EU consensus could be arrived at on the designation of the whole of Hezbollah.
I have listened carefully to the answers offered by the Foreign Secretary, and on this matter I sense that there is genuine cross-party agreement across the House. He says that active discussions are under way with European partners on the proscription of Hezbollah’s military wing, but that some countries are looking at further evidence. Given the terms of the report published by the Bulgarians on 5 February and the discussions that the Bulgarian Minister has had with other European colleagues, will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what further discussions he is going to have, particularly with the French and with others? What assurance would they need in order to be able to match the action that, with our support, the British Government have taken?
Of course, we are in active discussion with other European partners, including France. As I say, some are immediately supportive of designation, as we are, but some want to look in more detail at the evidence, although plenty of evidence is available. Some have concerns about the impact on the stability of Lebanon—concerns that I think are unfounded—on EU relations with Lebanon or on European troops serving in the UN mission in southern Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon. So there are a variety of reasons for this, which I do not agree with, and it is clear that the right hon. Gentleman does not agree with them either. I shall, thus, quote the strong cross-party support in this House in the Government’s further discussions about this issue.
Arms Trade Treaty
The United Kingdom remains a determined driver towards a robust and effective arms trade treaty, as it has been for many years, particularly in the run-up to the conference in New York later this month. We are actively engaged in lobbying various other states, and we will continue to do that throughout the conference, both in New York and from London.
Just 10 days ago, in a debate in this House, the Foreign Secretary made a powerful speech on tackling sexual violence in conflicts. One way of turning those warm words into action would be by strengthening the draft text of the arms trade treaty, which calls on states only to “consider taking feasible measures” to avoid arms being used in gender violence. Will the Minister make getting those words strengthened in the treaty a priority?
We are looking actively to strengthen the treaty in a variety of places and to close off whatever loopholes we can. Tackling gender violence remains of exceptional importance to the United Kingdom and wherever there is a possibility of strengthening the text in relation to that, we will do so.
I congratulate the Government on campaigning for a universal treaty and on ensuring that national reports are declared openly and transparently. But does the Minister agree that in two or three weeks’ time the draft text of the treaty needs to include all arms and weapons transfers?
The key priority for the United Kingdom is to make sure, first, that we do not lose the strength of the text that was almost agreed last July. We also want to ensure that we can clarify and strengthen the text wherever possible, and transfers is indeed one of the priorities that we will be looking at in seeking to improve the text.
The UK director of Amnesty International has said that there are tighter international controls on the global trade in bananas than there are on arms. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government will take this opportunity to push very hard for a very effective arms treaty that applies to all weapons and munitions and that ensures proper monitoring and an enhanced end-user certificate system?
The inclusion of all small arms and light weapons in the treaty is fundamental for us. I have had regular meetings with the director of Amnesty; I know her views and they are very similar to ours. It is vital that we get the broadest and most effective arms trade treaty out of New York. We will not be able to secure everything we would wish and we will not sign something just because it is a piece of paper. We want to ensure that it is robust and effective for those who use it and for end-users, too.
It is said that around the world someone dies on average every minute as a result of armed violence, including 50,000 people who will have died last July while the arms trade treaty negotiations stalled. What prospect of American support for an international arms trade treaty did the Minister and the Foreign Secretary discern from their talks with Secretary Kerry during his visit last week?
We very much want the United States to be a party to the agreement, but we know—as is well known—that they have issues with some items. The Secretary of State was made well aware by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary of the importance we attach to the arms trade treaty. The United States is, of course, keeping its negotiating position carefully guarded in the run-up to the negotiations, as one would expect. We are very keen that the United States should be able to sign the agreement and, of course, that it should meet our objectives of being robust and effective.
I was a little disappointed to hear that no Minister from our Department for International Development would be attending the arms trade treaty talks later this month. Given that armed violence is estimated to cost Africa $18 billion a year, will the Minister assure me that tackling poverty and the extent to which arms transfers undermine socio-economic development will be at the top of his list of priorities when he goes to New York?
As the hon. Lady rightly says, I am going to New York. It is not possible for a Minister from DFID to go on this occasion, but they went last July. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, has been determined in all his efforts over the course of the past year to pursue our interests in the treaty and will continue to work the phones even while other people are in New York. There is no lack of engagement from DFID and the Government’s determination, supported, we know, by the whole House, will continue throughout the conference.
EU Treaty Change
Given that the Minister is unable to give any indication of a time scale for any potential intergovernmental conference on EU treaty change, what does he say to businesses in my constituency that have raised their concerns that uncertainty over the relationship with the EU could harm trade with the continent and threaten their viability?
I would say to businesses in the hon. Lady’s constituency that I hope that they will warmly welcome the efforts the Government are making to strengthen the single market in Europe, to promote free trade with the rest of the world and to cut the cost of European regulation on businesses of all sizes.
Will the Minister embrace collaboration rather than confrontation in Europe and welcome last week’s call for smarter regulation, more cost-efficiency, more free trade agreements and many other European reforms that are possible with or without a treaty issued by the Deputy Prime Minister and Liberals in government in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Romania and the UK?
There was indeed a great deal in that statement with which I, coming from a different political family, would find myself in disagreement—[Interruption.] I mean in complete agreement—although perhaps I disagreed with a few points. It is striking that when I talk to my European counterparts, from whatever political family they come, there is a common sense of the urgency of Europe’s collectively getting to grips with the challenges of global competition and taking the steps on deregulation and the promotion of free markets and free trade that will bring more jobs and prosperity to everyone in this continent.
Treaty change requires the agreement of all member states. However, the European Council President said last week in London that there was
“not much appetite . . . around the leaders table”
for opening the treaties. The Dutch Foreign Minister said:
“We will do everything to avoid treaty change”.
The French are not keen. The Germans are not keen. Which allies has the Minister found for treaty change?
I am sorry if the hon. Lady feels that the treaty of Lisbon is so perfect that it needs no reform at all. In respect of the President of the European Council’s comment, he has said before that he does not think that any treaty change is likely for the next couple of years, and I do not disagree with that opinion, but if the hon. Lady looks again at the report of the four Presidents, if she looks again at President Barroso’s blueprint for European reform, she will find there a proposal for substantial changes to the way the EU operates that would not be possible without changes to the treaties.
We are seeing some positive results and progress in areas such as the EU budget, fisheries and the extension of the working time directive. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the ongoing process of negotiation and alliance building is a vital part of realising the reforms needed in the EU and Britain’s relationship with its European partners?
I completely agree with what my hon. Friend says. The achievement of the first-ever reduction in a European financial framework, coupled with the agreement on the ban on the obscene practice of discarding fish—something for which this country has fought for many years—is clear evidence not only that this Government are committed to working with our partners in Europe to achieve common objectives, but that we are succeeding in delivering outcomes that should be welcomed right across the House and by everybody in this country.
We take regular opportunities to talk to the Government of the state of Israel about settlement policy which, as the House heard earlier, we consider to be illegal and an obstacle to peace. My most recent opportunity was a meeting with the Israeli ambassador last Friday.
Against the worrying echoes of the southern states of the USA 50 years ago and of apartheid South Africa 25 years ago, the Government of Israel introduced segregated buses for Israeli settlers living illegally on the west bank and for the indigenous Palestinian population. Appeasing the racist regime in Israel must stop. Will the Minister, with his European Union colleagues, end our cosy relationship in view of such behaviour?
