House of Commons
Tuesday 3 September 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No.2) Bill [Lords]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Wednesday 11 September at 4 o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Hertfordshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords]
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Wednesday 11 September at 4 o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The United Nations has announced that there are now 2 million Syrian refugees in the region. The United Kingdom is already the second largest donor, supporting more than 900,000 Syrians, and we will do more. The president of the Syrian National Coalition will visit London on Thursday, when we will discuss further support to save lives, promote political dialogue in Syria, and advance the holding of a second Geneva conference. We support a strong international response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, while of course fully respecting the views of the House.
I do not believe that the people of Britain want the people of Syria to feel that they have been abandoned in their hour of need. Will my right hon. Friend, who has shown such a lead, continue to work with partners in providing humanitarian aid to help to alleviate the dreadful suffering that we see in Syria, and will he consider including in that humanitarian response protection against any future use of chemical weapons?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The United Kingdom’s total funding for humanitarian purposes in Syria and the region is now £348 million. That is the largest total sum that the UK has ever committed to a single crisis. UK aid is funding food for more than 280,000 people a month, and drinking water for almost a million people.
My hon. Friend also mentioned protection. The package of chemical weapons protective equipment that I announced to the House just before the summer break has now arrived in the region. It includes 5,000 escape hoods, detector paper, and a stock of nerve agent pre-treatment tablets.
Given that enormous commitment to aid, will the Foreign Secretary applaud the efforts of others such as Michael Bates in the other place, who last weekend completed a 518-mile walk from London to Derry in aid of Syria’s children, raising more than £35,000 for the cause? Does not the record of aid and diplomacy achieved by the Government and the people in it suggest that the Government’s willingness to consider military action was expressed reluctantly, and alongside an enormous commitment—
To be brief, I join my hon. Friend in saluting the work of, and the example set by, our noble Friend Lord Bates, as we should refer to him in this House. It is another example of the generosity of the British people—generosity that is being fully called on, for the reasons that I have described. However, we shall have to be prepared to do even more in the months ahead, given the immense scale of the humanitarian crisis.
It is truly regrettable that the House last week failed to vote for a motion condemning the use of chemical weapons, and to back an international response to the crisis in Syria. That was an outcome that neither the Government nor the Opposition and their leader should have wanted to see. That same evening saw reports that the Assad regime had firebombed a school. It seems that our inaction will possibly only embolden Assad and his forces. Will my right hon. Friend assure me, and the House, that the Government will continue to utilise diplomatic channels to push for a solution to the crisis?
We absolutely will. I have referred to our humanitarian work, but we must also never stop our diplomatic efforts. We have promoted a second conference in Geneva, as have other nations. The Prime Minister discussed that with President Putin last week, and I discussed it with my counterpart Sergei Lavrov. When the Prime Minister attends the G20 summit in St Petersburg at the end of the week, he will have further opportunities for discussion. There is still an overwhelming case for the holding of a peace conference in Geneva, and we will continue to work towards that.
I mentioned a moment ago the conversations we have with Russian leaders. Whether they feel that as diplomatic pressure, we shall see. Russia has proved immune to what my hon. Friend and I would normally regard as diplomatic pressure when it has come to votes at the UN Security Council. The Russians are committed also to bringing about a Geneva peace conference, so we have to work on that common ground, but not only to bring about a peace conference, but to do it in circumstances where it has a chance of success, and that, of course, has been the most elusive thing so far.
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the chances of success of any peace conference will be greatly enhanced if Iran is involved, and given the election of Dr Hassan Rouhani as President, will he say what extra efforts he has been making to reach out to the Iranian Government?
The chances would be enhanced not necessarily by Iran being involved, but by Iran playing a constructive role in trying to bring about a settlement at such a peace conference. I think nearly all of us who participated in the first Geneva conference last year where Iran was not present came to the view that we could not even have reached the conclusion we did on the need for a transitional Government in Syria had Iran been there. So it depends on the role Iran is prepared to play. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with the outgoing Iranian Foreign Minister. I have offered to meet the new Iranian Foreign Minister during the UN General Assembly in New York, and we will, of course, be able to discuss these issues.
All wars have to end with a conference and a peace solution, and in response to the question just raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), will the Foreign Secretary show a greater sense of urgency? If there is to be a peace process, it has got to involve all the neighbouring countries; it has got to involve Saudi Arabia and Iran and Russia. Will he reach out now and meet the Iranian Government to try to get them involved and use the G20 as the springboard to achieve that?
