House of Commons
Wednesday 6 March 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I have had regular discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and other political leaders in Northern Ireland about the disturbances of recent months. The protests should now end. A way forward that commands broadly based support can be found only through dialogue and working together.
The attempted terrorist attack this week demonstrates how severe the terrorist threat continues to be in Northern Ireland. It was only through the highly effective action of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners that mass casualties were averted. The Government remain vigilant in the face of the threat and have included it as a tier 1 priority in their national security strategy.
The interception of the mortar bomb attack prevented a devastating attack on Londonderry and saved lives. In the light of the string of attacks and attempted attacks from that particular quarter, will the Secretary of State tell us what extra resources she is going to give to the police and the security forces in Northern Ireland in the coming year to counter the dissident terrorist threat?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that shortly after taking office the coalition devoted an extra £200 million to national security priorities in Northern Ireland, which has been tremendously helpful to the PSNI, not least in enabling it to replace its Land Rover fleet. We will continue our discussions on the successor funding when that £200 million runs out, and we continue to do everything we can to support the PSNI and its partners, and the Northern Ireland Executive, in countering this threat.
The Secretary of State will be aware that some of those involved in the dissident terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland who have been charged with the most serious offences, including murder, have been released on bail in recent days, while others who have been involved in the protests and who are likely to receive a non-custodial sentence have been remanded on bail. Does she understand the bewilderment of most ordinary people in Northern Ireland at that situation, and the anger that is perpetuated in the community by what is perceived to be this double standard?
The Secretary of State says that those are matters for the courts, and indeed they are, but the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has referred to the huge challenges now facing Northern Ireland from the so-called new IRA and from the loyalist demonstrations. Does the Secretary of State agree that she must now have more than just regular discussions with political parties, and that she really needs a structure for those discussions with the Irish Government and with all the political leaders in Northern Ireland if we are to deal with those serious issues?
Of course it is important that those discussions continue. I had a very helpful meeting with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Tánaiste a few weeks ago, and we hope to put another so-called quad meeting in the diary very shortly. Both Governments believe that it is important for a dialogue to occur on flags and symbols, and for progress to be made towards the shared future in Northern Ireland that everyone in the political leadership wants. It is essential that that should now be delivered.
In view of the current political difficulties and the impasse on some issues, would the Secretary of State consider it useful to convene round-table discussions involving herself, the Irish Government and all the political parties in Northern Ireland?
It is important for Northern Ireland’s political leadership to develop a process so that the leaders of all the political parties can work together on matters such as flags and identity. That is an important way of ensuring that the protests come off the streets and that we find a genuinely inclusive way to decide on these issues. The Belfast agreement gives guarantees on protecting identities of Irishness and Britishness, and it is now time for the political parties to work together to see how we can translate those guarantees into a sensible way of approaching issues around flags and symbols in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for her comments to date. At a time when the PSNI is under extreme pressure and when the rule of law is under threat from loyalists and republicans, does she agree that it is hugely important that all political leaders in Northern Ireland give their unambiguous support to the rule of law and to the PSNI, and that they articulate within their communities the need to support those organisations and principles, rather than simply becoming a voice for dissent?
I agree. I am firmly supportive of the PSNI, which does an outstanding job. It has dealt with these protests in a very sensible way, and it has faced difficult situations. Indeed, almost 150 of its officers have been injured, so it has my firm and unqualified support. I hope that it will enjoy that support from Northern Ireland’s political leadership as well.
In her recent discussions, has the Secretary of State been able to confirm that the amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill tabled by the Home Secretary, which would allow her to transfer lead responsibility for counter-terrorism to the National Crime Agency, will not apply in Northern Ireland and that the Chief Constable will remain in overall control of all counter-terrorism investigations and operations?
The Home Secretary certainly agrees that if there were any suggestion of extending the NCA’s remit to national security matters in Northern Ireland, that could happen only with the consent of the Chief Constable of the PSNI. The primacy of the Chief Constable is retained to ensure consistency with the devolution of policing and justice.
4. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the Government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland. (145440)
Earlier this morning, I discussed these matters with the First and Deputy First Ministers at the Joint Ministerial Committee. I am sure that the whole House would say that a simpler benefit system will reward those in work and the vulnerable in our society.
On 27 February, the Minister responsible for social development in Northern Ireland, Mr Nelson McCausland MLA, said:
“I have said many times already that I have concerns about the potential impact of Welfare Reform on local people. I will continue to work with Ministers in Westminster to mitigate against the most negative impacts of these reforms.”
Will the Minister tell us what he thinks the “negative impacts” of welfare reform in Northern Ireland are and what progress he has made in helping the Minister in Northern Ireland to address them?
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) has been to Northern Ireland on many occasions and is working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the particular Minister with whom I have also worked. The measures are going to be difficult, but we face the situation that work needs to pay and that under the present system it does not. In Northern Ireland, of all the areas of the United Kingdom, welfare desperately needs reform.
One effect of the welfare reform changes in Northern Ireland is that, on the most recent figures, 98,000 children in Northern Ireland are now living in poverty. Indeed, the Belfast West constituency is the second highest in the whole of the UK in that respect. Following the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), will the Minister explain exactly what he is doing about that particular aspect, which does not necessarily have anything to do with people being in or out of work, but is having a distinctly negative impact on many Northern Ireland households?
Child poverty was discussed this morning at the Joint Ministerial Committee, and it has been an aspiration for all of us, over many years, to get rid of it. The situation in Northern Ireland, however, is that too many people and families are completely reliant on welfare, and that unless we reform the system it will not be possible for them to get off benefits and into work, which must be the aspiration for all of us.
I join the Secretary of State and the Minister in praising the bravery and success of the police in preventing a terrorist attack in Londonderry on Sunday night. As the right hon. Lady said, those who seek to destroy peace and progress will not succeed, but we have to remain vigilant to the threat they pose. On welfare reform, will the Minister tell me how many people in Northern Ireland will be adversely affected by the bedroom tax?
That is obviously a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but we all want to make sure that the people who come to see us at our surgeries on a regular basis who are inappropriately housed or cannot be housed can be put in social housing if they need it. In Northern Ireland, between 2010 and 2012, the budget went up by 10.7%, with more than £500 million spent on housing benefit. We have to do something about that, while mitigating the effects on those in need.
The “not me, guv” attitude will not work. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing, 66% of working age social tenants in Northern Ireland will be affected, and 32,000 people will lose out as a result of the bedroom tax. The Government have given no consideration to the specific issues to do with housing in Northern Ireland—from the type and scale of stock to the segregation in and between communities—so will the Minister urgently meet the Northern Ireland Executive and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss the disastrous consequences of this policy?
Well, that is the Labour party’s position. What we want to do is get people into housing that will be beneficial for them. Every week families come to the surgeries of Members throughout the House, and throughout the United Kingdom, and say to us, “I do not want to sleep on the floor any more, and I do not want my kids to sleep on settees.” How can we help them when others are living in one and two-bedroom properties although they do not need that excess capacity? What is the Labour party going to do about that? I expected the shadow Minister to ask about the very difficult security situation in Northern Ireland, but he has not done so today.
Is the Minister aware that there will be a £10 million a year deficit in housing benefit following the implementation of the bedroom tax, which will leave families in the Province in dire straits? Will he review the changes in the Northern Ireland block grant so that smaller homes and apartments can be built?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who is a friend of mine, has adopted the Labour party “tax” mantra. This is not a tax. What we are trying to do is make the position fairer for all our constituents. It is true that capacity is an issue in Northern Ireland; the problem is that there are too many people in the wrong sort of housing, and we need to help them to get into the right sort.
Is the Minister aware that Northern Ireland has one of the highest levels of dependence on benefits in the United Kingdom, that a high proportion of its population have mental and physical disabilities, and that its provision for affordable child care is the lowest in the UK? Will he assist the efforts of the Minister in the devolved Department for Social Development—along with the Department for Work and Pensions—to secure mitigation measures other than those that have already been announced in relation to welfare reform in Northern Ireland?
The Government’s efforts to reduce the largest deficit in UK peacetime history and deliver sustainable economic recovery are an important way of dealing with youth unemployment. Further specific measures to help young people in Northern Ireland to find jobs are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive, with whom we are happy to work closely.
Given that youth unemployment now stands at over 20%, does the Secretary of State not share Opposition Members’ sense of urgency about the need to get Northern Ireland’s young people back to work? We have proposed a bank bonus tax that would help to create 2,000 jobs for those young people. What specific things are the Government going to do?
I will take no lectures from Labour on youth unemployment. Youth unemployment rose by a third—by 35%—under Labour in Northern Ireland, youth employment fell by nearly 10%, and economic activity among young people fell by 3%. We are determined to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Our deficit reduction plan is keeping interest rates low, which is vital for job creation and investment, and corporation tax is being reduced. We have also recognised the special circumstances of Northern Ireland by providing, on average, a higher block grant per head than is provided anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
Since it was established by the British and Irish Governments, the International Fund for Ireland has played an important role in facilitating and encouraging investment in projects that support communities, businesses and young people. What future role does the Secretary of State envisage for the IFI, and how can it help the Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive to tackle the scourge of youth unemployment in Northern Ireland?
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the IFI. It has done tremendous work in the past, and continues to do that work. I shall be happy to meet IFI representatives to discuss how we can work together more closely to address youth unemployment issues. I am sure that they will engage with Northern Ireland politicians who will travel to the United States for the St Patrick’s day commemorations in a week or so.
The Secretary of State referred to corporation tax. Will she update the House on her discussions with the Treasury about the possibility of devolving to the Northern Ireland Assembly the power to set its own rate of corporation tax?
Youth unemployment in my constituency has increased significantly in the last year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that that figure is not added to by the closure of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency office in Coleraine, and will she speak with the relevant Transport Minister to make sure that those 200 jobs and their cost-effectiveness are preserved by bringing employment across to Northern Ireland?
I am very much aware of the importance of this issue. I was in the Coleraine area only last week, and I have discussed this matter with the Transport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). He is aware of the concern felt in Northern Ireland, and he either met Alex Attwood for further discussions yesterday or will meet him today. It is important that he takes into account the views of Northern Ireland before he makes his decision.
Instead of saying, “It’s not me, guv,” and shuffling responsibility for the terrible level of disaffection among unemployed young people in Northern Ireland, why does the Secretary of State not accept that it is her Government’s macro-economic policies that are causing this disaffection? With the marching season coming up and the loyalist disorder just past, this is a very toxic situation and she is just walking away from it and shuffling responsibility on to the Northern Ireland Executive.