As always, recognising the context of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly in relation to some of the hopes expressed by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary earlier, means acknowledging how difficult the circumstances are, but also points to the consequences of there not being a settlement and of actions being pursued that continue to place Israel in a difficult position with world opinion. The longer the status quo is believed to be realistic, the more dangerous things become. We must all lend our efforts to the determination expressed by a number of states that this year must be definitive if we wish to see Palestinians and Israelis live in the sort of peace and harmony that we would all expect to bring an effective settlement to that region.
Further to an earlier question, is not the crux of the matter that the Israeli Government, and previous Israeli Governments, do not believe that there will be any serious consequences as a result of what they do? Can one understand the sheer anger, resentment and frustration of the Palestinians who see no political progress at all? What would we do if we were in the same position as the Palestinians in the occupied territories?
The crux of the matter remains the extraordinary distrust and low levels of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians in relation to security matters and the long effects of the occupation, which has been so immensely damaging to both. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, we fear that unless there is effective action this year, the opportunity for a two-state solution is slipping away, the barrier between Israeli and Palestinian that we have all seen growing in our time in the House is getting more and more severe, and the opportunities, therefore, for people to live together in the future are getting more and more remote. The anger is understood. The fear of lack of security on the Israeli side is understood. That is why this year has to be definitive to make serious progress.
20. Is it not the case that in no other country would we allow large numbers of migrants to occupy its land, denying the land to local people? Why is so much energy put into the likes of Syria after two years, when nothing appears to be done about Palestine’s west bank, and in particular East Jerusalem, after 40 years? (145894)
I cannot accept the premise of the question that nothing is done in relation to this long-standing and deeply divisive issue. The United Kingdom has been a supporter of the Palestinian Authority and of its work towards statehood. We have condemned the possibility of settlements arising in new areas of East Jerusalem, we have condemned settlement building in East Jerusalem, and we continue to take the view that settlements are illegal and an obstruction to peace. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said during the course of these questions, this year must be definitive in making progress on both sides, so that the context of a secure Israel next to a viable Palestinian state becomes a reality before that window is lost and the situation becomes even more grave.
The Minister rightly condemns illegal settlements, administrative detention and the demolition of Palestinian homes, but it appears that he cannot do very much. What he can do something about is the import of illegal goods from those settlements, which are running at eight times the level of imports from all Palestinians, as a recent report called “Trading Away Peace”, with which I believe he is familiar, by 22 non-governmental organisations, said. Will he now take steps to prevent the import of goods from illegal settlements to the UK?
We continue to work with European partners on the possibility of extending voluntary labelling so that people can make their choices. We do not believe in a boycott of goods, but we believe in clear labelling so that people can see where goods have come from. We are certainly keen to ensure that no goods from settlement areas find their way into the European Union by being labelled as Israeli, and we are determined to ensure that that does not happen.
The Chequers summit on 3 and 4 February brought together the political and security leaderships from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both sides committed themselves to taking all necessary measures to achieve a peace settlement over the next six months, called on the Taliban to open a political office in Doha, and reaffirmed their commitment to a strategic partnership with each other. We will continue to support the two Governments in bringing about peace, taking into account the stability of the whole region.
I think that all of us in the House would echo the sentiments of the US ambassador to Pakistan, who said that he wished it to be a stable, prosperous and democratic country. Very much in that vein, given that she is a sizeable and important power in that region, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that radical Islamist elements within that country do not destabilise her nuclear role?
Across the House we are all very strong supporters of a democratic Pakistan. Pakistan is coming to a very important moment with a general election where, for the first time, a democratically elected Government will have served their full term to be succeeded by another democratically elected Government. The United Kingdom, of course, does a great deal to support Pakistan, particularly with the huge programme of the Department for International Development. That in turn is particularly focused on primary education in Pakistan, and we also seek to boost trade and investment.
One important aspect of the Chequers summit was that the Pakistani security establishment was there, representing the leadership of the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence. Their clarity and their support for pursuing a peace process, and for working with Afghanistan and with us in order to do so, were abundantly clear. This is therefore now the context in which Pakistan is looking at the Taliban. It wants the Taliban to come into reconciliation and peace.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; that is an interesting accolade.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on that extraordinary summit between two powers that were very unlikely to share a room together even a few months ago. I also congratulate our embassy in Kabul on the extraordinary work it is doing to promote the commercial side of Afghanistan, particularly the mining projects, which in the long run are the key to prosperity for the country.
Both points are very important. The embassy is absolutely working hard on such projects. On relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, one must never be complacent, and much work remains to be done. The two Governments, with our encouragement, have achieved a bigger improvement in their relations in the past six months than at any time in the previous 10 or 20 years. That gives us something to work on.
Repatriation of Powers (EU)
The Government have already made progress on securing reforms to the EU, by ending Britain’s obligation to bail out eurozone members, by ensuring that the smallest businesses are exempted from EU regulations, by securing protections on banking union and by achieving a shift in fisheries policy towards local and regional management.
But did President Van Rompuy not have a good point last week when he said that, rather than prioritising treaty change, the Government should be leading the charge for growth in Europe? With our economy having grown by a dismal 0.2% last year, should the Minister not take that advice rather than trying to weaken the rights of work for millions of employees across Britain?
It is this Government’s commitment to growth, jobs and prosperity in Europe that lay behind the achievement of the EU’s free trade agreements with the Republic of Korea and with Singapore, attained during the lifetime of this coalition Government, and it is the firm alliance between our Prime Minister and the German Chancellor that is driving forward, with the Commission, moves in Europe towards an historic transatlantic trade deal. I wish that the Opposition were sometimes a little less grudging.
I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady is not seeking, by means of that question, to suggest that she supports an end to our opt-out from the 48-hour working week under the working time directive. I hope that she is not being complacent about the European Court of Justice judgments that have caused such difficulties for the national health service and for the social care sector, problems that are not unique to the United Kingdom and concerns about which are shared by many other member states.
Force protection for the small UK military team supporting the C-17 operation in Bamako is being provided by the French as part of the wider Mali operation. Protection for the EU training mission, to which the UK has offered both military and civilian personnel, is being provided by French and Czech military personnel. We do not envisage UK personnel fulfilling a force protection role.
I thank the Minister for his answer. What lessons have been learnt from the EU mission in Somalia, which was relatively successful in keeping terrorists out of the security services, as opposed to a rather less successful exercise in Afghanistan in which many allied servicemen lost their lives as a result of terrorists entering the security services?
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that we learn lessons from EU trading missions where they are taking place. Lessons have been learnt from Somalia. However, there are also differences, one of which is that we are going to infuse into the EU trading mission to Mali some civilian trainers who will focus on the Foreign Secretary’s prevention of sexual violence in conflict initiative to make sure that the Malian army understands the importance of that as well as the importance of humanitarian law and human rights.
This morning I returned from Mali, where I met its President and Prime Minister to urge early progress on a political process and reconciliation with all communities in their country. I also met and thanked members of our armed forces who have given logistical support to France and are now beginning to form the EU military training mission.