I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no lack of urgency either on the part of Her Majesty’s Government or many other Governments around the world, and he will know that Secretary Kerry has applied himself very hard in recent months to trying to bring about the Geneva peace conference and, along with America’s partners around Europe, trying to work closely with Russia on this. As I was just saying, the test for Iran is whether it is really prepared to play a constructive role, because we must remember that Iran has, from all the evidence presented, been actively supporting the Syrian regime, including in the killing of so many innocent people in Syria. It has not played a constructive role so far, but we are prepared to talk to it.
What the Syrian people need is a ceasefire, not a barrage of cruise missiles. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the media have reported that Senator John McCain has said that President Obama has told him that this will not just be a punishment strike, but it will be a wider military action in order to tip the balance towards the opposition? Will the right hon. Gentleman dissociate himself entirely from such sentiments?
I do not believe that to be the intention of the United States. President Obama has made his purpose very clear, but in any case he has now referred this to the United States Congress so I think we have to allow, as the US Administration has called for, the US Congress to make its decision. We had our vote last week, and the US Congress will have its vote, but President Obama is very clear that any action proposed by the United States would be to deter the further use of chemical weapons. I think we can take him at his word on that, and I am not going to criticise him for putting that forward.
Let me return to the diplomatic initiatives the Foreign Secretary mentioned. Will he first offer the House an assurance that the British Government will be urging the attendance of Lakhdar Brahimi at the G20 meeting in order to facilitate a discussion that many of us would judge necessary on Syria? Secondly, will he consider the establishment of a Syrian contact group so that not just Iran but Russia and, indeed, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could, as principal sponsors of the respective sides of this conflict, be engaged in trying to find a way towards Geneva?
To be clear, we expect the discussion on Syria at the G20 to be in a series of bilateral meetings. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the formal agenda of the G20 is set by Russia working with the rest of the G20 and is about a wide range of trading and economic issues. But Syria will dominate the bilateral meetings during the G20, and we would expect it to do so. Of course, we want Mr Brahimi to be involved; we usually facilitate and support his involvement in all critical discussions that take place around the world on these matters, but the right hon. Gentleman must remember the point about the bilateral meetings in St Petersburg, and we continue to work with the core group of the Friends of Syria to promote dialogue in Syria, to try to bring about a peaceful settlement. Ultimately, as other hon. Members have said, there has to be a political solution, and so, of course, we will continue with that work.
I think that the House will be disappointed by an admission from the Foreign Secretary that Lakhdar Brahimi will apparently not be in attendance in St Petersburg and nor will this be on the formal agenda of the grouping of the 20 countries. May I urge the Foreign Secretary to consider requesting the Russian Government to place the issue of Syria at the top of the multilateral agenda? Secondly, does he not accept that there is a fundamental difference between Friends of Syria—those only supporting the rebels—and a contact group, which would contain parties to both sides of the conflict?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does understand, from experience, how these meetings are conducted; it is in the bilateral meetings that Syria will be a dominant issue in St Petersburg—and should be. The Prime Minister will, of course, be pursuing it at every possibility and through every channel in St Petersburg, as he has done and as I have done in a whole series of bilateral and multilateral meetings in the past few months. Our problem is not being unable to discuss these things in the international community; it is being unable to agree how we bring about a transitional Government in Syria, formed from the Government and the opposition by mutual consent. There is no shortage of venues and platforms for discussing those things—we have had two and a half years of discussion on this; it is agreement that is elusive, not a forum for discussion.
Does my right hon. Friend understand that the humanitarian problem extends not only to those who have sought refuge outside Syria, but to the very large number of internally displaced persons, on whose behalf the Red Crescent is working tirelessly to seek to alleviate their suffering? Is he satisfied that proper opportunity is available to all organisations, inside and outside Syria, that have humanitarian objectives in mind?
My right hon. and learned Friend asks a very important question. The answer is that I am not satisfied that all the access is there. British aid is, through non-governmental organisations and the international agencies, reaching into many parts of Syria; it is reaching people in all 14 governorates of Syria. So British aid is being widely distributed inside Syria, as well as outside it. But there have often been, and continue to be, severe problems on humanitarian access, which is often not permitted by the regime. It is another testimony to the callousness of this regime towards its own people that not only has it killed so many tens of thousands, but it obstructs the delivery of aid, including medical supplies, to people in its own country who desperately need it.
I think that the House knows the attitude that we have taken to the Assad regime from the beginning of these problems at the beginning of 2011. Successive Governments made diplomatic approaches to the Assad regime and were right to do so. That happened under the last Labour Government and under the current Government, but once these troubles began and it became clear that Assad was setting about dealing with them by trying to suppress and murder so many of his own people, our approach radically changed. That is true of the Ministry of Defence, as well as of all other Departments.