Not at all. The Government’s macro-economic policy is focused on dealing with the deficit and creating the right conditions for growth so we can start to resolve problems in relation to youth unemployment. That is why we are focusing on such matters as keeping interest rates low by dealing with the deficit and reducing corporation tax; why we are investing in broadband capacity—that is why Belfast and Londonderry are going to become part of our super-connected cities programme; why we are offering tax breaks for high-end TV, another growth area of industry in Northern Ireland; and why the Prime Minister is bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland, to showcase it to the world as a great place to do business.
Political Parties (Funding)
In general, UK-wide party funding rules apply to Northern Ireland parties. However, the Electoral Commission cannot disclose information that relates to donations or loans to Northern Ireland parties. The Government are committed to making party funding more transparent, while ensuring donor identities are not released retrospectively.
I am most grateful to the Minister of State for that answer. He will know there is cross-party consensus that political funding in Northern Ireland needs to be more transparent and accountable to the public. Will he therefore engage with all the political parties who choose to take their seats here, to ensure we make progress on this very important issue?
Not only will I engage with all political parties that take their seats here, I will also engage with those that do not, because I think this is a very important issue. In the last couple of weeks, with the shadow Minister for the Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), we took through a statutory instrument that puts in place an extension until September next year. We hope to be in a better position next year, but we must protect those who may be vulnerable should they wish to donate to a political party.
For years this House has allowed the disgraceful situation to continue whereby Sinn Fein has been able to draw down tens of thousands of pounds of representative money without providing representation in this House. Discrimination against true democrats must be stopped. When will the Government grasp the nettle and stop this intolerable abuse and inequality of funding?
Notification Requirements (Public Processions)
6. What consideration she is giving to bringing forward an amendment to the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 in relation to notification requirements as part of the proposed Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. (145442)
Under the relevant legislation, anyone who is organising a parade must notify the Parades Commission. If they fail to do so, the parade is illegal and those who organise or participate in it are liable to criminal prosecution.
First, as the MP for the city in question, may I join in the Secretary of State’s earlier condemnation of the attempted murder attack and her commendation of the PSNI interception of it, averting devastation and death?
Does the Secretary of State recognise that there was a gap in the understanding of the Parades Commission and the PSNI in relation to unnotified parades, and that that created a situation whereby we were getting dangerous notions, instead of responsible heads? Does she recognise that we, as legislators, may need to clarify the law on parades so that things are not destabilised during the forthcoming parades season?
I am always open to considering ideas for making these decision-making processes work better, but the reality is that the problem over recent weeks has not been how the legislation is structured—the problem has been that people have not been obeying it. So it is vital, as we go into the parading season, that people respect the decisions of the Parades Commission, notifying it when a parade is contemplated.
I also wish to echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments condemning unreservedly the horrific terrorist attack that his constituency was threatened with and that was narrowly averted by the swift action of the PSNI.
It is vital that everyone recognises that the Parades Commission carries out an important function. It is the only lawfully constituted body in relation to parading and its decisions must be obeyed. We have always said that we are open to a reform of the system that would see a devolved solution. If the Northern Ireland political parties wish to put forward such a solution, we will consider it seriously.
The Government are committed to dealing with the deficit to create the right conditions for growth and economic recovery. We are working with the Executive to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost the private sector.
I am working closely with Northern Ireland Ministers on this matter. There are huge opportunities this year to highlight Northern Ireland as a great place in which to invest, not least when the eyes of the world focus on County Fermanagh as the G8 summit comes to Northern Ireland, thanks to the personal decision of the Prime Minister. [Interruption.]
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I am mortally obliged, sir.
Some 111,000 working families receiving tax credits in Northern Ireland will lose out because of the Government’s tax on strivers. At the same time, the Government will give a tax cut for those earning £1 million and above. Does the Secretary of State think that economic growth will be helped or hindered by having Christmas in April for millionaires?
The Government are fully committed to their welfare reform programme. We believe that welfare reform is essential to ensure that work always pays. We believe that it is deeply irresponsible for Her Majesty’s Opposition to continue to oppose all the reforms of welfare, which are designed to get the welfare bill down. That spiralled under their tenure of the economy.
Like many other peripheral regions of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has suffered most during this recession. We understand that reckless expenditure will damage the economy, but would the Secretary of State support the calls by all the regional administrations in the United Kingdom for a fiscal stimulus for capital expenditure, which will create short-term jobs and increase the economy’s capacity in the long run?
As Finance Minister for the Northern Ireland Executive, the hon. Gentleman has options available to him within the block grant, which he receives under the Barnett arrangements; his grant remains considerably higher than the UK average. We are happy to continue to work with him and his colleagues in the Executive to generate inward investment for Northern Ireland and to ensure that our macro-economic policy, for example, on reducing corporation tax, is delivering the maximum benefits possible to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy.
Does the Secretary of State understand the strength of feeling from the political parties and the business community about the case for the reduction of corporation tax in Northern Ireland so that it can better compete with the Republic?
I certainly understand that and I gather that the right hon. Gentleman had some lively discussions on that matter at the Alliance party conference. The Prime Minister is well aware of that perspective on corporation tax and I have discussed it with him and with the Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister on a number of occasions.
McGurk’s Bar Bombing
9. When the most recent report of the investigation into the McGurk’s bar bombing will be made public. (145445)
I understand that the most recent public report on that tragic event was published by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in February 2011. I tried to place a copy in the House today but have been told that that is not possible, but it will be on the police ombudsman’s website and it is available now.
I am disappointed that the Minister of State is replying, as I would have thought that the Secretary of State would take the chance to repeat her apology to me to the people affected by the McGurk’s bar bombing, which was the biggest bombing before Omagh. Do the Government accept that they cannot devolve the past and that their response should ensure that the suppression of witnesses that happened and the expert evidence that was given but then supplanted by lies and fabrication from the Northern Ireland police are not allowed to continue, so that we get to the truth about the collusion that took place before and after the bomb?
At the outset, let me pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done over the years. I know I upset him the other week when I was slightly robust, but Mr Speaker has also rebuked me for being too soft and quietly spoken in the past couple of weeks. Let us put it this way: I served in the Province and am very proud to have done so. No bomb is acceptable and we must get to the truth.
Will the Minister of State acknowledge that I am a member of the second largest party of opposition in this House—that is, not the Labour party—and indicate what other reports by the Historical Enquiries Team are pending on other atrocities in Northern Ireland? Will he demonstrate that the HET must do more to reassure the majority community, as republicans murdered Protestants in Northern Ireland in cold blood and the HET should demonstrate that in its publications and findings?
The issue has been raised with me on more than one occasion. I have continually looked into the evidence base and if the hon. Gentleman has evidence that such work is not taking place across the political divide in Northern Ireland, he should come and see me about it. He knows that he will get a welcome response.
The Prime Minister was asked—
More than 2,500 households in Halton are affected by the bedroom tax. The chief executive of the National Housing Federation said this week:
“The bedroom tax is ill-thought and unfair as thousands of disabled people will have no choice but to cut back further on food and other expenses in order to stay in their…homes.”
Will the Prime Minister now drop this callous policy?
Let us be absolutely clear that this is not a tax. Let me explain to the Labour party that a tax is when someone earns some money and the Government take some of that money away from them—that is a tax. Only Labour could call a benefit reform a tax increase. Let me be clear to the hon. Gentleman: pensioners are exempt, people with severely disabled children are exempt and people who need round-the-clock care are exempt. Those categories of people are all exempt, but there is a basic issue of fairness. How can it be fair that people on housing benefit in private rented accommodation do not get a spare room subsidy, whereas people in social housing do? That is not fair and we are putting that right.
Figures published yesterday show that over the past 20 years there has been a 137% increase in the number of deaths linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Does the Prime Minister agree that if we are to stop that awful condition afflicting more people in the future, we must invest much more in preventing it and on research in particular? Will he outline to the House what the Government are doing to help support those with dementia and those who care for them?
My hon. Friend raises a point of concern to everyone in this House and everyone in this country, because no one knows when a relative could be afflicted by the condition. Her point is absolutely right: this is a disease and we should be thinking about it as a disease, as we do when we try to crack cancer, or heart disease, or strokes. That is why the Government are increasing the amount of money going into medical research so that we can try to prevent dementia in more cases. But there are many other things we need to do to improve the care in care homes and in hospitals and to ensure that we have more dementia-friendly communities so that we all learn how to deal with people who have dementia and how to help them lead lives that are as productive as possible.
I would like to ask the Prime Minister about an individual case that has been raised with me. John works in east London and is worried about what is happening to his living standards. His salary is £1 million and he is worried that under proposed EU regulations, his bonus may be capped at just £2 million. Will the Prime Minister tell us what he is going to do for John?
What I would say to John and everyone like John is that under this Government, bonuses are one quarter of what they were when the right hon. Gentleman was in the Treasury. I will take lots of lectures from lots of people, but I do not have to listen to the croupier in the casino when it all went bust.
I know the Prime Minister does not want to deal with the facts, but he sent his Chancellor to Europe yesterday in order to argue against the bonus cap, he says, presumably because he thinks it will be bad for the City of London, but who led the negotiations on the bonus cap? It was a Conservative Member of the European Parliament. What did she say? She said
“we have managed to produce a deal that will strike the right balance for the majority of bankers who take responsible decisions.”
Why are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor the only people who think it is a priority to fight for bigger bonuses for bankers?
As ever, the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. We have some of the toughest rules on bonuses and the toughest rules on transparency of any major financial centre anywhere in the world. When the croupiers were in charge, where was the transparency? There was none. Where were the rules? There were none. We are not going to listen to them, but there is an important issue here. There are some important British national interests. We are responsible for 40% of the EU’s financial services. Those industries are here in our country and we ought to make sure that they go on contributing to our Exchequer. We want to make sure that international banks go on being headquartered here in the UK. We think that matters. The right hon. Gentleman might want to just pose and play politics, but we care about these things. We also want to make sure that we can put in place the very tough ring-fence around our retail banks so that the complete shambles that he presided over can never happen again.
This is the man who in opposition said:
“There will be a day of reckoning”
for the bankers. Now he sends his Chancellor to fight against the bonus cap in Brussels. What did he say? Was he arguing that there should be more regulation of the banks? No. [Interruption.] Oh, he says he was. Let’s see. What did he say? David Cameron, “A Conservative Economic Strategy”, March 2008. I have it here. He said:
“As a free-marketeer by conviction, it will not surprise you to hear me say”
that the problem of the past decade has been
“too much regulation”.
There we have it. I think John the banker will take heart that the Prime Minister is straining every muscle to help him. Now, let me ask the right hon. Gentleman about the cases of the hundreds of thousands of disabled people who will lose an average of £700 a year because of his bedroom tax. Is he going to fight for them, like he is fighting for John the banker?