May I take the Foreign Secretary to the other side of the world and declare an interest as a member of the Tibet Society? He will be aware that there have now been more than 100 self-immolations in Tibet. He will also be aware of the big crackdown and harsh prison sentences for protestors, including families of the victims. I hope that he is also aware that next Wednesday there will be a big lobby by Tibetans coming to this House. What is he doing to support the growing number of Tibetan refugees, many of whom are escaping across the mountains to Dharamsala? In particular, what help can we give through the British Council to assist in education about and preservation of the Tibetan language and culture, which are being so brutally repressed by China in Tibet?
In a very short answer, Mr Speaker, we do indeed have serious concerns about the recent wave of self-immolations and urge the Chinese authorities to show restraint towards Tibetan protestors. As my hon. Friend knows, we believe in meaningful dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese authorities as the best way to address and resolve the underlying grievances. There is no change in our policy towards Tibet, which we regard as part of the People’s Republic of China. However, we are always concerned about human rights issues and—in the interests of brevity, Mr Speaker—we will take an additional look at the points that my hon. Friend raises.
In the light of the latest round of the P5 plus 1 talks held last week in Kazakhstan, will the Foreign Secretary update the House on progress? In particular, will he share with the House, if he feels able, some of the specific guarantees that the UK Government would be looking to achieve from the Iranians as part of these important discussions, given that being clear about the objectives increases the likelihood of success in the negotiations?
These discussions took place in Almaty last week, on 26 and 27 February, and they were successful enough for further meetings to be agreed. Meetings of officials will take place in early April, also in Kazakhstan. Of course, it is pleasing that it is worth while having those further meetings. In the E3 plus 3 we have put a revised offer to the Iranians. However, that revised offer would involve both sides taking actions that then build confidence for further negotiations, without our thinking that we can resolve the entire problem in one move—one negotiation. We hope that Iran will continue to take a strong interest and a constructive role in these negotiations. It is too early to tell whether the Iranian position is to do that or to play for time, as has often happened in the past.
I note that the Foreign Secretary says that it is too early to tell about these negotiations and that the issue cannot be resolved in one go. I certainly recognise both those points. In recent days there has been quite a lot of speculation about the prospects for bilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran. Will he share the Government’s thinking as to the likelihood of a grander bargain between those two powers taking place in the months ahead?
The United Kingdom is, of course, open to bilateral discussions, which are difficult in our case because of the unavoidable closure of embassies. Nevertheless, I have from time to time met the Iranian Foreign Minister and we are open to the idea of other members of the E3 plus 3 having bilateral discussions with Iran. Such discussions sometimes take place at the margins of the E3 plus 3 meetings. It is important for Iran to know that we are seeking to settle the nuclear issue—Iran would, of course, have all the rights of a country under the non-proliferation treaty—and that the western world is not embarked on regime change in Iran. That sincerely is what we are trying to do. Any bilateral discussions that make that clear and allow negotiations to proceed more successfully on that basis would, of course, be welcome.
T3. My constituent Mr Percival is one of many who have been robbed by property fraud in Cyprus following the default of the Alpha bank. Will a Minister meet me to discuss with the Greek and Cypriot authorities what might be done to rectify this disgrace? (145902)
Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our high commissioner in Cyprus regularly raise property issues with the Cypriot authorities. I have made a commitment to meet members of the all-party group on the defence of the interests of British property owners in Cyprus to discuss the particular case to which my right hon. Friend has referred and the broader issues. I would be very happy to talk to him in that context.
T4. The Foreign Secretary advised the House in a written ministerial statement that the Government would consult European Union partners on strengthening EU sanctions. Will he update us on those discussions and on what impact further sanctions would have on the North Korean leadership and the North Korean people? (145903)
The situation in North Korea following the nuclear test a few weeks ago is extremely serious. I summoned the North Korean ambassador and had subsequent discussions in Seoul in South Korea when I attended the presidential inauguration of President Park. We continue to work with EU partners and the UN in order to introduce a tougher sanctions regime for Pyongyang.
T5. Twenty-seven years ago, the arrival in Uganda of President Museveni’s regime seemed to herald a new dawn for the country. Last week I was visited by Bishop Zac Niringiye, the assistant bishop of Kampala, who used to be a parish priest at Christ Church, Beckenham. Bishop Niringiye, who was himself arrested three weeks ago, briefed me on the appalling levels of Government corruption now endemic in the country. What can Her Majesty’s Government do to succour the drive to end corruption in Uganda? (145904)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the threat that corruption poses both in Uganda and across the African continent. We remain concerned about the situation in Uganda and he may be aware that the Department for International Development temporarily froze all UK aid going through the Ugandan Prime Minister’s office. The UK, along with other donors, is supporting the Government of Uganda’s action plan, which will be reviewed next April.
No, we have not had discussions with the European Commission, but we have made it clear in published documents that the great weight of international legal advice and precedent is that an independent Scotland would have to negotiate its membership of the European Union and other international organisations. In the case of the EU, that would, of course, require the unanimous consent of all member states for every term of that membership.
T6. I recently visited Gaza as part of a cross-party delegation with Interpal. While there I was alarmed to witness, on three different occasions, the shooting at and intimidation of Palestinian fishing boats that appeared to be clearly inside the six-mile limit agreed by the ceasefire. Earlier, the Secretary of State roundly condemned, as is right and proper, the firing of rockets into Israel, but does he agree that peace depends on both sides sticking to the terms of the ceasefire, including Israeli naval ships? (145905)
Yes indeed; the terms of the ceasefire must be adhered to by all. The opportunity for Gaza to get greater economic independence and a resumption of normal trade to and from Gaza will be of huge benefit. That package needs to hold together. Israel needs to have security in its southern area, but Gaza also deserves an important boost to its economy so that matters can move forward. The ceasefire must certainly hold.
I hope that the Minister sees a continuing important role for the nation state in Europe. Will he do all in his power to protect very small states such as Luxembourg, which has a successful economy, so that they can continue to do things their separate way, without any further loss of sovereign powers in any possible EU treaty change?
In my experience, Luxembourg’s Ministers are extremely vigorous and effective in protecting the interests of Luxembourg. However, I would add that the United Kingdom, as one of the biggest member states of the European Union, is usually able to exercise rather greater influence and to mobilise coalitions more effectively than a small country on its own, particularly one that might just have joined the EU.
T8. May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the Fresh Start manifesto and, in particular, to the section on the budget? Will he confirm that we will insist that MEPs vote on the multi-annual financial framework in public, rather than in private as has been proposed by the European Parliament? (145907)
Elected representatives, whether in the European Parliament or this place, should be accountable to the people who elect them in the first place. A secret vote is a denial of that democratic accountability. I hope that Labour Members will exercise the maximum possible public pressure on the socialist group in the European Parliament to stand by that principle of political accountability, to which the Conservative party is committed.
Like the hon. Members for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I was on an Interpal delegation to Gaza last week. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what is being done to lift the blockade on Gaza so that the terrible water situation can be addressed. Sewage cannot be processed, fresh water is unobtainable because of the pollution of the aquifer, and the material to set up a desalination plant or something like it cannot be brought in to provide a decent standard of living for the people of Gaza.
Following the end of the conflict towards the end of last year, there have been renewed efforts to ensure that Gaza progresses towards a normal economic situation and that the resources that are needed to rebuild the infrastructure can go into Gaza. The United Kingdom is clear that unless that happens, the divide between Gaza and Israel will remain. It is essential that that work proceeds and that the UK plays a full part in urging those changes.