Since 26 July, the Spanish Government have conducted politically motivated checks at the border. The Prime Minister and I have made it clear to the Spanish Government that unlawful actions and threats against Gibraltar are unacceptable. We have repeatedly expressed our desire to find a diplomatic solution to various issues, while reaffirming our commitment to upholding the rights and sovereignty of the UK and of Gibraltar.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Spanish Government should stop seeking problems abroad to distract from their own internal party funding scandal? Will he urge them to come back to the table to have sensible talks about fishing rights? Will he reassure me, and everyone in Rossendale and Darwen, that he will never give an inch on British sovereignty in Gibraltar, unlike the Labour party when it was in government?
My hon. Friend will have spoken for a great many people in the country and in Gibraltar. We are in favour of talks with Spain. Chief Minister Picardo visited London last week and had discussions with me and the Prime Minister and, as the Chief Minister set out in his statement, we confirmed the position we took in April last year to propose ad hoc dialogue with Spain. My hon. Friend is right: Gibraltar is British and wants to stay British, and for us that is the end of the matter. We will never negotiate over sovereignty over the heads of the people of Gibraltar, as the previous Labour Government did.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make it absolutely clear to the Spanish Government that Gibraltar is British and will remain British as long as the people of Gibraltar wish to remain British, as demonstrated in an overwhelming vote in a referendum the invigilation of which I led? Will he make it clear to the Spanish Government that harassment at the border and intrusion into British sovereign waters will not be tolerated and that, if need be, there will be reprisals?
Since geographical proximity has become such a priority for the Spanish over national borders, will the Foreign Secretary instead suggest at the next meeting that they turn their attentions to Ceuta and perhaps hand it back to the Moroccans, who have been after it for many years?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. If talks take place with Spain in the way that the Chief Minister of Gibraltar and I have set out, we will concentrate on the localised issues but, of course, people cannot help making exactly the observation that my hon. Friend has just made.
It is of deep concern to Members on both sides of this House that the border crisis seems to be escalating, with recent reports that a Spanish demonstration would attempt to cross the border into Gibraltar. Will the Foreign Secretary reassure the House that he is working closely with the European Union to ensure that Spain is forced to respect its EU treaty obligations?
We are working closely with the European Union. The Prime Minister spoke directly to the President of the European Commission, Mr Barroso, about the issue. We have asked the Commission to send a fact-finding mission to the border to investigate the delays and we welcome Mr Barroso’s confirmation that such a mission will soon be deployed. It is very good that it will come and look at the facts and we look to it to help us uphold the law.
Middle East Peace Process
I applaud the extraordinary commitment of Secretary Kerry to bringing about the resumption of formal negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Hard work and difficult choices lie ahead, and both sides will need to show decisive leadership. Britain will do all it can to support efforts to bring about a lasting peace.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s response, but given the news this week from Israel’s Shin Bet security agency that it has uncovered a Hamas terror cell planning attacks on Israelis during the upcoming Jewish holiday season, what prospect is there for success in the peace process, particularly when Hamas states that it will never accept the negotiation track and result?
There are people—my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to them—who will try to disrupt and sabotage this immense effort to bring about permanent peace between Israelis and Palestinians. On the other hand, President Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, is a genuine partner for peace for Israel and I welcome the bold leadership he has shown. He will visit the UK shortly and we will have detailed discussions with him about the way forward for Palestinians and the need for them to embrace this process, notwithstanding the obstruction of Hamas.
Serbia and Kosovo
I very much welcome the considerable progress that Serbia and Kosovo have already made, including their historic agreement on 19 April this year. There is still more to do, but I am confident that if both sides remain committed, full normalisation will be achieved.
I am sure that the Minister for Europe will join me in congratulating both the United Nations and the EU High Representative on their efforts to bring a better relationship between Kosovo and Serbia, but what does he identify as the next crucial step in normalising the relationship between Pristina and Belgrade?
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about congratulating both the United Nations and the EU High Representative on their work to achieve progress. The next steps are the full implementation of what has been agreed under the dialogue and urgent efforts to take forward some of the key outstanding issues, such as telecommunications, energy and agreement on arrangements for municipal elections later this year. Of course, we have to ensure that conditionality on normalisation is hard-wired into the framework for Serbia’s accession negotiations.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Kosovo would not exist if we and other members of the international community had not intervened in the mayhem and disintegration of the former Republic of Yugoslavia? Is there not a choice for this country about whether we want to continue to be a country of influence or one of isolation and whether we want our children to continue to write history or simply to read it?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would simply add that the decision that the then Government took and Parliament supported in respect of Kosovo showed that the UK saw that its national interests were served by stability in south-east Europe and were not confined to the immediate vicinity of our territory.