First of all, let us just remember what happened in 2008, when the right hon. Gentleman was sitting in government—the biggest banking bust in our history, the build-up of the biggest deficit in our history. All the mess that we have to deal with now was delivered by him and his henchmen in 2008. Before we go on to the spare room subsidy, let him get to his feet and apologise for the mess that he left in this country. Apologise!
I notice that the Prime Minister has a new tactic, which is to ask me questions during our exchanges. All I can say is that it is good to see him preparing for opposition. The Home Secretary shakes her head. I am looking forward to facing her when they are in opposition.
Let me ask the Prime Minister another question, because he did not answer the one about the bedroom tax. He talked earlier about the hardship fund. Let us look at the facts about the fund. Some £25 million of it has been allocated specifically to help disabled people hit by the bedroom tax, but how much do his own figures show he is taking from disabled people? The answer is £306 million. Will he admit that the vast majority of disabled people hit by his bedroom tax will get no help from his hardship fund?
First, the whole House, and the whole country, will note that there was no apology for the mess left by the Labour party.
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that his figures on the spare room subsidy are completely wrong. The last thing he said before sitting down was that we are cutting the money going to disabled people. That is simply not the case. In 2009-10 the money spent on disability living allowance was £12.4 billion. By 2015 it will be £13.3 billion. There is no cut in the money going to the disabled. This Government are protecting that money, in spite of the mess he made. On the spare room subsidy, pensioners are exempt, people with disabled children are exempt and anyone who needs help around the clock is also exempt. As he is fond of reading out letters from constituents, let me read from one I got on this issue from a pensioner:
“We are expected to find up to an extra £60 per month out of our pensions for having extra bedrooms.”
Of course, they are not, because they are pensioners and are therefore exempt, but they have been terrified by the right hon. Gentleman’s completely irresponsible campaign.
I think what that means is that there was nothing in the briefing on the question I asked. Let me just make it clear, because the Prime Minister obviously does not understand it. His own impact assessment—he might like to read it, by the way—states that 420,000 disabled people will be hit by the bedroom tax by an average of £700 a year. That is £306 million. The money in the hardship fund allocated to disabled people is just £25 million. It is basic arithmetic. Will he admit that the vast majority of disabled people will get no help from the hardship fund and will be hit by his bedroom tax?
The right hon. Gentleman completely ignores the fact that anyone with severely disabled children and anyone who needs round-the-clock care are exempt from the spare room subsidy. The point he has to address is this: we are spending £23 billion on housing benefit. That is up by 50% over the past decade. That is £1,000 every year for every basic rate taxpayer. We say that it is time to reform housing benefit, and it is only fair that we treat people in social housing in the same way as we treat those in private rented housing. He has no proposals to do anything about welfare, other than to put up borrowing.
I think that we have established today that the Prime Minister does not understand his own policy. It is shameful to do this and not even understand the impact on the people of this country. He pulls out all the stops to defend the bankers and their bonuses, but he has nothing to say to the disabled people being hit by his bedroom tax. He stands up for the wrong people. It is no wonder his Back Benchers and the country think he is totally out of touch.
What we have heard today is what we hear every single Wednesday. The Opposition will not support one single change to welfare. They will not support reforms to housing benefit. They did not even support it when we took housing benefit away from people charging £100,000 a year. They would not support changes to child benefit. They will not support any changes to disability living allowance. They will not support changes to council tax benefit. They have opposed £83 billion of welfare saving. That is the point. They have to admit that their policy is to put up borrowing. They have nothing to offer, only debt, debt and more debt.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] Forgive me, Mr Speaker, I was taken by surprise and my question might surprise some Members even more. On 8 March we celebrate international women’s day. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on the Indian and Pakistani Governments to do more to uphold the rights of women and to advance the gender agenda?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. There are some particular issues we should really focus on. Female genital mutilation is a completely unacceptable practice that we need to deal with right across the world, but including here in the United Kingdom, and we will be making an announcement about that. We should also do more to crack down on the completely unacceptable practice of forced marriages. Forced marriages are still taking place right here with people involved from the United Kingdom, and we need to do more to put a stop to it.
Q2. I have been asked by the good people of Whitburn to open a food bank for West Lothian. I am very proud of these people who are pulling together as community, but I have to say that I carry a sense of absolute shame that this Government are driving people, even working people, more and more to have to use food banks. I can see people waving this away. It is a question of morality. The Government must surely look after the poor as well as look after the rich. (146192)
I welcome people making this contribution in our country, as the last Labour Government did by giving the organisation that founded food banks a prize and an award for its work. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the use of food banks went up 10 times under Labour, but one thing Labour refused to do, which we have done, is to allow jobcentres to point people towards food banks if they need them. The last Labour Government were worried about the adverse publicity, and they put that worry before the needs of people up and down the country.
Q15. Does the Prime Minister agree that we cannot borrow less by borrowing more, that we cannot deal with the deficit left by the last Labour Government by increasing our debts, and that the shadow Chancellor’s plan for doing so is both financially and morally bankrupt? (146205)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The policy of the official Opposition is to borrow less by borrowing more. It is completely incredible. That is why the Leader of the Opposition comes here week after week and asks all sorts of questions but will never mention his borrowing policy. It is an extraordinary point, but the Leader of the Opposition has a policy he is so embarrassed about that he cannot tell the House of Commons.
Q3. David Nicholson showed wilful and culpable ignorance while more than 1,000 people died needlessly in the NHS. How can the public have any confidence in the administration of the NHS while this man remains? Will the Prime Minister not sack him immediately? (146193)
What I would say about David Nicholson is that he has very frankly and very candidly apologised and acknowledged the mistakes that were made. That is an important point, because everyone has to think of their responsibilities with regard to the dreadful events that happened at the Staffordshire hospital, including the fact that part of the problem was people following a very top-down, target-led agenda which led to patient care being put on the back burner. David Nicholson has made his apology and wants to get on with his job of running an excellent national health service, and other people, frankly, should be thinking of their positions too.
Q4. Will the Prime Minister welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton) and agree with me that even governing parties can win marginal by-elections if they stick by their leader through thick and thin and campaign hard for a stronger economy and a fairer society? (146194)
Q5. This time last week, the Prime Minister told me that he would not force GP commissioners to put health services out to tender. By the end of last week, doctors, nurses and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, as well as nearly 250,000 members of the public, had said that they did not believe him. Was yesterday’s withdrawal of the NHS competition regulations down to his Government’s incompetence or to the fact that the public and professionals do not trust him and believe that he is about to privatise the NHS? (146195)
With respect to the hon. Lady, there is an attempt to create an entirely false argument. The aim is to ensure that the rules for procurement and diversity in the NHS fully respect the position that was put in place by the last Government and that has been repeated under this Government. We are putting that beyond any doubt. What I would say to her is what I said last week: what are we to be frightened of in making sure that in our brilliant NHS there can be a full contribution from private sector companies and voluntary and charitable bodies?
That position was in the manifesto on which the hon. Lady stood at the last election. In case she has forgotten, I will remind her of what it said: “We will support”—[Interruption.] I thought that Labour Members would like to hear their manifesto. It said:
“We will support an active role for the independent sector working alongside the NHS in the provision of care, particularly where they bring innovation—such as in end-of-life care and cancer services”.
What happens is that when the Labour party goes into opposition, it becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of the trade union movement.
A report to Monitor recommends the closure of acute services and most emergency and maternity services at Stafford. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and colleagues to discuss the serious impact that that would have on access to services for people throughout Staffordshire, including the two new Signals regiments that we will be welcoming in 2015?
I have discussed that issue many times with my hon. Friend and am happy to speak to him again. The trust continues to face serious financial challenges that are putting at risk its work to improve services for patients. As is required by the legislation, Monitor will consult the Secretary of State for Health and others before making the final decision to go ahead with the matter that my hon. Friend raises. If he wants to discuss it with me or the Secretary of State for Health, I am very happy to have that conversation.
Q6. This week, the Centre for Economics and Business Research reported that one in 10 people in Newcastle has borrowed money to pay for food. From April, 20,000 of our poorest households will be asked to find up to £125 per month to pay for the council tax benefit cut and the bedroom tax. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether, at the same time, he will benefit personally from the millionaires’ tax cut? (146196)
First, let me address the issue of the spare room subsidy in Newcastle specifically. There are 9,000 people on social housing waiting lists. Across the country, 250,000 people are living in overcrowded accommodation and would love to have access to a house with more rooms, while 386,000 people are living in under-occupied housing. The Labour party does not want to recognise that reality and has absolutely nothing to offer in terms of reform.
Q7. Last year, more than 100 women were killed by men in the United Kingdom. We know that domestic violence happens behind doors across the entire country. Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity of international women’s day to pay tribute to the outstanding work of Wiltshire police in trialling new ways of reducing this appalling crime and to the victim support centre in Devizes, which provides services for those who suffer in my constituency? (146197)
I am happy to do that. Fighting domestic violence is an important part of international women’s day, as my hon. Friend says. I commend not only the police in Wiltshire, but the local authority because it has done very good work to bring all the agencies together to ensure that there is a joined-up approach to cracking this difficult problem which, as she says, has often been hidden from view.
Q8. A recent report by the TUC suggested that wages in this country have been depressed by 3% since you came to power. Sorry, I meant the Tories, not you, Mr Speaker. Given that fact and the cuts to welfare, why is it that bankers, spivs and speculators can get away with stuffing their pockets with £50 notes under the guise of bonuses? When will the Prime Minister get a grip of the fat cats? If he is not going to get a grip, he should let my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) into his seat and he will get a grip. (146198)
I remind the hon. Gentleman that when his hon. Friends were in charge, the bonuses were higher, the banks were going bust and there was no proper regulation. That is why we are dealing with the mess—[Interruption.] He can try and wave it away, but the right hon. Members for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) and for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) were sitting in the casino when the wheels stopped spinning and the country nearly went bust.
My hon. Friend raises an important case because a number of payday lenders have been behaving in a completely irresponsible way. The OFT is putting 50 firms on notice over their behaviour, and requiring them to take specific actions or face fines or have their licences revoked. The OFT is also consulting on referring the entire sector to the Competition Commission. Action is being taken and I commend the OFT for what it has done.