T9. Twice in the past year, the UK has failed to vote at the UN to support the aspiration of Palestinians for their own state as part of a two-state solution. On each occasion, the reason given was that we did not wish to undermine a future US-led peace process. May we have an update on the time scale for that? When do Ministers think they might be able to vote in a different direction? (145908)
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in response to earlier questions, Secretary of State Kerry will visit Israel and Palestine shortly, as will President Obama. It is clear that there is a re-engagement all round with the issues that will affect the middle east peace process. We remain clear that this is a priority for the region and for the world, and we will give every assistance to that process.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Government have set out a clear list of powers that the Government desire to repatriate from the EU? In the light of that, are negotiations going on with our EU colleagues about the process that would be necessary to achieve that end?
As a coalition Government, we are committed to a programme of significant reform of the European Union, as has been set out in many speeches and public statements by Ministers throughout the Government. The question of a treaty renegotiation will be put to the electorate in the Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto.
Yes, and I had a report from our high commission in Colombo earlier today. We understand that former President Nasheed was rearrested earlier this morning, and he has access to lawyers. At present we remain puzzled about the turn of events. It was widely believed that an arrangement was in place following former President Nasheed leaving the Indian high commission a couple of weeks ago, in relation to his trial and his part in the forthcoming elections. We are watching the situation carefully and have made it clear to the Maldivian authorities that no harm must be oriented towards the former President.
Given earlier references to the regionalisation of fisheries policy, is the Minister hopeful that we will achieve the objective whereby regional advisory councils can make decisions on fish quota allocations and fisheries management?
In the light of the vote in the European Parliament the other week and the more recent decision at the Council of Ministers, the Government are confident but not complacent—I think that is how I would put it. I assure the hon. Lady that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), working in close consultation with all three devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom, is determined to do his utmost to deliver the kind of deal that she and I wish to see.
Romanians and Bulgarians (Benefits)
May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on getting his urgent question on the second time of trying? He is a model of persistence and I, of course, was over the moon about his persistence.
The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important question and I want to deal with some aspects of it. First, however, I will set the scene as to what we are trying to deal with. I understand that Labour Front Benchers now admit that they fundamentally got it wrong on immigration, but the scope to which they got it wrong is why we have this issue. Between 1997 and 2010, net migration to the UK was some 2.2 million people—larger than the city of Birmingham. Interestingly, from 2004 to 2010, 1.1 million European economic area nationals registered to work in the UK. After the prediction of what was likely to happen, the scope of the problem is far greater than anything the Labour party wanted to tell the public. Most of all, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and her team in the coalition for having begun the process of reducing net migration to Britain for the first time in a long time.
For the benefit of the House and in line with the right hon. Gentleman’s request—I know he particularly wanted me to answer that bit first, so having dealt with it I will get on with the rest of my answer—let me explain the current arrangement. A lot of nonsense is talked about what we are and are not capable of. First, people must pass the habitual residence test, introduced by the previous Government, before being entitled to claim income-related benefits. The current system was put in place in 2004 and has basically two elements—a legal right to reside and an assessment of factual evidence of habitual residence. As we know, EU citizens have the right to live in another member state as long as they are a qualified person, which basically means a worker, self-employed person, jobseeker, self-sufficient person or student. Tax credits have, I am afraid, been open to abuse outside that system from day one because the rules allow anybody from within the European economic area to claim self-employed status and receive full entitlement immediately. The Government are trying to wrestle with that problem, and I will return to it.
We are currently facing—not for the first time—a legal challenge from the European Commission because our habitual residence test states that people must prove they live in the UK habitually before they get access to benefits. It seems strange to me that anyone should be surprised that a habitual residence test requires that a person should live in the UK habitually, but we sometimes live in that George Orwellian political language world, which the Commission seems to foster with great alacrity.
Secondly, on exportability, under the EU co-ordination rules, benefits under the main categories of social security are exportable—that is, payable elsewhere in the European economic area. So that we clear up the confusion, let me say that that includes, notably, child benefit, for example, and has for a while. We therefore pay child benefit to children who live in other EU states when their parents are working here. That causes a lot of concern, and quite legitimately so. When both parents work but in different countries, the EU rules apparently determine who has primary responsibility for paying, but any difference in entitlement is netted off. So, for example, if someone comes from Poland and works over here, the child support that we pay here is netted out against what they might have received had they been paid in Poland, and the net amount is therefore paid across. That is the existing rule. The UK system is obviously more generous, and that is why it pays people in a sense to be here, getting those benefits.
I recognise there are some real issues here. We are in the midst of looking at those issues with other countries as well, and I want to mention which ones are on the schedule. The Government are concerned that, although some protections are in place, they are not enough. That is particularly worrying given the issue, which the right hon. Gentleman raises, of 1 January 2014. So we are trying to look carefully at where the system is falling down at the moment, and I am exploring a series of options. Today, for example, I have called for another meeting of a series of European nations that share our concerns. Some people might have noticed today that Germany has woken up at last to the reality that it might face a large net migration. We are due to meet its representatives and others from around the EU to try to ensure that we deal with this. I do not believe that it is acceptable that we go on with it—I have told the European Commission that—and we will resist it.
I am answering the question. To be frank, the real question for the hon. Gentleman is why he sat with a Government who, for over 10 years, made such a shambles and a mess of this.
The reality is that we are trying, for example, to figure out the rules that allow us to prevent individuals from staying in the UK for only a short time before claiming benefits—a rule that existed under the last Government. We are looking at the tests about accommodation and the length of time people spend here. We want to look at things such the leasing arrangements they have for their housing and over what length of time, and even at challenging the narrow and short-term definition of “habitual” used by the European Court of Justice. In other words, we are trying to lock people out from coming here solely for the purpose of claiming benefits.
I have to tell Opposition Members, who were making a noise just a second ago, that one of the big problems is that the last Government did not collect any data on how many migrants actually claimed benefits here. We have changed that. We are now totalling up who is here and who will claim benefits, and we will be on top of those figures.
In conclusion—I know the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) wants to ask some further questions—there are a number of things we need to do. We need to tighten up immediately the rules about habitual residency. We need to tighten up the rules about accommodation and the leasing length of time. We need to tighten up and start the process of arguing hugely with the Commission that it is quite wrong to net out things such as child benefit and pay the higher level to people whose families do not even come with them into the country to work. Finally, many nations in Europe are just as angry as we are about this, and we have been meeting them since last summer and reaching a common purpose to deal with the Commission and force it to recognise that any further changes it wants to make, including by taking us to court over the British residency rules, are not acceptable. We will tighten up. I refuse to accept the Commission’s rules. I will not give way on the habitual residency test, and we will tighten up on net migration.
May I thank the Secretary of State for his answers, but might I now try to pin him down on four issues? Does he accept that, if the word “crisis” is used, it is a crisis that successive Governments have engendered by moving welfare from the basis that people had to make contributions to receive benefits to one where they receive them if their income proves needs? Is not his universal credit just one more move in that direction? When will the House know what further restrictions will be placed on universal credit to prevent it from being claimed immediately by people who arrive in this country? Does he not accept that the current situation—basically, a means-tested welfare state—is inconsistent with our European Union treaty obligations and is against the Prime Minister’s wish that we should be open for trade but not an easy touch? Are the Government now going to rescind the directions issued by primary care commissioning groups as Parliament rose for the summer last year, which instructed doctors that they had to take people on to their books if they had been here for 24 hours, including people here illegally? When will the Government act on that?