We have consistently taken a policy towards EU enlargement that says that there should not be artificial timetables, but that each country’s progress should be determined by its success in meeting specific accession criteria. That is the right approach to take. What is important is that we make it clear that the normalisation of relations with Kosovo is integral to the entire Serbian accession process. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that the Commission is about to launch negotiations for a stabilisation and association agreement with Kosovo. That is a very clear signal of its European perspective, too.
Israel and Palestine
We are committed to encouraging peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. Strengthening those who are committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict is a key objective of our £4 million conflict pool, which is available in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and supports such projects with that aim.
I am very keen to do so. I visited a football project between Israelis, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs this year. There is a very good project where Palestinian doctors are trained in Israeli hospitals and return to Palestinian territories, and there is increased co-operation between them. At the moment, we are not getting enough applications from such projects. I am very keen to see more and to see the conflict pool used more to encourage co-existence.
Getting a grip on the smuggling is a really important part of the future of Gaza, because its economy cannot deliver more unless this issue is dealt with. Essentially, however, the future economic prospects of Gaza are also closely bound up with a greater relaxation by the Israelis of the restrictions currently placed on Gaza and, of course, an overall settlement in the area, which will boost the Gazan economy and that of the west bank in due course.
Organisations such as Givat Haviva and the Abraham Fund show the importance of co-existence. Does the Minister condemn those who campaign against co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis? Indeed, does he recognise that their actions might be one of the reasons for the dearth of applications to the projects that he has mentioned?
Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a very good point. The atmosphere has been so poisoned over the years that two peoples whose individuals have an awful lot in common and whose work together will mean so much when there is a resolution to the issue between the Israelis and the Palestinians have been prevented from doing so. Peer pressure and other pressure that works against such projects is a tragedy. Separation over the years has done a great deal of damage. We must all get behind Secretary Kerry’s efforts because if, as part of that, there can be improved personal prospects and economic prospects for an independent Palestine, it will benefit both the Palestinians and Israel.
As the Foreign Secretary was silent about the ethnic cleansing of the Bedouin Arabs and the illegal building of yet more settlements on the occupied west bank, will the Minister confirm that those actions do nothing to foster co-existence between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
We are never silent in relation to issues affecting the growth of settlements. We make statements about that and the Israelis are well aware of our situation. With respect to the internal situation affecting the Bedouin, I have been in contact over a period of time with Ministers responsible. It is a difficult internal issue in Israel and much attention is being paid to it on both the Bedouin side and the Israeli side.
At a time of such darkness in the middle east, will the Minister join me in commending the work carried out by the West-Eastern Divan orchestra led by Daniel Barenboim, which creates a space for dialogue through music, in the words of Mr Barenboim? Will the Minister continue to support such projects to foster co-existence at a very difficult time?
Yes. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is a ray of light that, despite all the difficulties, people’s interest in coming together and realising what they have in common can sometimes overcome the most difficult things. History is full of situations where those who have been the bitterest enemies have, over time, developed into friends. It will take time in relation to some in Israel and in what we hope will be a new Palestinian state, but the efforts of those who have made opportunities for co-existence in the years of difficulty will be seen as even more important in the years to come.
Jordan and Lebanon
Lebanon maintains a fragile political peace, under much pressure at present from increased violence. Jordan is continuing with political and economic reforms, but both states are under increased pressure because of the conflict in Syria and the impact upon their economies and their security issues.
In April I met Syrian refugees in Lebanon and heard at first hand about the atrocities they had fled. Lebanese officials told me about how they were struggling to maintain stability in the face of the sheer numbers of refugees coming in, yet with the numbers doubling in the past six months, the UN appeal is only 41% funded. Will the Minister give his assessment of the impact of this crisis on Lebanese stability?
The situation in Lebanon now, as the House will probably be aware, is that practically 25% of the population of Lebanon is now made up of Syrian refugees. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in his remarks earlier, this crisis is of massive proportions, and the news today that the number of refugees has reached 2 million and that by the end of the year we may see 10 million displaced within Syria and beyond emphasises how important it is. We have given support to Lebanon to strengthen borders and an extra £50 million out of the money already distributed for humanitarian aid, but there is no doubt that what is needed is not just that humanitarian aid, but an end to the conflict, because the security of those states neighbouring Syria is imperilled every day that the Syrian conflict goes on.
Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which the Minister and I have both visited, is now the largest refugee camp in the world, with 500,000 refugees in Jordan and more unregistered. Britain has a good record in terms of its humanitarian assistance in relation to the Syrian conflict, but what more can Britain do to ensure that other countries step up to the plate, as they need to do if the UN appeal is to be met?