Q10. Rotherham college of arts and technology has just had a cut of 280 places for 16 to 18-year-olds. That is a 10% cut, despite Rotherham being a youth unemployment hot spot. With rising youth unemployment and a flatlining economy, why is the Prime Minister denying the young people of Rotherham an education? Will he explain why he is cutting taxes for millionaires while young people have no future? (146200)
Q11. Like many others I welcome last week’s figure showing that annual net migration has fallen by a third since the general election. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows that the Government are ending uncontrolled immigration while the Labour party has opposed every single step we are taking to bring it down? (146201)
My hon. Friend makes a worthwhile point and we have taken action right across the board to deal with the completely unacceptable situation we inherited. Under the last Government, net migration ran at more than 200,000 people a year, which meant 2 million over a decade. That is two cities the size of Birmingham coming and staying in our country under their completely busted and bankrupt system. We have cut that net migration by a third by taking a series of steps, none of which the Opposition have supported. We hear that tonight we are going to get one of those fake apologies from the Leader of the Opposition. I suspect it will be every bit as real as his completely fake apology for the mess he left the economy in.
Q12. After the riots the Prime Minister offered people in Croydon reassurances about public safety. Under the latest Tory proposals, however, every police station in Croydon North will close down and there will be fewer police officers than the wholly inadequate number that existed immediately after the riots. Is that another broken promise? (146202)
The Lord said, “Go forth” and in Eastleigh Labour came fourth. The Prime Minister has observed that UKIP is a party of
“nutcases, fruitcakes and closet racists”
yet his Deputy Chairman says that the Conservatives should form an electoral pact with UKIP. How are the talks going?
First, I commend my hon. Friend on his splendid waistcoat. I am sure that if he reveals it a little further we will see that—yes, all right; enough already. It was a good, honest and fair fight in Eastleigh, but I want to be absolutely clear that the party that is meant to challenge as the Opposition in our country went precisely nowhere.
Q13. My constituents in Dumfries and Galloway are demanding that big businesses pay their full taxes. Likewise, they are determined that individuals should pay all their taxes. The Prime Minister has said that he will pay all taxes due in the proper way. Next month, will that include any tax at the new 45p rate, which he has cut from 50p? (146203)
First, I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman supports the Government’s G8 initiative on tax transparency, on which we are going to make some real progress. The reason for replacing the 50p rate with the 45p rate is that the 50p rate was not raising proper money. Indeed, it raised £7 billion less. That is probably why for 10 years in office the Labour party never put it in place. That is also why under this Government the 45p rate will be a higher rate than ever it was when the two croupiers were sitting in the casino.
Q14. The widely disputed economic benefits of HS2 may or may not be realised in 20 years’ time. However, the blight, fear and anxiety the project generates hit my constituency on 28 January with the announcement of the extended route. I now have constituents who cannot sell their houses, businesses uncertain about their future and the potential loss of a £500 million private sector investment set to generate 7,000 jobs in 2016. Can my right hon. Friend ensure that representatives of HS2 visit my constituency to address the real concerns of my constituents about this project? (146204)
I am very happy to make sure that what my hon. Friend asks for happens. I quite understand that the launch of a project such as HS2 causes a lot of local concern and unease. That is why we are putting in place such a large national consultation and will put in place a very generous compensation scheme. If we are to win in the global race economically, we must ensure that we invest in new infrastructure, whether roads and bypasses, bridges, tunnels or, indeed, railways including high-speed rail. The rest of the world is getting on board the high-speed rail revolution and it is right that we should too.
Giving an extra £150 million to local authorities to streamline adoption services and taking the exact sum out of the care sector’s early intervention grant seems to be a classic example of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. In adopting that approach, is not the Prime Minister acting in a manner more usually associated with his coalition partners?
I do not accept that. It is important that we make progress with rates of adoption in our country. Far too many children are left for far too long in care when we know that they could be adopted into loving homes. Taking some of that money, and really encouraging local authorities to raise their game and improve what they do, can transform the life chances of other people who would be stuck in care. We all know that the state is not a good parent, and we want to see more children adopted more quickly, so more can grow up in a loving home.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in that. The fact is that the economy is rebalancing. We are seeing that in the export figures to some of the fastest growing countries in the world. We see it in the fact that 1 million more people are in private sector jobs. We see it in the fact that the rate of new business creation is the fastest now that it has ever been in our history. We see it in the fact that our economy employs more people now than it has ever done in our history. There is still a long and difficult road to travel, but the deficit is down by a quarter and we are taking the steps we need to take to get the economy moving. But as ever, we have nothing constructive from the Opposition.
I am delighted to hear the Prime Minister say that he agrees that the payday loan industry is irresponsible. Will he now therefore commit to doing the one thing we know would make a difference and cap the charges of legal loan sharks—yes or no?
As I have said, the most important thing to do today is to welcome what the Office of Fair Trading is doing, which is putting those companies on notice. It is worth making the point that without an effective regulated sector, there are far more dangers from loan sharks, which is the point that the hon. Lady makes.
This week, the 45 million people of Kenya, one of the fastest emerging markets in which the UK is the biggest trade partner, went to the polls to elect a new Government under a new constitution. Yesterday I came back from the funeral in Kenya of Dr Anthony King, the young, British conservationist, world-renowned in the fight against poaching, who was tragically killed last week. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to join me in sending our condolences to Dr King’s family and our support to the people of Kenya in showing the power of democracy, justice and the rule of law?
I commend my hon. Friend on raising this issue and I join him in paying tribute to Anthony King. I know that my hon. Friend travelled to Kenya to speak at his funeral, and it is right that he did so. We all want to see proper, free and fair elections completed, counted and finished in Kenya and a proper democratically elected Government in that country, and to make sure that there is justice when dreadful events such as this take place.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the crisis in Syria.
The time has come to announce to the House necessary developments in our policy, and our readiness to develop it further if the bloodshed continues. Two years after it began, the conflict has reached catastrophic proportions. Ten thousand people have died since I last updated the House in early January. That means that more people have died in the first two months of this year than in the whole of the first year of the conflict. The total estimated death toll is now more than 70,000. The regime has used Scud ballistic missiles against civilian areas, and the UN commission of inquiry for Syria has found evidence of grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including massacres, torture, summary executions and a systematic policy of rape and sexual violence by the regime’s forces and its militia.
A year ago, 1 million people needed humanitarian aid inside Syria. That figure is now up to 4 million people, out of a total population of 21 million. Forty thousand people are fleeing Syria each week; three quarters of them are women and children. The number of refugees has increased thirtyfold in the past 10 months, and today the sad milestone of 1 million refugees has been reached. The population of Lebanon, which I visited two weeks ago, has risen by 10% owing to the influx of destitute people. This is a desperate situation of increasingly extreme humanitarian suffering.
There is no sign that the Assad regime currently intends to enter into a genuine political process. It appears to believe that it can defeat its opponents militarily, and it counts on being shielded by some countries at the United Nations Security Council. It will be necessary to turn each of those calculations on its head if the conflict is to come to a peaceful end.
Securing a diplomatic breakthrough remains, of course, our objective. Last week, I discussed Syria with the new US Secretary of State John Kerry here in London, and with other close partners in a core group meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Rome. In Rome, I met President al-Khatib of the Syrian National Coalition, and welcomed his brave announcement that the national coalition is open to direct talks with members of the Assad regime. We continue our efforts to develop common ground with Russia. I will have talks with Russian deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov later this afternoon, and next week with Foreign Minister Lavrov, also here in London. At the end of January, the UN and Arab League special representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, set out a credible plan for the establishment of a transitional authority in Syria. We are working with allies to achieve, if at all possible, Security Council backing for a transition process, and I am meeting Mr Brahimi again this afternoon.
However, the fact remains that diplomacy is taking far too long and the prospect of an immediate breakthrough is slim. Each month of violence in Syria means more death, wider destruction, larger numbers of refugees and bloodier military confrontation. The international community cannot stand still in the face of this reality. Our policy has to move towards more active efforts to prevent the loss of life in Syria. That means stepping up our support to the opposition and thereby increasing the pressure on the regime to accept a political solution. What we face is not a choice between diplomacy on the one hand and practical assistance on the other; helping the opposition is crucial to bringing about a political transition and saving lives, and both must be pursued together. We will always be careful in how we develop our policy, but our readiness to develop it further should be unmistakable, particularly to the Assad regime.
What happens in Syria is vital to our national interest for three reasons. The first is the growth of extremism. We should never forget that the vast majority of those opposing the regime are ordinary people trying to defend their communities and gain freedom for their country. However, Syria today has become the top destination for jihadists from anywhere in the world, and we are already seeing a rise in sectarian violence and attacks using improvised explosive devices, including car bombs. We cannot allow Syria to become another breeding ground for terrorists who pose a threat to our national security.
Secondly, the crisis is undermining the peace of the region. On top of the refugee crisis, there have been reports of clashes on the Iraqi border and in Lebanon. We are increasingly concerned about the regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons and have warned the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons would lead to a serious response from the international community. Those who order the use of chemical weapons and those who use them will be held to account. There is also credible information that, through its Revolutionary Guard corps, Iran is providing considerable military support to the regime, including personnel, equipment, weapons and direct financial assistance.
Thirdly, we and our allies must always be prepared to respond to situations of extreme humanitarian distress. Our foreign policy is inseparable from upholding human rights, protecting lives and supporting international law. We must assist the genuine moderate and democratic forces in Syria who are in dire need of help and who feel abandoned by the international community. The longer this conflict goes on, the more human suffering, persecution of minorities, radicalisation and sectarian conflict there will be.
Despite these three compelling arguments, there will still be those who say that Britain should have nothing to do with Syria, but we cannot look the other way while international law and human rights are flouted; we cannot step back from a crisis that could destabilise the heart of the middle east, and it would be the height of irresponsibility to ignore potential threats to our own security. I want to explain to the House, therefore, the next step in increasing our support to the Syrian people, and I emphasise that there may well have to be further steps.
We have contributed nearly £140 million in humanitarian aid so far. This is funding food, clean drinking water, medical assistance, blankets and shelter for many tens of thousands of people. We are supporting the Syrian National Coalition’s own efforts to deliver aid inside Syria, and we will seek new ways to relieve the humanitarian crisis and to expand access to aid across the country, while preparing to help a future Government deal with the aftermath of the conflict.
We have also committed a total of £9.4 million so far in non-lethal support, such as power generators and communications kit, to the Syrian opposition, civil society and human rights defenders. We have trained more than 300 Syrian journalists and activists and are providing satellite communication devices to document human rights violations and abuses.
I informed the House in January that we would seek to amend EU sanctions on Syria to open up the possibility of further assistance if the situation deteriorated. On Thursday, we finalised with our European partners a specific exemption to the EU sanctions to permit the provision of non-lethal military equipment and all forms of technical assistance to the Syrian National Coalition where it is intended for the protection of civilians.
This is an important advance in our ability to support the opposition and help save lives. Such technical assistance can include assistance, advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime; on co-ordination between civilian and military councils; on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them; and on how to maintain security during a transition. We will now provide such assistance, advice and training.