Will the Government use the powers they do have to instruct authorities that in allocating social housing, they must pay due attention to the length of time people have been waiting and to their good behaviour; and that they have a duty to publish data—on which the Government will insist—on whether social housing is being allocated to non-British citizens?
Finally, given that there are already 150,000 Romanians and Bulgarians here legally, and that they are arriving here at a rate of 25,000 a month, does he not accept that the answer he has just given us will prove ineffective against the movement that might well come after 1 January 2014? Will he therefore tell the House when he expects to report on what measures the Government will take? Will he ask for a whole day’s debate, so that the House can improve them before we rise for this summer’s recess?
I have known the right hon. Gentleman for a considerable time and have huge respect for him that goes beyond party affiliation. I will deal with those four points, but I want to deal with a point he made right at the end.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is something of a crisis. For the past two years, I have been fighting a rearguard action against what was left to me by the previous Government. [Interruption.] Opposition Members can moan, but let us put the facts as they are: I inherited a habitual residency test that simply is not fit for purpose. We are trying to tighten that up dramatically and I am being infracted by the European Union for doing so. Before Opposition Members start lecturing us, let us remember what they left. The right hon. Gentleman is, however, absolutely right—I am with him on this—to describe this as a crisis.
The right hon. Gentleman made an important point about the contributory issue on welfare. Tax credits took things faster in that direction, which is why self-employed people coming in to the country are immediately able to claim tax credits even if they are doing only a little bit of work—we talked about The Big Issue sellers and so on. That is one area we have to look at in relation to universal credit, but I take the opposite view from him. Universal credit gives us an opportunity to redefine the nature of that benefit by absorbing the tax credit issue, taking away the right of individuals coming in from overseas to claim on that basis, and redefining it as something much more in line with our obligations, while being able to lock out many migrants who would come and claim immediately. I am happy to discuss that with him further, but I believe we will be able to make that move, which I am looking at at the moment.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that GPs and the health service often overstate their responsibilities to migrants. I talked to the Secretary of State for Health about this issue about a week ago, and he is looking carefully at issuing clear instructions that they do not have to do this. It is my view and belief that that is the case, and it is about making it clear that they do not feel they will be challenged. It is a little like health and safety rules—people over-interpret the situation. In fact, things are never as tough as that, and we need to provide strong guidance.
The right hon. Gentleman is also right about being clear to local government. I am working with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ensure that we publish and are clear about the number of people from overseas who are taking social housing ahead of those who have waited a long time in the queue. This is part of what we are trying to change—I agree and I will do that.
I am very happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman and to work with any colleague, from either side of the House, to make common purpose to tighten up our arrangements so that we do not have a problem when 1 January 2014 arrives. However, a little humility is required from Opposition Front Benchers in recognising that they signed the accession treaty that left us with this problem. It was they who created the habitual residency test that left the door open, and I wish they would apologise and work with us, rather than complain the whole time.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the economic benefit to Romanian and Bulgarian families of migrating to the UK is roughly double that to a Polish family, so the scale of his task is huge indeed? When he meets his European colleagues who share the same anxieties, will he see whether they have a different phrase and judgment for the habitual residence rules?
I will, and I am at the moment. Since last year, we have been talking to colleagues in various countries, including Germany, about the need to deal with the Commission’s view. In a sense, the Commission is using free movement to enter the realm, I think, of social security, which has never been within its remit, and we have to challenge that. Up until now, Germany has been a little more ambivalent, but interestingly in the past two or three weeks it has suddenly begun to change its tune, and other countries, such as Spain, are coming into the group too. We have asked for urgent meetings immediately with that group—in the next two weeks—and I will raise this matter with it.
I, too, welcome the urgent question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), but I am sorry that the Secretary of State answered it in such partisan terms.
The benefits system needs to be fair, and to be seen to be fair. Over many decades, people have come to the UK and made a huge contribution to our economy and our society. The Government now need to look at the benefits and services to be provided, given the prospect of future European migration. We need a sensible and serious debate about credible changes, but the Secretary of State seems only to be floating some rather vague ideas without any sense of whether they can be delivered.
The Secretary of State plans to introduce universal credit from October, but roll-out has already been drastically delayed and fundamental questions are now being asked about the deliverability of the IT. If, as he suggested a moment ago, the Government are to change the rules in the system ahead of implementation, they risk making the delivery of universal credit even more chaotic than it is already set to be. Will he explain how the changes he now envisages will fit in with what is supposed to be being introduced already?
Over the weekend, we were tantalised with hints from Ministers that they wanted the system to be more contributory, but the changes they have made so far, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, are making it less contributory. Has the Secretary of State had a change of heart in favour of a more contributory approach? One other suggestion floated is for the introduction of ID cards. Are these the same ID cards that Ministers announced were scrapped straight after the election? Furthermore, will he and his colleagues do a much better job of enforcing the minimum wage? There have been no prosecutions for minimum wage infringements over the past two years, which has been part of the problem. Will he now put that right?
The changes are long overdue, and I would like to know why the right hon. Gentleman did not explain why the last Government did nothing about resolving the issue. He says that we should not be partisan, but he just has made a very partisan statement when an apology was all he needed to make. He needed only to say that he was sorry for the mess Labour left us in.
What we are talking about will have no practical effect on the implementation of universal credit, which, by the way, is proceeding exactly in accordance with plans. On the contributory principle—this is the point I wanted to make to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead—there is no magic wand. Let us bear it in mind that if it was a blanket contributory principle, we would end up paying a lot of benefits, such as winter fuel payments—an issue that, as the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) knows, was not resolved by his Government—to lots of people who had long since departed Britain. We are considering the matter, and universal credit will give us an ideal opportunity to embrace tax credits and, through this requirement, to start the process of change so that we can resist the pressure of paying tax credits—because they would no longer exist—to people who come to the UK for the first time and claim to be self-employed. That is the area I am looking at.
We need no lectures from the right hon. Gentleman about prosecutions for minimum wage infringements. The last Government’s record on this was so bad I wonder why the Opposition bother mentioning it at the Dispatch Box. We are trying to change it, and will change it, whereas the last Government gave way on every single issue in Europe from the moment they arrived.
Why can the Secretary of State not propose to the House that we legislate to say that no one can get benefits unless they can demonstrate a suitable contribution record or have spent at least 10 years in full-time education in the UK?
As I said earlier, that is the direction of travel we are trying to head in. We are trying to change the rules, in order to make the test covering the period someone spends here and the commitment they make to the UK much tougher. We are wrestling with the habitual residence test, but it is weak in parts because it makes no requirements concerning the length of time someone commits to being in the country. That is an area we have to, and will, challenge. I want to change those rules so that the European Court recognises that someone needs to make a commitment to the country they are in before they can start drawing down.
I remind the Secretary of State that it was not just the Labour party that supported the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, but every single Member of the House at the time—there was not even a vote—so this is something for us all to engage with. I suggest that it is deeply irresponsible to keep briefing newspapers and providing lots of hints—nudge, nudge, wink, wink—but then not to come to the Chamber with concrete proposals. In the last two years, there has not been a single prosecution for breach of the national minimum wage, even though 13% of those working in care homes in this country are on less than the national minimum wage. Is it not time the Government sorted that out, so that fewer people choose to come here?