Every time a colleague in the House says exactly what the hon. Gentleman has said, it helps to draw attention to the importance of the appeal. We have worked tirelessly and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has spearheaded the efforts both internationally, here in London and elsewhere to call attention to the fact that unless the UN appeal is met, this greatest refugee crisis of the 21st century and for many years before will leave a lasting scar, because it is not just at the end of the conflict that help will be needed. It will take years for people to go back. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the crisis, as we do almost every single day.
India (Non-payment of Invoices)
We have raised the issue with the Indian Government on a number of occasions, including at ministerial level, and continue to do so with relevant officials, most recently in July. As my hon. Friend will be aware, progress on the issue has been delayed pending the outcome of judicial proceedings.
The Minister will be aware that the report by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation exonerated the company of any criminal wrongdoing over a year ago. I think that he will also be aware that the court has met regularly to discuss the report but has been adjourned on every single occasion. Does he agree that the prolonged case leaves the company in a very difficult position, and will he continue to do everything he can to speed the matter up?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the length of time the case has taken. He is correct to point out that the police filed a report to the court in July 2012 but that the formal judicial process has not concluded. He will also be aware that the time scale for the proceedings is, of course, a matter for the Indian courts, but I can give both him and the company the assurance that we sympathise with the position it is in and will continue to raise the issue with the Indian Government.
China (Human Rights)
Foreign Office officials last raised our concerns about human rights issues with the Chinese Government on 23 July. We have also proposed dates for the next UK-China human rights dialogue and are waiting for the Chinese Government to respond.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Chinese Government’s response to Tibetan self-immolations is of grave concern. Will the Foreign Secretary raise concerns about Dolma Gyab’s treatment and take steps to ensure that his human rights are respected by the Chinese authorities?
Yes. According to state media reports, Dolma Gyab was sentenced to death on 15 August. We urge the Chinese authorities to commute the sentence and give a reprieve. We firmly believe that all trials should be free and fair and in line with international standards. We remain extremely concerned about reports of self-immolations and call on all parties to use their influence to bring them to an end.
I call attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: namely, a visit to Tibet at the cost of the Chinese, and a visit to the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala at the cost of the Tibet Society. Although it is right to be deeply concerned about human rights abuses in China and elsewhere, does the Secretary of State not agree that excessive concentration on them or excessively large noises about them, especially if linked to any talk of a free Tibet, risk exactly the opposite of the end we all want: religious and political freedom within a sovereign People’s Republic of China?
Of course, human rights issues are by no means the only issues we discuss with the Chinese Government and others; there is a vast range of issues to discuss. But I think that we should always be clear in the United Kingdom about our belief in universal human rights and never be afraid to give our advocacy for those rights. That includes relations with China.
Trading with Illegal Israeli Settlements
When asked by companies, we give a clear statement of our view on those settlements: they are illegal, an obstacle to peace and not helpful in creating the solution to the two-state process. In line with the publication tomorrow of the UK action plan on business and human rights, we are updating our guidance for those working in overseas markets in relation to this issue, and that will include Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
In the light of UK businesses continuing and expanding trade and investment in the illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine, will he confirm that it is actually wrong for them to do so? Does he not agree that a bit of advice is now insufficient and that he needs to take practical action to end these shameful activities?
No, I do not. I think that providing advice to companies that are in a position to make their own choice, just as consumers can make their own choice through labelling of goods, is the right action. We do not support a boycott of Israel or those companies that work there, but what is most important, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is that these issues will be resolved when the negotiations currently taking place between Israel and the Palestinians are resolved and then all can look forward to a much better economic future for the region, rather than dealing with issues of restrictions.
While progress on settlements is important, is my hon. Friend aware that the threat to Israel’s security remains a real concern, especially with the threat of chemical attacks from Syria? Has he made an assessment of those possible chemical attacks, and what will be the response of the British Government if the Assad regime drops chemical weapons on Israel?
The worry of the conflict in Syria spreading over its borders is a very real one. We have seen the impact of that in Syria recently. The bombings in Tripoli recently produced from the Lebanese authorities an investigation into and indictment of pro-Assad supporters for that atrocity. Those in Israel are therefore absolutely right to be constantly aware of the risks and the dangers to them. Again, this goes to show how important it is to seek a resolution of the conflict in Syria, on which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is spending so much time.
The Government have always been very clear about what is legal and illegal in international law in relation to Israel and the settlements. Now that the very welcome peace talks are under way, can Ministers assure us that they will continue to urge all parties—businesses, the voluntary sector and others—to do the things that will support the peace process and remind people that keeping talking round the table is now the paramount objective because it is the best chance, possibly the last chance, to get some progress in the near future?
My right hon. Friend has it absolutely right. A key part of the work that is going on at the moment is to make very clear to Palestinians and to Israel the economic benefits that will flow from success in the peace talks that are going on. That is very much work in progress. If the talks are successful, we will be talking about the opportunities for Palestine and for Israel rather than having the conversations we continually need to have about the difficulties caused by settlements and the like.