We intend to respond to the opposition’s request to provide equipment for search and rescue operations and for incinerators and refuse collection kit to prevent the spread of disease. We will help local councils to access funds and equipment to repair electricity and water supplies to homes, and we will respond to the opposition’s request for further water purification kits and equipment to help civilian political leaders operate and communicate.
We will also now provide new types of non-lethal equipment for the protection of civilians, going beyond what we have given before. In conjunction with the national coalition, we are identifying the protective equipment that will be of most assistance to them and likely to save the most lives. I will keep the House updated, but it will certainly include, for instance, armoured four-wheel drive vehicles to help opposition figures move around more freely, as well as personal protection equipment including body armour.
We will now also be able to provide testing equipment to the opposition to enable evidence gathering in the horrific event of chemical weapons use. We will also fund training to help armed groups understand their responsibilities and obligations under international law and international human rights standards. Any human rights violations or abuses are unacceptable on all sides. We have allocated nearly £3 million in funding this month to support this work and an additional £10 million thereafter, comprising $20 million in non-lethal equipment and practical support for the Syrian opposition and civil society, on top of the $60 million announced by the United States. We hope other countries will offer similar assistance.
The Cabinet is in no doubt that this is a necessary, proportionate and lawful response to a situation of extreme humanitarian suffering and that there is no practicable alternative. All our assistance will be carefully calibrated and monitored, as well as legal, and will be aimed at saving life, alleviating this human catastrophe and supporting moderate groups. The process of amending the EU sanctions regime in this way was difficult, and the decision came down to the wire. We persisted with it because we believe it is preferable to have a united EU approach. In our view, if a political solution to the crisis in Syria is not found and the conflict continues, we and the rest of the European Union will have to be ready to move further, and we should not rule out any option for saving lives. In case further necessary amendments to the EU sanctions regime prove impossible to agree, we stand ready to take any domestic measures necessary to ensure that core sanctions on Syria remain effective.
This is a situation in Syria where extreme humanitarian distress and growing dangers to international peace and security must weigh increasingly heavily in the balance against other risks. With the crisis now becoming one of major dimensions by any standard—with millions of people on the move, many tens of thousands dead, tens of thousands more in daily danger of losing their lives, the world’s most volatile region in growing tension and political deadlock that has endured for two years—our policy cannot be static nor our position indifferent. A situation of growing gravity requires a steadily more active approach, learning the lessons of previous conflicts and always emphasising the need for a political and diplomatic resolution of the crisis, but crucially also being prepared to use increased pressure and levers to try to bring that about. We will continue to keep the House properly informed as we press for an end to the conflict, to provide life-saving assistance and to work to ensure that Syria has the political transition its people need and deserve, and which they have now waited far too long to see achieved.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this morning.
This month marks the second anniversary of the start of this brutal conflict. As the Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out to the House, two years on, the death toll is now estimated at some 70,000 and is rising by the day. Only today the United Nations announced that the number of Syrian refugees had now reached 1 million. Half are children. More than 400,000 have become refugees since 1 January 2013 alone. More than 7,000 are now reported to be fleeing every day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today declared:
“Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster”.
As the number of casualties rises, frustrations too have been growing. That has understandably led to renewed calls for the international community to do more. The primary responsibility for the crisis rests with Assad and his regime, but does the Foreign Secretary accept that the deteriorating situation in Syria also represents an abject failure by the international community and that it shares a collective responsibility for that failure? It is right that efforts must now intensify, but the key issue is the breadth of those efforts, how they are channelled and how likely they are to deliver results.
There are some vital areas where the international community must better co-ordinate and target its efforts. First, on international diplomatic efforts, the stalemate at the United Nations Security Council is more than just frustrating: it is deplorable. The case must be made to Russia and China that supporting or aiding Assad not only harms Syria but harms their own interests, and indeed their standing in the wider region. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what representations he will make to Foreign Minister Lavrov when he is in London next week on this issue and the prospects of a change of position in the Security Council?
Secondly, 11 separate rounds of sanctions against Syria have already been agreed. The issue at present is not necessarily new sanctions, but effective enforcement of existing ones. Given the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Lebanon, does he agree that more must be done to ensure that countries fully comply with the existing sanctions to which they have already signed up?
Thirdly, on international accountability, the responsibility for the crisis primarily rests with the Assad regime, as I have made clear, and the perpetrators must ultimately be held to account. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that efforts to collect and publish the names of Syrian army officers ordering the ongoing atrocities are vital? Such efforts could serve as a clear signal of intent that those officers will face the full force of international justice for their crimes—and of course that includes the use of chemical weapons.
Fourthly, on the issue of peace talks, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, last month reportedly offered to engage in talks on a political settlement without demanding Assad’s resignation. In an interview last week, Assad claimed that he was
“ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms.”
Neither of those offers has yet been accepted, nor can we make a judgment as to the spirit in which they were intended, but will the Foreign Secretary offer his assessment of whether they constitute even a slight narrowing of the gap between the Syrian authorities and opposition forces?
Finally, let me turn to the central issue of the UK’s support for the Syrian opposition and the announcements in today’s statements. It is right that the UK is at the forefront of co-ordinating international efforts to deliver aid to those most in need, both within and beyond the Syrian borders, and I welcome recent announcements to that effect. Beyond humanitarian assistance, when it comes to our support for the Syrian opposition forces, it is vital that all our support must continue to be targeted and accountable if it is to be effective.
The Foreign Secretary has today said that the Government will move towards
“more active efforts to prevent the loss of life in Syria.”
It is right that the international community must increase its efforts, but it is vital that the parameters of those efforts are clearly set out, defined and understood. Indeed, on this issue, the Foreign Secretary’s statement at times raised more questions than answers as to the real direction he is suggesting for British Government policy.
The Foreign Secretary has today spoken of the amendments to the EU arms embargo. I welcome the fact that those changes were collectively agreed at the EU Foreign Affairs Council. Those amendments were focused on ensuring that the right to non-lethal equipment and technical assistance could be delivered to opposition forces, but the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), seemed to add confusion to an already complex issue when he told the House on Monday that this
“is not about lifting any arms embargo.”
However, he also said that the recent amendments to the existing EU arms embargo were about
“ensuring that all options are on the table and that EU countries have maximum flexibility to provide the opposition with all necessary assistance to protect civilians.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2013; Vol. 559, c. 674-76.]
Given those statements, it is understandable that there is some confusion over the Government’s position that requires further clarification. Will the Foreign Secretary say more about the next steps that he mentioned in his statement? Will he confirm whether the Government will push for an EU arms embargo to be lifted? Will he also set out what, if any, further amendments to the embargo he will call for?
The Foreign Secretary has recently admitted that, when it comes to lifting the arms embargo, the risk of arms falling into the wrong hands is
“one of the reasons we don’t do it now.”
We agree that that risk is, indeed, very serious, so will he set out what would have to change on the ground in Syria for him to change his view on the relative risks involved in such a strategy? Does he accept the reality that today’s Syria is replete with arms, and does he also accept the great difficulties involved in guaranteeing the end use of weapons, given the lack of clarity today about the identity, intent and, indeed, tactics of some of the rebel forces? Does he accept that it is perfectly possible that, if Europe or, indeed, the west more generally, were to decide to arm the rebels, Russia or, indeed, Iran, which he referenced in his remarks, would simply increase its provision of arms to the Assad regime? Rather than pushing for the EU arms embargo to be relaxed, amended or lifted altogether, may I urge the Foreign Secretary to direct his efforts towards getting the Russians and Chinese to agree to impose a UN-mandated arms embargo? This would undeniably be the most effective way of cutting off a key lifeline to the Assad regime that it is currently relying on.
Curiously, having previously mentioned the fact that al-Qaeda is known to be operating in Syria, the Foreign Secretary was silent on that issue in his remarks today. In the light of potentially increased UK support for the opposition forces, will he set out the British Government’s assessment of the present level of activity by al-Qaeda and related jihadist groups in Syria?
The Foreign Secretary spoke about the Syrian National Coalition, but is he able to give any assurances about the degree of authority and control exercised by the SNC over the wide range of opposition forces operating on the ground?
Order. I am mildly alarmed by my sight of a further full page of text in front of the right hon. Gentleman, but I know he will put my mind at rest when he tells me that, in fact, it relates to something entirely different and he does not intend to deal with it.
One of my missions is to always seek to put your mind at rest, Mr Speaker, so I will endeavour to keep my remarks as short as possible. In my own defence, I would simply say that, by way of introduction, I indicated that the Foreign Secretary’s statement prompted more questions than it answered. I am, however, mindful of your view, Mr Speaker, so I will conclude shortly.
I understand that the frustrations of Government Members are growing, but a strategy born of frustration is less likely to deliver than one based on clear thinking and strategic insight. Surely the priority now for Britain should be to work to unify the Syrian opposition, not to arm it. The continuing loss of life underlines the fact that Syria needs to see a de-escalation and a political resolution. Although the Government have our support for their actions to provide the humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to Syria announced today, it is far from clear that taking steps to intensify this conflict in the months ahead would do anything to reduce the present level of violence being suffered by the Syrian people.
The right hon. Gentleman correctly draws attention, as I have done, to the extent of the human suffering. The fact that the United Nations has launched the largest ever financial appeal for humanitarian assistance underlines the catastrophic scale of that suffering. We must all remember that that is the background to the situation and to deciding what we have to do.
The right hon. Gentleman made some recommendations towards the end of his remarks, some of which we have done, including work to unify the Syrian opposition, which, of course, is what we did for many months. They have been unified, to the extent that it can be practically achieved, in the Syrian National Coalition and we have recognised that group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. I do not suppose that any opposition or political grouping will be perfect in the eyes of this or any other country, but I do not believe that there will be a better attempt or greater success at unifying the Syrian opposition than the national coalition.
It would be wonderful if some of the right hon. Gentleman’s other recommendations could be achieved, including Russian and Chinese agreement to impose an arms embargo by the whole world on Syria. We would, of course, support that—we will go over this ground in our meetings with the Russians this afternoon and next week—but I have not seen any prospect of Russia agreeing to such an arms embargo. It is a good thing to wish for, but in practical, diplomatic terms there is no possibility at the moment of it being achieved. That is the background to the decisions that we have to make. Many things would be far preferable, such as an immediate agreement on a negotiated political transition in Syria.