I just do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. It’s great, isn’t it? In government, they wanted to take the credit for everything, but in opposition they do not want to take the blame when things then go wrong. They negotiated the treaty, so they bear the responsibility. I have to pick up the pieces, and we are going to do that. Under universal credit, we will hugely tighten up on self-employed people, shutting the door to many of those whom he allowed to come in and claim benefits in the first place.
The Secretary of State is right to seek to deal with what is clearly a wholly unsatisfactory and confusing situation, but does he agree that some people are seeking deliberately to misrepresent the current reality and so are fuelling fear, which can lead to prejudice and hatred? Does he agree that we need better information about the situation?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I would simply make the point that we have to deal with the reality. Our system does not deal with the problem of people coming here solely to claim benefits. We are always keen for people who have something to add to come to the UK and add their talents and skills to help us build the economy—that has always been the principle—but we do not agree that people should find an open door and a way of coming in just to take money to which they never contributed. That is the key issue. I agree with his point, but responsibility rests with those who used to defend, but now spend their time attacking, the very position they created.
Is not the simple truth that we cannot do anything much about any of these problems? The Secretary of State might come up with one or two little changes, but the only thing that will give us back control of our own borders is leaving the European Union.
As the hon. Lady knows, given my track record, I bow to nobody in my scepticism about many of these treaties. Under the Prime Minister, we have made it clear that, should my party get elected into government next time round, a very serious renegotiation will take place, with the option of an in-out referendum. Personally, I think that is exactly the right position. This is one of the key areas over which we want to get back a lot of control, and only my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been bold enough to say we will do that, and test ourselves against that.
I love the Secretary of State, but frankly his answer was so long and complicated that one would need a degree in social security to understand it—I did not understand it. As a recent by-election showed, the people are hurting and they want a clear answer from the Government. Why do the Government not do as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) suggested and either move to a contributory system or say, “We will not pay you benefits until you have stayed here for a number of years”? If the European Court sues us, bring it on, and that will make our case for renegotiation.
I am always grateful for my hon. Friend’s support in these matters. I recall that he used to be in a Government busy voting for the Maastricht treaty when I was rebelling against it, so, with respect, I will do whatever I can and I do not bow before anybody in my determination to say no to the European Commission.
There has been a huge amount of exaggeration of the scale of the problem. Bulgaria and Romania are a fraction of the size of Poland. Most Romanians are more likely to go to Spain or Italy. Is this not more to do with Conservative voters migrating to UKIP?
I am actually a little surprised that the hon. Gentleman makes any reference to the Eastleigh by-election, when the Labour party’s position was an absolute disaster. This is not about that; the reality is simply that we need to ensure that the procedures are tightened up, mostly because of fairness to those who pay their taxes in Britain, who work hard and do not want to see social housing and all these other areas going to people who never made a commitment to this country. This is simply about fairness. We were left a bad position. I am trying to change it, while being infracted by the European Commission and saying no to it at the same time.
The Secretary of State repeatedly talks of the infraction process, which is surely just a fine. No one has ever paid any of these fines. Please, please, please: just say no, tell the Commission to sod off and do not pay the fine.
Order. I can say only that I experienced a moment of deafness—partly because somebody else was wittering on at me—but I have the impression that perhaps something rather tasteless was said. I trust that the person concerned will wash his or her mouth out without delay.
Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the Government are considering removing rights to NHS treatment for British citizens, in an effort to restrict access to EU migrants? This has been reported over the past few days, as part of his party’s reaction to events last Thursday.
My view is that that is not the case. It is a matter for the Secretary of State for Health. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman will have to raise it with him, but I am not aware of any such discussions or any such facts being placed in front of me. I would certainly not be keen for that to happen, but as the hon. Gentleman will be aware—as will the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, whose track record on this is arguably unimpeachable—we have a big problem and we have to face it, not because we are scaring people, but because we have to deal with it.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s toughening up. I certainly trust him to fight in a tough and effective way in Brussels, but does he understand that many of our constituents find it grotesquely offensive that Brussels officials are telling this Parliament who it can and cannot pay benefits to? In that spirit, will he confirm that this is an area of EU competence that this Government will ask to opt out of?
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is invidious that areas that I have always believed were outwith the Commission’s normal competences are being sucked in by using other things—this is to do with the free movement. More could have been done and the issue should have been raised at a much higher level. It is quite good that other nations—mostly northern European nations, but also Spain—are now deeply concerned about the ratchet process. We are meeting them and there are the beginnings of a real resistance to it.
On what will happen in any negotiation, I am clearly not in a position to commit my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on whatever may happen in future.
I welcome the fact that the Government are now tackling the legacy they were left, as far as benefits for foreigners are concerned, but does the Minister not see the contradiction in the Government’s stance at present? We are talking tough at home while—according to Romanian Ministers—giving assurances that those who come from Romania will be given full access to benefits, on the same basis as UK citizens. Does he not see that as an incentive for Romanians to come here and dip into the financial honeypot that they see?
That is exactly what I am trying to deal with, but not just for Romanians. This goes across the board for what anybody in the European economic area can do when they come here. The problem has been in existence for some time, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said. I now have to sweep up after the lord mayor’s show and deal with what has been left behind, after the last Government did nothing at all about the problem. I will do it; I am absolutely determined to.
This is clearly not a problem of the Secretary of State’s making. Given that the average salary in this country is five to six times what it is in Romania and Bulgaria, will he do what he can to ensure cross-departmental co-operation, so that we do not face the situation we had in 2004, when Departments were simply out of the loop?
Absolutely. In fact, we have already had a number of meetings with the Prime Minister and coalition colleagues about tightening up between Departments and understanding where one Department’s position knocks on to another. The first thing is to get rid of the silo mentality that existed and create a pan-Government position. The next thing is not to talk tough here and soft abroad, but to work with the Foreign Office to be as tough over there as we are back here. That is the process that is now being engaged.
The Minister will be aware that large numbers of migrants are bypassing France, Italy and Germany to get to the United Kingdom, almost in haste. What discussions has he had with other EU countries to find the reason for bypassing other countries? Is it that the benefits system in the United Kingdom is much more generous than those anywhere else in Europe?
We have had meetings about this issue with about 17 countries, all at the same time. I would list them all, but they include meetings with officials from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Germany, France and Poland. We have had meetings with all of them. There is no common position for them all, but a sub-set of those most likely to be affected—I understand that Germany and Spain are where most of the Romanians tend to be going at the moment—are very concerned about what may happen. We are discussing with them exactly how to respond. Reality is now striking many and I think the door is open for us to make a serious move on this issue.
I commend the Secretary of State and the Government for addressing this issue, which has never been addressed before. The principle is simple: UK citizens are entitled to the benefits that come with the contribution system we inherit, whereas EU citizens—those from Ireland perhaps are excepted, because of the common travel area—should not expect greater benefits here than UK citizens should expect in other EU countries. If we could get to that position, everybody would understand it and there would be greater justice and far fewer complaints.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The point he makes—it is one I have made before—is that there is not an easy solution to what the Commission wants, which is to try to drive free movement as the sole and most important element in this process. However, it fails to recognise that all the nation states have very different social security systems. Many of those nations are finally beginning to say, with us, that this cannot be driven through like a coach and horses, because we control our social security systems. We have different ways of contributing and we use tax differently, so the argument we are making—I believe we will win it—is that we must be left to make those decisions. Obviously when people want to come and work, we want them to do that; the issue is when they come not to work. I think we have a strong position on changing that.