We take the threat of criminal and terrorist groups in west Africa seriously. Officials and Ministers have had a significant number of productive discussions with west African Governments, including the Foreign Secretary and me meeting the Nigerian President’s special envoy and my own visit to Ghana in July, where I met the President and the Ghanaian Foreign Minister.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising these very important issues. There are clear differences between the piracy off the east coast of Africa and the west coast of Africa. I have offered to the relevant west African Governments our experiences and those of the international community, and we are helpful where we can be. Only yesterday, I discussed with the Cameroonian Foreign Minister the implementation of the agreement that was set out in Yaoundé between the 13 Heads of State from west and central Africa exactly to address the problems of maritime insecurity off the west African coast.
The Minister will be well aware that terrorist groups are roaming throughout north and west Africa, from Sinai in the east to Mali in the west. Throughout the region, this state of affairs is exacerbated by struggling economies, and it is causing instability. Does he agree that what is needed, very urgently, is a regional initiative?
My hon. Friend is exactly right to highlight the regional nature of the particular challenges that are faced in west and northern Africa. The principal terrorist threat in west Africa is from the extremist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped French nationals in Cameroon in April. That is why we have put together a north and west Africa strategic framework to tackle the region-wide threats. It is also why the G8 focused on trying to provide a counter-terrorism strategy, which importantly included building security, the rule of law and capacity, and on tackling criminal trafficking as well as the terrorist threat.
I am very pleased that the Minister recognises that piracy off the coast of west Africa is part of a wider range of threats, including, as has been mentioned, the infiltration of terrorism from the north and organised crime from the drugs trade. Will he expand on concrete proposals he has made to west African countries, but also, particularly, to our wider allies, as to what action can be taken to counteract these multiple threats to the stability of countries in the region?
There are a number of key initiatives to support, through technical facilitation, the west African countries and to enable co-operation with our Navy, in its visits to the region, to train the necessary west African naval capacity to deal with these challenges. Ultimately, however, as we found in east Africa, the solution is on land, not on sea, so we are working with west African Governments to try to provide economic and developmental assistance to make sure that people have economic hope and the ability to provide for their families, rather than piracy off the west coast of Africa.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
We are very concerned about the current situation in eastern DRC, in particular the impact on the civilian population in the region. I spoke to Mary Robinson about this most recently on 27 August, following an earlier bilateral meeting, and I made clear the UK’s full support for the UN and MONUSCO as they work to protect civilians against the M23 rebels.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise her concerns about the fighting that took place in the eastern part of the DRC. We have been working with the international community, including the United Nations. I have spoken, and offered the United Kingdom’s full support, to Martin Kobler, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative who is in charge of MONUSCO, and to Mary Robinson. I have also spoken to the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to urge restraint, as I have to the Rwandan Foreign Minister. President Museveni of Uganda has called for talks in Kampala on 5 September, and I very much hope that that will be the beginning of the process so that everybody is focused on implementing the peace and security framework that was set out after the problems a few months ago.
The humanitarian emergency in that part of Africa is grave and long-standing. What would we say to China, as it acquires interests and, gradually, the ability to project military power there, if it invoked international humanitarian law to intervene militarily and there was opposition from other members of the Security Council?
I have seen no evidence that the Chinese propose to intervene militarily in the eastern DRC. The United Nations Security Council is unified in its determination to provide assistance to the DRC Government in providing security and stability in the eastern DRC. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is no long-term military solution. There need to be military, political and economic solutions to ensure sustainable economic development and growth for the benefit of the people who live in eastern DRC.
EU (Role of National Parliaments)
National Parliaments are the fundamental source of democratic legitimacy in the European Union. We are developing ideas to increase the powers of national Parliaments to hold EU decision makers to account, including more effective scrutiny and better checks on the proportionality and subsidiarity of EU legislation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He has raised the question of introducing a red card that would enable national Parliaments to resist future legislation. Would he consider also applying that to existing legislation to enable Governments to get rid of some of the more onerous legislation put out by the EU?
My hon. Friend puts her finger on a point that is a cause of frustration not just to us, but to the Governments of a number of European Union member states, namely that there are pieces of legislation on the European statute book that burden industry and that Governments wish to revisit. The retrospective red card that my hon. Friend advocates would, indeed, be a smart way to resolve this problem.
It is also important, of course, that EU Governments and member states comply with the decisions of the European Court. Will the Government now consider taking to the European Council the question of the British and other European citizens who have failed to get justice and equal pension rights from the Italian Government for more than 20 years, in spite of numerous decisions by the Italian courts?