The right hon. Gentleman asked, rightly, how seriously we should take the offers to negotiate. Having talked to President al-Khatib of the national coalition last week, I believe not only that his offer is sincere but that he would love it to be taken up and that he really would negotiate with members of the regime without prior insistence on the departure of Assad. However, President Assad’s insistence during his weekend interview that the regime is ready to negotiate is something that we have heard for two years but that has never turned into actual substance. Of course, we will discuss with Mr Brahimi again this afternoon whether those statements can be used to bring both sides closer together. It is part of his job to try to do that. The evidence of the past two years, however, is that, in current circumstances, offers to negotiate by the regime are not sincere, are not followed up and do not lead to the sort of progress that we all want to see.
It is against that background of diplomatic deadlock and political stalemate while tens of thousands die that I argue that we have to do what we can in a very cautious, considered and clearly thought-out way to try to change that situation and to save human lives as best we can, working at all times with our partners and allies, including those in the Arab world. There is a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Arab League today.
We will continue to use every diplomatic effort, but the situation that the right hon. Gentleman and I are describing cannot remain static. He is quite right to say that the international community has been an abject failure collectively. The United Nations Security Council has not shouldered its responsibilities. We have tried many times to put that right, but our resolutions have been vetoed. We have been working in the last month since Mr Brahimi’s last briefing to the Security Council to find a new common way forward for the council—we will discuss that again with the Russians in the coming hours—but that common ground has not emerged in a month of discussions behind the scenes in New York.
Given that situation, we all have to ask ourselves whether we are going to hold our policy completely static or show that we are prepared to change as the situation deteriorates—reluctantly perhaps, and cautiously at all times. I argue that we must be prepared to show an increased level of support for the opposition, and that it has to take a practical form if we are to exert any pressure on the regime—and, indeed, on Russia as well—to successfully negotiate on this matter. The parameters have, I hope, been clearly set out in my statement. They are clearly set out in the amendment to the United Nations arms embargo. It is amended, not lifted. The arms embargo remains in place; these are specific exemptions for non-lethal military equipment and for technical assistance for the protection of civilians. I have just given examples of what that means in practice.
As for the future, the EU sanctions have now been rolled over, with that amendment, for three months. There will therefore be a further discussion in May about the renewal of such sanctions, and the Government—and every Member of this House—will be able to form their views on what we should do, in whatever situation we have arrived at in May, about further amendments to the embargo, if they are necessary. I think the parameters are clear. The policy is clear, and above all I want to make it clear that its direction is clear: we must be prepared to do more in a situation of such slaughter and suffering, and a more static policy would not measure up to the gravity of the situation.
While I welcome the tone of the Foreign Secretary’s speech and the specific measures that he has announced, I regret to say that I cannot see how any of them will have any serious prospect of reducing the length of the conflict or preventing the massacre of tens of thousands more Syrians. Will he accept that, until such time as the Syrian opposition have the military equipment that will enable them to defeat the Assad regime and thereby bring the conflict to an end earlier than would otherwise be the case, we will continue to see tens of thousands of people being killed and the extremists in the opposition benefiting from that delay? What would the Foreign Secretary have to be persuaded of, in order to accept that giving military support to the opposition in a controlled and responsible way is indeed necessary?
What I—and, I suspect, most of the House—would have to be persuaded of is that there was absolutely no alternative remaining. My right hon. and learned Friend has put the case—for a long time, actually—for going much further than I have proposed today in regard to the arming of the opposition movements in Syria by western countries. The difficulties involved in doing that have partly been set out by the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), but we also have to recognise that that conflict in Syria is already militarised. Opposition groups have access to substantial quantities of weapons, and those weapons are already inside Syria. There is such a flow of weapons. I therefore believe that it is right for the development of our policy to be graduated, for us to show our readiness to deliver increased assistance and for the European countries and the United States to be willing to amend our policy if the situation continues to deteriorate, but in a way that will command general support and that will pose the least danger to the increased militarisation of the conflict. That is why I think this is the right balance to strike, rather than moving to the position that my right hon. and learned Friend has consistently advocated.
Would it be a fair summary of our position to say that we are now providing every kind of assistance to the military forces of the opposition, short of the explosives, guns and bullets that actually do the killing? I have no objection to that; I think it is essential. In my judgment, the Foreign Secretary is right not to rule out the option of direct lethal military supplies, but would he acknowledge that the strategic diplomatic consequences of any such decision, and the degree to which we could get bogged down in a kind of cold war or proxy war, really need to be thought through very carefully indeed before we make any such positive decision?
Yes, I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He accurately characterises the position, although it is perhaps putting it too strongly to say that we are providing “every kind of assistance” short of lethal equipment. We are providing the assistance that I have set out today, and we will provide other assistance of that nature for the protection of civilians. That is an important requirement in the exemption to the UN arms embargo, and we will interpret it exactly. The assistance has to be for the protection of civilians. So the right hon. Gentleman went a bit too far in his characterisation of the position. He is right, however, to say that it would be a bigger and further step to decide to send lethal equipment. We have taken no decision to do that, and we have no current plans to do that, but it is necessary to be clear that in a situation of this gravity, with its implications for the peace of the whole region, we cannot rule out options. We cannot definitively rule that out. That was the thrust of his question.
My right hon. Friend gives a compelling analysis of the deteriorating situation in Syria, and the measures that he has announced should be not only accepted but welcomed by the House, in that they are designed to alleviate suffering and save life, but as we approach the 10th anniversary of the mistaken military action against Saddam Hussein, does he understand that many of us in the House are concerned lest we drift towards something that might be described as military intervention?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for saying that the measures I have announced should be welcomed by the House. I welcome his support and, yes, I absolutely understand that after more than a decade of conflict, in different ways, people are always anxious about new conflict. That does not mean, however, that we can stick our heads in the sand and ignore the new conflicts that have arisen in the world and that can affect us, for all the reasons that I have described. It does mean that our response to them has to be very intelligent and well calculated. Getting to the heart of his question, I think we can say clearly that no western Government are advocating the military intervention of western nations—or of any nations—in the conflict in Syria. The discussion is entirely focused on the degree of assistance that can and should be delivered to the opposition inside Syria. That is what the discussion is centred on, rather than on an external military intervention.
But will the Foreign Secretary accept that the logical next step in the strategy that he has been pursuing for six months, if not more, is to arm the opposition? That is the logical position that he is now in, but I think that it is profoundly mistaken. Every time he has made a statement on this matter in the past six months, he has carried the whole House with him in eloquently condemning the horror, the deterioration and the barbarity of the evil Assad regime, but his strategy is wrong. Just going for regime change in what is a civil war, with its Shi’a-Sunni conflict and its reincarnation of the cold war, is never going to achieve his objective. What he should be doing, instead of just promoting the opposition’s call for negotiations, is testing the willingness to negotiate that Assad expressed over the weekend. He should test it to destruction, but he is not doing that. He is pursuing a failed strategy involving a monumental failure of diplomacy, and it is making the situation worse.
The right hon. Gentleman does not help his case in describing the Government’s position in that way. It very much follows from what I said in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary that we believe the apparent offer of President Assad to negotiate must absolutely be tested and tested to destruction. We will certainly do that, and the right hon. Gentleman and I will strongly agree on that. If he were in government today, however, he would have to think about what else to do if that did not work, and it has not worked over the last two years—
It has been tried countless times: Lakhdar Brahimi has been to Damascus countless times, and Kofi Annan before him went to Damascus countless times. Every possibility has been given to the regime to negotiate, but it has never entered into a sincere or meaningful negotiation. That being the case, it is not adequate to watch slaughter on this scale and say that we will stick our heads in the sand about it. It is important to have a foreign policy that relieves human suffering and upholds human rights. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would always be in favour of that.
While I agree with the Foreign Secretary’s position in not supplying weapons to the rebels, it is perfectly clear that someone is supplying weapons to the rebels at present. Is not the great challenge for Syria the fact that that lot will end up fighting against Shi’a-backed militants, supported by Iran, Lebanon and Iraq, some time in the future?
Of course, the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict is one of our great concerns. That is why we have to do everything we reasonably can to shorten the conflict, as that will only get worse as the conflict goes on. As my hon. Friend says, the conflict in Syria is already militarised and weapons have already been obtained and are being obtained by all the factions fighting in Syria, including the military council, working with the national coalition. I fear that the longer the conflict goes on, the more sectarian it will be in nature and the more opportunity there will be for extremists to take hold there. Giving our assistance to moderate forces and not to extremist forces is therefore one way in which we can try to shape the situation in a more sensible direction.
A no-fly zone is sometimes advocated, including at international meetings. The greatest difficulty with a no-fly zone is, of course, that it is a response of a totally different nature. It is a military intervention of the sort that we have been talking about and against which many hon. Members have warned. It would require military force externally on a substantial scale. A good argument of principle can be made for that on the basis of relieving human suffering by doing whatever is necessary, but the willingness of nations around the world to implement such a military intervention is limited, for understandable reasons. Indeed, such a no-fly zone could be achieved in practice only with the full participation of the United States of America, so major practical difficulties are involved. What we must not get into is saying that there are protected areas or humanitarian corridors, but then not being able to protect people. There is a sad and tragic history of those things. We should only take the step that the hon. Lady is talking about if the world and the international community were truly ready to bring it about.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that Syria can count on being shielded by some countries at the United Nations; not least, we know that Russia had the opportunity to bring about some sanctions in the Security Council early on. Will he start talking to his counterparts in the European Union and, indeed, in the United States about saying to the Russians, “If you don’t want to take part in this and put on the blue berets, get on the ground and do something, there will be consequences”? If the Russians refuse to take that sort of action, and are willing to stand by and let tens of thousands of people be slaughtered, we should work with our European partners, the US and south American countries to say to them, “We are not going to come to your country to showcase it in the World cup in 2018.”
I say to my hon. Friend that we must use every art of persuasion we know in our talks with our colleagues in Russia. I can assure him that we do that. The shadow Foreign Secretary argued earlier that we must put the case to Russia about the growth of extremism in Syria and so on—and we do. I have lost count of the number of occasions on which I and other western Foreign Ministers have put the case to our Russian counterparts that everything Russia most fears in Syria is more likely to come true the longer the conflict goes on. That includes the rise of international terrorism and instability in the whole region. The Russians clearly have a different analysis, and we have not had any meeting of minds on the issue. I have to say that I am not a great fan of sporting sanctions. As a country that has just hosted the Olympics, we have a well-established position on that, but we will use every other art of persuasion in dealing with Russia.
The Assad regime is clearly barbarous and has to go, but does the Foreign Secretary understand the concerns of many of our constituents who raise issues about atrocities and war crimes carried out on the opposition side, about the role of al-Qaeda and about the fact that support and help going into the country for good and proper reasons set out in good faith can end up helping people who are deeply hostile to western interests and equally guilty of terrible crimes against humanity?