I welcome the significant fall in net migration, which is down a third since the general election. It is important to note that 30% of total migration was from European economic area nationals. We have already talked about Romanians and Bulgarians coming here under self-employed status. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key issue is those coming here under self-employed status having top-up benefits?
It has been a problem for some time—this is the point I am trying to make—that the open door comes through on the tax credit system, whereas self-employed people have been able to make that claim. This is the Big Issue seller question that has been going around—I am very positive about The Big Issue, by the way; this is just about who we pay to do that. The reality is that universal credit opens up an opportunity for us to tighten up those measures, and we will tighten up hugely on access through universal credit for legitimately self-employed people who are unable to declare any kind of income that we might recognise as real.
There is always a danger, when we are discussing a problem such as this, that we give the impression that all immigrants are coming to this country for our benefits system. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the vast majority of eastern European immigrants into the UK are coming here to work and to contribute to our society, and that they should be welcomed?
The reality is that most people who come here come here to work. They come here because they think the job prospects are greater; that is the real attraction. The truth is that, in the last 10 years, we simply did not know what was happening because the last Government refused to collect figures on those from other countries who were claiming benefit. We were therefore unable to answer that question. The first thing we did was to change that, and we now collect the data. We are now beginning to know what the facts are.
For the sake of taxpayers in my constituency, I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State succeeds in his negotiations to redefine the eligibility rules, but does he agree that if for some reason he inexplicably fails it will only encourage more people to vote to leave the European Union when we have the in/out referendum?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The reality is that it is issues such as this that drive people away from the concept of the success of the European Union, if that is what they had believed. The more the Commission decides to interfere in areas such as this, the more damage it does to those who are pro-European. I personally have been quite sceptical about the process for a considerable period, but even I can recognise that this damages the concept of a European Union that works for all its members and that is about trade and co-operation and ensuring that the people who live in the European Union get benefits according to what they have contributed.
My constituents will be appalled to learn that the last Government failed to collect any data on the benefits being paid to migrants. Will my right hon. Friend give me a rough assessment of the cost to the Exchequer of the benefits being paid out, so that the British taxpayer can have some idea of the costs that were being imposed on them by the last Government?
I am dying to do that. We want to know who has actually been claiming benefits, but we really do not know that from the figures. The last Government did not want to know. It was almost a deliberate policy not to have the figures available so that people would not know how many were coming in and claiming benefits. That will change. We are an open Government and we will publish the figures. We will be very clear and we will see the size of the problem that we have to resolve.
My constituents are absolutely furious that the UK’s borders are being flung open in this way. Do Her Majesty’s Government have any idea at all about how many Romanians and Bulgarians might be coming our way? Do they know and are not telling us, or have they not made an estimate? Have they contacted the Romanian and Bulgarian Governments to find out their estimates of the number of their citizens who will be coming to our shores?
As I recall, the last Government put together a set of figures on Polish migration that were fundamentally wrong. The best way to deal with this is to make the systems much tighter and much better focused, so that we can deal with whatever numbers want to come here and ensure that they do not come here to claim benefits. I have said before and I say again that the last Government did not want to know how many of those people were claiming benefits. That is now changing.
The Secretary of State is to be congratulated on his robust approach in trying to build a coalition of European partners to deal with this matter. How confident is he that he will be able to reach agreement before the end of the year? If such agreement is not forthcoming, will he press ahead robustly with whatever unilateral measures he can?
We need to reach an agreement within that time scale, so I really am going to push the accelerator pedal down. I have already called for an urgent meeting with those other countries that have agreed to meet us to discuss the issue. We also need to talk to the Commission. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), is hugely responsible for this area, and I will do whatever I can in an arbitrary manner to make sure that nothing else takes place.
We need a society in which immigration takes place at a level and on the conditions that the people of Britain, with their typical generosity, find acceptable. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that unless we develop a firm grip on immigration and pay benefits only according to the rules set by this Parliament, we will not achieve a settled society in Britain?
The whole point is that there is a contract between those who pay their taxes and those who need to receive benefits. That is implicit in everything we do in regard to welfare payments in the UK, and it should be implicit in the way the European Commission looks at individual nation states and understands their relationships with their own citizens. That is the issue that I want to take forward. The Commission needs to think carefully about driving hard just on free movement, without recognising that individual countries have very different systems. We need the leeway to implement those systems as necessary while still observing free movement for those who want to become employed.
NHS Commissioning Board
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on comments by the deputy medical director of the NHS Commissioning Board on the regulations on procurement, patient choice and competition under section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
I know that the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and others have raised concerns about the effect of the regulations and I would like to address them in my response. First, however, I would like to make it absolutely clear that the regulations must be fully in line with the assurances given to the House during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill. The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), said to clinical commissioning groups in 2012 that
“commissioners, not the Secretary of State and not the regulators, should decide when and how competition should be used to serve…patients interests”.
That must be the case. I made it clear in Health questions last week that we would review the regulations to ensure that that was the case and that they were not open to any misinterpretation.
The right hon. Member for Leigh himself gave guidance to primary care trusts which made this clear in 2010:
“Where there is only one capable provider for a particular bundle of services or the objective of the procurement is to secure services to meet an immediate interim clinical need there will be a case for Single Tender Action (i.e. uncontested procurement). By definition, an immediate or urgent scenario will be exceptional and likely to only arise on clinical safety grounds or for example, where existing services have been suspended following intervention by the Care Quality Commission.”
The next bit is very important.
“A decision to procure through single tender should always take account of the potential to secure better value by investing in a competitive process, as long as this is justified by the scale and importance of the opportunity (i.e. it has to be worth it).”
[Interruption.] Those were the comments of the right hon. Member for Leigh.
In the Government’s response to the Future Forum report, we committed to ensuring that the regulations would simply continue that approach. However, I fully recognise that the wording of the regulations has inadvertently created confusion and generated significant concerns about their effect. I have therefore listened to people’s concerns and my Department is acting quickly to improve the drafting so that there can be no doubt that the regulations go no further than the set of principles and rules that we inherited from the previous Labour Government. Following our commitment in response to the Future Forum report, the co-operation and competition panel has been transferred to Monitor. That will ensure consistency in the application of the rules.
Concerns have been raised that commissioners would need to tender all services. That is not our intention and we will amend the regulations to remove any doubt and to clarify that the position remains the same as at present and as stated in my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State’s letter of 2012.
Concerns have been raised that Monitor would use the regulations to force commissioners to tender competitively. However, I recognise that the wording of the regulations has created uncertainty, so we will amend them to put this beyond doubt. Concerns have also been raised that competition would be allowed to trump integration and co-operation. The Future Forum recognised that competition and integration are not mutually exclusive. Competition, as the Government made clear during the passage of the Bill, can only be a means to improve services for patients—not an end in itself. What is important is what is in patients’ best interests. Where there is co-operation and integration, there would be nothing in the regulations to prevent this. Integration is a key tool that commissioners are under a duty to use to improve services for patients. We will amend the regulations to make that point absolutely clear.