The hon. Gentleman has been a consistent champion of the rights of the lettori in Italy, and I pay tribute to his work on that. We will certainly explore every possible avenue to ensure that the Italian Government deliver on their clear legal and moral responsibilities to ensure that those lecturers are paid the money to which they are entitled.
I will attend the meeting of European Foreign Ministers in Vilnius on Friday and Saturday, where the focus will be the middle east peace process and Syria. The drafting of the new constitution in Egypt begins this week. We will watch that process carefully and hope that it will be inclusive and uphold human rights.
In the light of recent human rights violations, will the Government review their decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November? As part of that review, will they set out their objectives and what targets the Sri Lankan Government need to meet?
We are very concerned, as the hon. Gentleman knows, about human rights in Sri Lanka, including media freedom. We raise those issues regularly with the Sri Lankan Government. The Prime Minister and I have decided to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka. We think that the Commonwealth and its future matter so much that we must do that, no matter what the location. However, we will do so in a way that draws attention to the issues. We and other countries will continue to press Sri Lanka on those issues over the coming weeks.
In view of the disappointing vote in the House the other night, will my right hon. Friend confirm that British ambassadors throughout the middle east will be especially strong in convincing our partners, allies and friends of our continuing staunch commitment to the middle east?
Yes, absolutely—I give my right hon. Friend that assurance. Notwithstanding the vote last week, the United Kingdom remains highly active in many ways, as we have already discussed in questions, including through our humanitarian assistance and our diplomatic work, in pushing forward the middle east peace process, in our determination to bring about a political settlement in Syria, and in helping the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. The United Kingdom must always play a strong role in international affairs, including by helping to bring stability to the middle east.
A few moments ago, the Foreign Secretary mentioned his support for the drafting of a new constitution in Egypt. What is the view of the British Government on recent reports that the interim Government in Egypt are considering a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood?
I merely referred to the fact that the constitution is being drafted, rather than expressing my support for it; we will have to see what is in it. Attempts in Egypt and elsewhere to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood will be a mistake in the long term. Quite apart from the obvious considerations about human rights and democracy, I do not think that they will bring long-term stability to Egypt. It is important that Egypt’s democracy is inclusive. Egyptian leaders, in a very polarised society, have to find a way towards that. We hope that the constitution will be drafted in an inclusive way that allows for a participatory democracy in which a wide range of views can be represented.
T3. The report about the balance of competences review came out in the summer. Does my right hon. Friend agree, like me, with the recommendation that we should seek to curtail the initiative of the Commission to propose over-regulative directives? (900067)
As my hon. Friend says, we certainly need to look for every opportunity to curtail over-burdensome regulation. Indeed, last year we led a successful initiative to exempt micro-businesses from future EU regulations as a default position. That shows that the Government not only make promises, but deliver results in Europe.
T2. Further to the Foreign Secretary’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), may I press the Government to be more explicit about what progress they are seeking ahead of the meeting in November, given the very worrying reports about human rights violations in Sri Lanka? (900066)
All parties in this House seek progress in Sri Lanka on a wide range of issues, including implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission; ensuring that there is media freedom and the operation of non-governmental organisations; and ensuring that not only is there reconstruction after the conflict, but that all political persuasions have a genuine ability to participate in democracy. We are looking for continued improvements in Sri Lanka across quite a broad front and we will be able to make those points at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November.
T4. This morning the Azerbaijan all-party group, which I chair, met Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the recently announced BP-led trans-Adriatic pipeline further augments our relations with that country, and say what further steps the FCO can take to cement our relations with that important player in the south Caucasus? (900068)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Yesterday I talked to our ambassador-designate to Azerbaijan, who will go out to Baku within a matter of days. We warmly welcome the work of the BP consortium on the pipeline, and it is a further development of what is already a substantial British economic relationship with Azerbaijan. The Government will do everything they can to foster that relationship, while at the same time having open conversations with our Azerbaijani counterparts about other issues that matter to us both, including security and human rights.
I will try to remember the sequence of that question. I speak regularly to my Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and I think I last spoke to him on Wednesday last week. That was before our deliberations in this House and therefore not since the vote, but I speak to him regularly and I spoke to him twice last week. The Prime Minister will meet President Putin later this week at the G20, so our intense contact with Russia over Syria continues. They know our positions well, and we will continue to try to work with Russia to bring about a conference in Geneva and work towards a political solution in Syria.