Yes, of course people are right to be concerned about any atrocities and any opportunity for international terrorism to take hold in a new place. That is one reason why we cannot just turn away from this crisis. It is also why—this is the nub of the right hon. Gentleman’s question—the assistance we give must be carefully thought out and monitored. Of course, all the assistance and equipment I have talked about is non-lethal. We will monitor its use to the best of our ability, but if it were misused or fell into the hands of groups for which it was not intended, that would have a very serious impact on our willingness to provide any such further assistance in the future. I stress that while people read about the opportunity for extremists to take hold, and while we are concerned about it, as I have described, the great majority of the people, even those involved in the fighting in Syria as far as we can tell, are not extremists. The opposition leaders whom I meet are people who sincerely want a future for their country that has nothing to do with extremism and terrorism. We must not leave those people feeling abandoned by the world.
Unfortunately, the record of moderates in standing up against extremists in such situations is not all that great. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that our sworn enemies, al-Qaeda, are fighting on the side of the opposition? Our concern is therefore that if and when the appalling Assad regime is overthrown as the Government wish, its chemical weapons stocks will fall into al-Qaeda’s hands. What practical guarantee can the Government give us that that will not happen? I asked that question on Monday; it was not satisfactorily answered, which is why I am asking it again.
No one can give any guarantees. This is why a political and orderly transition should happen in Syria. There are certainly terrible weapons, chemical and biological, in Syria, which is why it is important to be clear that there is no military-only solution, whatever one’s point of view on the situation. Those chemical weapons are best safeguarded through a peaceful transition. That is what we need to keep arguing for. Without giving additional assistance to the moderate elements of the opposition, however, we would reduce rather than enhance the prospects for an orderly transition.
Is it not the case that it would be more secure, and more in our interests, to introduce a no-fly zone than to arm the opposition? We can keep control of the equipment in a no-fly zone, but we cannot do that if we hand it over to jihadist groups. Is it not also the case that the United States Administration and some neighbouring countries, including Turkey, are against the introduction of a no-fly zone, which means that we are unable to introduce one?
Let me make it clear that I have not announced the arming of the opposition. This is different; it is about increasing the assistance that we give the opposition in the form of non-lethal equipment. The hon. Gentleman is putting the case for an external military intervention, rather than a move to any policy of support for the sending of lethal equipment to Syria. There is a respectable case for that, but as I said earlier to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), it would require the willingness of a large part of the international community, almost certainly including the United States, so that we were not making a false promise of safety to people. Syria continues to have strong air defences with very modern equipment, and the implementation of a no-fly zone would be a very large military undertaking. It is important for those who advocate it to bear that in mind.
However distressing the picture of the humanitarian crisis that we see on our television screens—and it is indeed distressing—I must tell my right hon. Friend that I am extremely concerned that the United Kingdom’s hand is being drawn ever more closely into this mangle. I share all the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). What confidence has my right hon. Friend in his belief that what I think he described as the modern and democratic forces can be assisted, and will thence be in charge of a post-conflict Syria? If he is not confident of that, what we will be faced with is a further load of bloody jihadists. I hope that he will completely rule out the use of Britain’s armed forces, who are already greatly overstretched.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. What I am confident about is that giving the active support that I have described to that modern and democratic opposition is the best way of helping to ensure that they are the ones who are successful. Our hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) rightly pointed out that it is often the moderate forces who lose out to extremists in circumstances such as these. The longer this goes on and the less support those forces receive from outside, the less will be their chances of success in standing up to those extremists. We must make a choice about whether we are prepared to give that support, and I think that the right choice for the United Kingdom is to increase the level of support for people who we would be prepared to see succeed.
The situation in Syria is obviously appalling, and the humanitarian crisis is absolutely devastating, but the ending of every war requires a political solution of some sort. What serious negotiations are being undertaken with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are fundamentally the funders of the opposition forces in Syria, and what serious engagement is taking place with the Government of Iran, particularly in regard to bringing about some kind of comprehensive peace negotiation and peace process? Without that, there will be more suffering, more deaths and more difficulties for everyone.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. If regional powers were able to agree among themselves about the situation and about a solution, that would be an enormous step forward, just as it would be a vital step forward if we, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, were able to agree among ourselves. There have been some attempts. Last autumn, the Egyptian Government convened a group consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey to consider the situation together and to see if they could agree on a way forward. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that they did not reach an agreement, but that is not to say that such a group could not be revived in the future. We have absolutely no problem with that. It did not succeed before—the reason it did not succeed is that Iran has not been prepared to agree on a way forward with other countries in the region—but that does not mean that it should not be tried again.
In this civil war, it seems that there is a military stalemate between two sides that have military forces. In those circumstances, and given that each side claims that it wants to negotiate, is there any chance that we can put all our efforts into securing a ceasefire, so that when the guns stop and civilians stop being killed, we may actually be able to use politics to resolve the situation?
That is a very good thought. That too has been tried before, but it should be tried again. In any negotiated way forward, a ceasefire would be a very important element of the early part of the negotiations. My hon. Friend may recall that last summer the United Nations envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, proposed a ceasefire to coincide with Eid. For a short time there was some hope that the proposal would be implemented, and there were many efforts to implement it in parts of Syria, but within days the ceasefire had completely broken down. Again, that does not mean that a ceasefire should not be at the top of the agenda for negotiations, but as my hon. Friend will have gathered, we do not have successful negotiations at the moment—much as we will discuss that with Mr Brahimi this afternoon.
Turkey is very supportive of the change that the European Union has made in the arms embargo. It has, let us say, a forward-leaning approach to the crisis. If the Turkish Foreign Minister were here, he would not only say everything that I have said today, but say quite a lot more about the need for greater international support for the national coalition. I shall be meeting him again tomorrow, here in London, when he comes to the Friends of Yemen meeting, but I can say now that Turkey is extremely supportive of this announcement and of the change in EU policy.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I note that he does not rule out any option, and that, according to his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), he does not rule out military intervention. No country is advocating that yet, but if Syria is considered to be part of a primary interest in our national security strategy, are we equipped to deal with this crisis? To what extent should my right hon. Friend be talking to his opposite number, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, about what contingency arrangements should be made—and, indeed, what additional expenditure is required—to give us the capacity at least to influence the security aspects of this problem?
Of course the Defence Secretary and I discuss the whole range of international affairs on an almost continuous basis. We make the decisions about our policy on Syria in the National Security Council or in the Cabinet; we discussed it in the Cabinet yesterday. He and I are very much of the same mind, and work closely together in relation to all contingencies.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Ministry of Defence has plans covering a wide range of contingencies. It is not helpful for Ministers to speculate about those contingencies, and I stress again that we are neither calling for nor planning a military intervention. The discussion in the international community is about the degree of support for the opposition inside Syria, rather than about an external intervention. We will plan for all contingencies, but that is the context and the background of any military role in this crisis.
What does the Foreign Secretary think is the likelihood of chemical weapons being used in Syria, or of those weapons being moved to Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus destabilising the wider region?
As I said in my statement, we are increasingly concerned about the regime’s possible use, or possible willingness to use, chemical weapons, and we are always concerned about any transfer of those weapons to other groups or other countries in the region, as are many of those countries. We send the strong message that I conveyed in my statement—and the President of the United States himself has conveyed a similar strong message—about the use of chemical weapons by anyone, including the Syrian regime.
It is important for the Syrian regime to hear the message that the world will be determined that the individuals responsible are held to account if chemical weapons are used.
I strongly support the Foreign Secretary’s stand on this very difficult issue. Will he tell Mr Bogdanov this afternoon that, with 1 million fled and as many as 100,000 dead, the Syrian catastrophe now stands comparison with the Rwandan genocide, which led the international community to adopt the responsibility-to-protect doctrine in the first place, and that Russia should engage with coalition forces or face the prospect of a jihadist regime, which neither we nor it would want?
Basically, I will tell him that—yes. That is part of the argument I stated earlier: Russia is rightly concerned about international terrorism—Russians have experience of that themselves—and if this situation goes on for many more months or years, we will see a much greater opening for such international terrorism. This is becoming a human catastrophe of immense proportions, so my hon. Friend can be confident that I will make this argument to my Russian counterpart in the robust terms he would want.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the advance copy of the statement, and welcome its emphasis on humanitarian aid. I am sure we all agree that it is now time for all nations to focus on a non-violent resolution if at all possible. That is obvious, but yesterday Israel said—threatened—at the Security Council that it cannot “stand idle” if the Syrian civil war spills over on to its border. This is a very serious situation. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and that we need to do everything we can to avoid further conflagration.
Absolutely; the right hon. Gentleman is right. The danger of the spread of the crisis regionally, into other countries in different ways, is one of the reasons we cannot just watch it develop. We have to work out the best constructive approach, difficult though these choices are, to try to turn this crisis in the right direction, rather than let it drift in the wrong direction. Any of the neighbouring countries will take action if their borders are infringed, of course. We have agreed to the stationing of Patriot missiles by NATO in Turkey, Lebanon has been very concerned about clashes on its border, and the Jordanian border is a tense place—and that is even before we consider the Golan Heights and the Iraqi border as well. The regional dimension is of serious and increasing concern, which is one of the reasons for today’s package of policy changes and announcements.
May I strongly reject the neo-con policies and ideas emanating from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)? What could be gained by our sending arms into this cauldron? Have we forgotten the disastrous policy of arming the rebels in Afghanistan? Have we forgotten the appalling atrocities being committed now by jihadis against Christians in Syria? What is wrong with basing our policy on life and not death?
My hon. Friend can be reassured that I have never considered myself to be a neo-con and do not describe myself as that as Foreign Secretary. Our policy must be very carefully calibrated. My hon. Friend draws attention to situations that have gone seriously wrong from the point of view of the international community. We must however also bear in mind, in the case of the western Balkans in the 1990s, the sense of abandonment and the radicalisation of Muslims in many parts of the world because of a policy that for too long denied people any ability in an extreme situation to protect themselves. The policy that I have announced, of doing what we can to protect civilian life, is a necessary and proportionate response.
The Foreign Secretary is well aware that there is no shortage of lethal weapons in Syria, so there is very little, if any, case for our supplying any. Frankly, supplying armoured four-wheel drive vehicles as well as personal protection equipment, including body armour, to the opposition and peoples we are trying to support, so that they can drive around in a state of total personal immunity, is not best calculated to enhance the credibility of our policy or its credibility in the eyes of the civilians who continue to live in the most appalling suffering and danger. The Secretary of State would, I believe, carry the whole House and country with a massive increase in our humanitarian assistance. He should direct his efforts to binding our European partners into doing that as well as to sanctions.