In less than four weeks’ time, new GP commissioners take control, yet today there is complete confusion about the job they are being asked to do. Following comments by the deputy medical director of the NHS Commissioning Board and the statement we have just heard, coalition policy on competition in the NHS is in utter chaos. It beggars belief that almost three years after the White Paper introduced by the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) and after all the upheaval he inflicted on the NHS, there is still no clarity on policy today. They are in this mess because the “doctors will decide” mantra was always a fig leaf for their true ideological purpose of driving competition and privatisation into the heart of the NHS.
We notice that the Secretary of State is not here today, but perhaps the Minister will remind him of the statement his predecessor made to GPs:
“I know many of you may have read that you will be forced to fragment services, or to put services out to tender. This is absolutely not the case.”
I am tempted to ask: if the aim is to revert to the position we held, why on earth bring forward a 300 page Bill to rewrite the entire legal basis of the national health service? The truth is that they have been found out trying to sneak through the back door privatisation proposals that the Minister’s predecessors were forced to rule out to save their discredited Bill. In that light, does the Minister accept that it will not be good enough to bring these proposals back with a few cosmetic changes? Will he give a categorical assurance that there will now be a fundamental rewrite to reflect to the letter commitments given to the House and to the professions?
More broadly, we now need urgent clarification, in a full and detailed statement, of what Government policy on competition actually is. Will the Minister today send the clearest message to clinicians that they will control whether or not to use competitive tenders, and will he fulfil the pledge by his leader to protect the NHS from the full glare of EU competition law? If the Government still want to argue for more private providers in the NHS, is he confident that this will not restrict whistleblowing as it has in other outsourced public services?
Will they also respond today to the research of the Nuffield Trust, which shows that more competition in the NHS has resulted in falling productivity? A quarter of a million people who signed the 38 Degrees petition have forced the Government into yet another humiliating U-turn, but there will be lingering distrust at the fact that they had the audacity even to attempt this. The simple truth is this: the British public have never given them permission to put the NHS up for sale. Until they acknowledge that, we will never tire of reminding them.
I sense that the right hon. Gentleman’s speech was written before he heard what I had to say. If he had listened to it, he would know that we recognise concerns about the drafting and whether it absolutely meets the commitments already made. We want to be certain that the commitments made in this place during the passage of the Bill are met. Indeed, when the Secretary of State wrote to clinical commissioning groups in 2012, he made it absolutely clear that those groups would not be forced to go out to tender. We will make sure that that is met. [Interruption.] If Opposition Members had simply listened to what I said, they would have avoided coming up with a set of questions that completely ignored my points.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the question of quality of care. From my point of view, poor care should be condemned wherever it happens, and he needs to remember that the scandal of Mid Staffordshire hospital happened under his and his party’s watch. The poor quality of care uncovered in that NHS hospital is completely unacceptable—just as unacceptable as poor quality care from any private provider at all. Let us be clear about that.
There will be no privatisation of the NHS under this Government. Furthermore, there will be no special favours for the private sector, which were provided under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. It was his Government who gave £250 million to private providers of independent sector treatment centres—whether or not they delivered care. There will be no special favours under this Government’s new rules. No clinical commissioning group will be forced into competitive tender. The rules will be absolutely clear, and we shall publish the amended regulations shortly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the effect of his response to the urgent question this afternoon is to say that this Government are pursuing precisely the same policy as their predecessor on competition for the provision of NHS services? Does he further agree that that demonstrates that the cloud of rhetoric surrounding the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was so much hot air?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. There has been a lot of cant and hypocrisy in this debate. The guidance given by the previous Government to primary care trusts in 2010 makes absolutely clear their commitment to competition. That shows how crazy this debate has become. We will ensure that the debate is balanced and that the interest of the patient trumps everything else, as it should.
My constituents’ view is absolutely clear: they do not want back-door privatisation of our national health service. I am pleased that the Minister is making a U-turn on these regulations, but given the chaos of recent days, how could anyone trust this Government with our NHS?
When the hon. Lady talks about back-door privatisation of the NHS, I am not sure of her view of the previous Government’s commitment to spend £250 million on independent sector treatment centres, whether or not they undertook any operations. I am not sure that she agreed with it, but that is what her Government did. There will be no privatisation of the NHS, and the rules we introduce will make it absolutely clear that the power lies with clinical commissioning groups to use the tools available to them—co-operation and integration, but also competition where it drives up standards, just as her Government recommended.
Last year, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) claimed that there were less than 72 hours to save the NHS. Yesterday, when referring on his Twitter feed to the regulations, he claimed that there were two weeks to save the NHS. Does not the Minister believe that in fewer than 140 characters, the right hon. Gentleman has shredded any credibility that he might once have had? [Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but there is too much noisy chuntering from both sides of the House, including from Members whom I have previously told to keep it to themselves. They cannot think that they are different or separate because they feel strongly about something—that way, we get to cacophony. Members should keep the chuntering to themselves, ask a question and listen to others with a degree of courtesy.
Last week, during business questions, the Leader of the House said that the regulations would not introduce compulsory competitive tendering in the NHS; today the Minister has said that he will have to revise them in case they do. Is it not a fact that the Government actually do not have a clue about what they are doing? If the Minister wishes to disprove that, will he tell us exactly what changes he will make to the regulations—or will this just be like the pause in the Health and Social Care Bill, after which it carried on regardless?
The Leader of the House was absolutely correct in stating—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will listen to my answer, she may benefit from it. The Leader of the House made it absolutely clear in the House last week that the regulations would not introduce compulsory competitive tendering. We are amending them because there was legitimate and understandable concern about the impact of some of the provisions. We will make the position clear so that the policy intent of the Health and Social Care Act is implemented faithfully in these regulations.
The Labour regulations are not perfect, and neither the regulations introduced by Labour nor those initially proposed by the coalition Government in section 75 will do in any sense. Do we not need regulations that embody the assurances given to peers and to GPs themselves during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill, and not a charter for privatisation?
We will make absolutely sure that the amended regulations meet faithfully the commitments given in the Upper House during the passage of the Bill, and in the letter sent to clinical commissioning groups by the former Secretary of State following the legislation.
During the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill, the Government withdrew clauses that promoted competition and replaced them with clauses that would prevent anti-competitive behaviour. I never understood that at the time. Is it not the case that compulsory competitive tendering is the intention of the regulations and the intention of the original Act?
The right hon. Gentleman’s own Government had guidance in place precisely to address anti-competitive behaviour. Let me again reiterate that these regulations will not introduce compulsory competitive tendering. The amendments that we will table will make it absolutely clear that the power rests with clinical commissioning groups, and not with the Government, Monitor or anyone else.
My hon. Friend will have heard the charge of audacity from the shadow Health Secretary, whose expertise and qualities in this area should be acknowledged to place him in a league of his own. If there is still no clarity on the competitive position, which has not moved on from that of the last Administration, the responsibility lies precisely over there, on the Opposition Benches.
I absolutely confirm that the patient’s interest must always trump everything else. Sometimes it is right to challenge existing services which are not providing a good enough service for patients, and we must encourage clinical commissioning groups to do that. Whether poor care is in the public or the private sector, it should always be condemned, and we should always put the interests of the patient first.
If I understood the Minister correctly, he is withdrawing the regulations in order to rewrite them so that we are back where we were under the Labour Government. Does he now wish, with hindsight, that he had never started this?