The hon. Gentleman can be pleased in that case, because we have announced enormous increases in our humanitarian assistance. It is for my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, who was here earlier, to announce such things, and she announced at the Kuwait conference at the end of January a vast increase—a £50 million increase—taking the total to £140 million. We are one of the biggest donors in the world in trying to alleviate human suffering. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman lists what I have said we will be sending to the opposition he will cite the full list, including medical supplies, water purification and measures to help prevent the spread of disease. The need to alleviate humanitarian suffering is therefore at the forefront of our minds, and that is what Britain is devoting by far the greatest resources to in all the effort we are putting into addressing this crisis.
In face of these difficulties, I strongly commend my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Office for the policy they are pursuing. In his statement, he rightly drew attention to the jihadists committing atrocities using explosive devices, including car bombs. I have a British-Syrian constituent on the verge of acquiring British citizenship who has immediate family who has been killed by such a car bomb. She now wants to bring her parents to the UK simply for them to have some respite from what is happening there. They are faced with an incredibly difficult journey either to Lebanon or Jordan in order simply to make the application to come here, which now seems extremely difficult even if they were to end up being successful and getting here. If the circumstances are as I have described, will my right hon. Friend make it clear that such applications simply for the parents to come here for a while would merit his support?
My hon. Friend described that case very well, but, as he knows, such decisions are for the Home Secretary. I cannot say that in all circumstances we will be opening doors for people to come to the United Kingdom. As I have said, there are now 1 million refugees in other countries. It is the responsibility of the countries that receive the refugees to look after them, with international support, and I pay tribute to the generosity of the people of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq in what they are doing, and we are doing our best to assist. That is the prime way for refugees to be assisted. My hon. Friend’s question serves as a reminder, however, that not only are 4 million out of the population of 21 million displaced or in desperate need, but many of the remaining people are in extremely dangerous and stressful conditions and are unable to pursue normal life in any way, so this is affecting the great majority of the whole country.
The divisions among factions in the moderate and democratic opposition not only make the extremists stronger, but make the process of staging negotiations very difficult and the ability to determine who will form a Government of Syria when the regime falls absolutely impossible. What are our Government and allies doing to get greater coherence and common purpose within the moderate opposition?
There is much greater coherence now than there has been for a long time. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that it is difficult to bring together something like the national coalition, but it is very much the best attempt that can reasonably be made to bring together those moderate and democratic forces, and it is now there to be negotiated with. Quite often over the past two years the refrain of some of the other countries on the Security Council and of the regime has been, “We want to negotiate, but we do not have someone to negotiate with.” Now they do not have that excuse. The national coalition is there for them to negotiate with, and it is willing to negotiate, so the onus is now on the regime to show that it can seriously negotiate.
I urge caution. Human rights groups have confirmed that atrocities have been committed by both sides, and by arming the rebels we could be arming the terrorists of the future, as well as escalating the violence. May I bring the Foreign Secretary back to the comments he made over the weekend, which clearly indicated a change in thinking about non-lethal support, despite what we were told in this House on Monday? To what extent were his comments a reflection of reports we are now getting that President Obama is thinking about changing his policy on this issue?
I am not aware of any inconsistency in what I have said. In fact, I have said throughout that we do not rule out any options; I have said that for two years, and it would be strange to start ruling options out as the situation got worse, not having done that at any period. That is what I have said today and it is what I said at the weekend. What we are proposing to do is what I have set out today, and my hon. Friend will know from Secretary Kerry’s announcement that it is closely related to what the United States has announced. It has announced $60 million of additional practical, but non-lethal, support to the national coalition, and I have announced $20 million—to use a comparator—that the United Kingdom will provide. So our policy is closely aligned with that of the United States, but neither country is advocating the policy to which my hon. Friend is so strongly opposed.
Such vehicles are non-lethal equipment—that is how they are defined and that is very clear—as is body armour. The hon. Gentleman could advocate a different policy of not trying to save lives in Syria, and that is what he is suggesting in his question. He is suggesting that we say, “No, we will not try to save lives. We will not send this kind of assistance to people who desperately ask for it, even though they are slaughtered in huge numbers.” It is his choice to advocate that policy, but I do not think it is responsible, and it would not give moral authority to our foreign policy.
I am very concerned for my constituents whose Syrian Christian family living in Aleppo are being persecuted for their faith and having their friends murdered by the jihadists whom the Secretary of State has mentioned. What assurance can be given to me, and to the many hon. Members here today who are worried about this situation, that any British support is not helping rebels who are also Islamic fundamentalists?
That is an important point, and it is important to stress, as I did in response to other questions, that our support is to the moderate and democratic forces in Syria. That is one reason why all the support I have set out is also non-lethal. It is also important for us to monitor, as best we can, the use of that equipment. If we thought that at any stage it was being used by people we had not intended it for, our attitude to providing any such further equipment would, of course, have to change dramatically.
The House is deeply united on the humanitarian aid but deeply divided on the oversimplified view of the Foreign Secretary, who, on this complex civil war, could not bring himself to mention the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group that is a vital part of the opposition. It has been accused of some of the most bloodthirsty massacres of civilians. Will he give an absolute guarantee that before we commit military equipment or personnel to Syria there will be a debate and a vote in this House, so that we can avoid repeating what we have done so often, which is, in trying to punch above our weight we die beyond our responsibilities?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has been listening carefully and will know that I have not announced or advocated sending military equipment or personnel. Of course we have conventions in this House, which he and I strongly support, about when we take decisions in the House, and we will observe all those. He will have to decide, given his long concern for humanitarian issues, whether it would be right to be static in the face of this situation. That is the alternative to what I have described. Everybody across the House is rightly concerned about the humanitarian situation, but I do not believe it is responsible for policy to sit still in the face of a rapidly worsening situation.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the increasing evidence of the Iranian regime’s involvement in arming the Assad regime. Does he agree that there might be opportunities to put pressure on the Iranian regime to desist, in the context of the ongoing negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme?
I am not sure that those negotiations provide the opportunity to put on that pressure, as they are very focused on the nuclear programme. Yesterday, I reported to the House during Foreign Office questions the progress—it is at a very early stage—made in those negotiations in Almaty last week. The pressure on the Iranians should be and is a different pressure: the world knows about these activities; in the end it will be proved in Syria that the Assad regime is doomed; and many people in Syria will not want to forgive Iran for intervening in all the ways I have described, including with armed personnel.
How concerned is the Foreign Secretary at the comments made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees this morning that the number of refugees who would be leaving Syria had been severely underestimated and that there were barely 25% of the resources needed to deal with the 1 million people now leaving the country? What is the Foreign Secretary doing, together with colleagues in the Department for International Development, to make sure that that lack of preparedness is not allowed to continue?
The United Nations asked at the time of the Kuwait conference for $1.5 billion in donations. This is the biggest financial appeal that the UN has ever made for such a crisis. In promising the additional £50 million, my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary took our total humanitarian support provided through DFID to nearly £140 million. We are very good at not only pledging that, but delivering it. We are good not only at saying we will write the cheque, but at writing the cheque. However, not all other countries are as good. The $1.5 billion was pledged and we have to make sure that other countries deliver on those promises. I am having many bilateral meetings with other nations involved in the next 36 hours and we are raising that issue with each of those countries, saying that we all now have to deliver on our pledges.
The Foreign Secretary will know that the United States was one of the last leading countries to recognise the Syrian opposition. Do the United Kingdom and the USA now have an agreed joint policy on Syria? If there is no such joint policy, the future for Syria looks bleak.
There is a joint policy. My hon. Friend will notice that what Secretary Kerry announced last week is very close to what I am announcing this week. I discussed it with him on several occasions last week, in Rome and in London. We have a very similar view, both on the gravity of the crisis and on the need for increased action of the kind that I have announced today in order to try to speed a resolution of the crisis. My hon. Friend can be assured that London and Washington are closely aligned on this matter.
I have heard many statements like this one in years gone by and, inevitably, most of the time we end up being involved in a quagmire from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), I take the view that it is time to have a full debate, in Government time, on the Floor of the House, with the possibility of a vote.
It is important for the hon. Gentleman to distinguish between situations where Britain may be involved in a quagmire and situations where we are helping other people to try to get out of a quagmire—that is what we are trying to do with this sort of assistance. We cannot turn aside requests for assistance. I believe that this is the eighth statement I have given about Syria, so I am always willing to come to the House to debate it.
I pay tribute to the people and the Government of Jordan. Last summer, I visited the refugee reception areas just inside the Jordanian border. Since then, the numbers involved have got much larger, with more than 312,000 refugees in Jordan, most of whom reside with host communities and families but some of whom are in camps. The Jordanians have done a magnificent job and we have discussed regularly with them how we can help further. I shall meet the Foreign Minister of Jordan tomorrow and we will discuss that further.
Although he was a ruthless and murderous individual, the late father of the current President of Syria had a reputation for doing what he said he was going to do. By contrast, his son is a fundamentally weak individual surrounded by stronger characters as advisers. To what extent does the Foreign Secretary agree that the personal weakness of the President of Syria will make a diplomatic solution unlikely, if not impossible?
My hon. Friend is right and the situation he describes is one of the obstacles. Not only the President of Syria but other members of his family are closely involved in the power structure in Syria, including his brother. An entire system of finance, power and rewards makes up a pyramid of which President Assad is simply at the top. A political and diplomatic solution requires people much further down the pyramid to agree that it is a good idea. That makes the situation complex and is one reason why offers of negotiations by the regime are not followed up by serious negotiations. That is indeed one of the obstacles.
The Foreign Secretary has set out for the House a bleak picture of a dangerous civil war, with a toxic mix of Iranian involvement, possibly al-Qaeda and other extremists. What assessment have the British Government made of the claims of alleged involvement from Hezbollah in the conflict in Syria and of the wider potential for regional instability that would flow from that?
There is the potential, as we have discussed, for regional instability, including in Lebanon and in relation to Hezbollah. One of the dangers is of clashes on the Lebanese border in the south of Lebanon between Hezbollah and the Free Syrian army or other elements of the Syrian opposition—let alone with Syrian regime forces. I do not have any other evidence that I can cite about Hezbollah, but that in itself is a great danger and is one of the reasons we are assisting with the stability of Lebanon. In Lebanon two weeks ago I announced additional British funding for the Lebanese armed forces, which are an important part of trying to keep that border peaceful, including our direct help with the construction of border observation posts. Of course, there is everything else we are doing to try to bring about a resolution of the crisis.
My right hon. Friend has always been very clear that our priorities are to try to stop the killing and to find a peaceful solution. If a peaceful solution can be found but the price is that Assad stays in power, would we be able to accept that deal or have we reached a stage at which the precursor to any deal must be that Assad goes?