T6. Following Robert Mugabe’s re-election—or supposed re-election—as President of Zimbabwe, what discussion has my right hon. Friend, or other hon. Friends, had with the Southern African Development Community, and would he be willing to make a statement on potential sanctions? (900070)
I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have engaged closely with leaders of SADC countries, the African Union, the EU and the US in support of free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. In the light of the serious allegations of election irregularities, our message has been consistent: a peaceful election is not enough. I assure my hon. Friend that I will be visiting three SADC countries over the next week. On sanctions, I confirm that we will continue to work with EU partners to ensure an appropriate and robust EU response to the political and democratic situation in Zimbabwe. It is important that the EU shows leadership.
T9. What conversations have the Government had with the Lebanese and Saudi Governments following the detention of Saudi diplomats in southern Beirut last week, and what conversations have they had with our allies in case the conflict in Syria spills out into Lebanon? (900073)
I have not had any specific conversations about those arrests and kidnappings, but I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we maintain constant contact with the Lebanese and Saudi Governments about the risks of an overspill of Syria into those areas. As I indicated in a previous answer, there are clear signs that the Assad regime is seeking further to destabilise Lebanon directly. The continuing risks of that conflict overrunning its borders are genuine and very real.
That is an important dimension of events in Egypt, and we have condemned violence against churches, particularly the burning of 12 churches in August during the disturbances that followed the breaking up of sit-ins and demonstrations in Cairo. It is important that we urge everyone in Egypt—as I did earlier—towards inclusive political dialogue, but condemn all acts of violence, including those against Copts.
T10. The Secretary of State will be aware that several non-partisan commentators have expressed concerns that any military strikes on Syria could result in increased tensions between the various faith and cultural groups in the country. Does he accept their assertions in part or whole? (900074)
Those issues were the subject of our debate last week. The hon. Lady may have gathered that, in the light of that vote, we are not planning to put forward the same proposition to the House. She could reserve her comments for the unlikely event of such a further debate.
T8. Over the summer, we have seen a significant increase in homophobic attacks in Russia since the introduction of new anti-gay and anti-lesbian laws there. What representations has the Minister made to the Russian Government on that issue, and will he commit to raising it at the G20? (900072)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are very concerned not only about the attacks he mentions, but about the new legislation that the Russian Duma has placed on the statute book. Those concerns have been raised directly with the Russians by the Prime Minister, by the Foreign Secretary and by me. It is the Prime Minister’s intention to talk to President Putin about the matter in the context of other human rights conversations this week.
In seven days’ time, the people of Gibraltar will celebrate their national day. I hope they can do so in a spirit of peace and stability. I welcome the statements that the Secretary of State has made from the Dispatch Box today, but may I make it abundantly clear to the Spanish that, if they continue their hostility towards the British people of Gibraltar, he will tell the Spanish ambassador in London to pack his sombrero, straw donkey and sangria, and go?
The views on both sides of the House on the subject are clear. I am pleased to say that the support for the people of Gibraltar, for constitutional rights and sovereignty, and for our position on sovereignty, is also clear. There have been occasions in recent weeks when we have summoned the Spanish ambassador, but if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we will use slightly more diplomatic language than he is recommending to Her Majesty’s Government.
On Thursday evening, the Prime Minister gave an unqualified pledge to the House and the country that he had heard the message and that we will not be involved in military action in Syria, yet parts of the media are dominated by people who wanted the vote to go the other way saying we should have another vote. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm once and for all that we can rely on the pledge that the Prime Minister gave on Thursday evening?
I can confirm what we have all said, including the Prime Minister. The House has made its decision, and we respect that decision. As other Ministers have said, including the Defence Secretary yesterday, we are not planning to return to the same vote or the same debate again.
When, after that vote, the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister for an assurance that Britain would not take action without the Government returning to the House for another vote, why did not the Prime Minister simply give that assurance rather than rule action out completely?
The right hon. Gentleman may recall that the vote was on whether to have a further vote. The proposition that the Government put to the House was to have a second vote if military action was to be contemplated. That motion was defeated—Opposition Members voted against having a second vote. That was the decision of the House.
In welcoming the Prime Minister’s clear assertion that we will not be involved militarily in Syria, may I urge the Government to go the extra diplomatic mile? Precisely because we are not agreeing with Iran, and because it is a participant in that vicious civil war, I suggest we should lobby for its inclusion in any forthcoming peace conference, including at the G20.
If I may say so, few questions today have reflected a rather cheery view of Iranian diplomacy on those matters. Iran has been actively engaged in assisting widespread murder by the Assad regime and has not so far expressed its support for the outcome of the first conference in Geneva—the creation of a transitional Government—let alone contributed to a second conference in Geneva. The role Iran is prepared to play, rather than our attitude towards Iran, is crucial.
Gibraltar is British—end of story. It is certainly true that the Spanish Foreign Minister seems determined to get himself good headlines in the right-wing press, but may I urge the Foreign Secretary not to rise to the Spanish bait? Just keep calm and carry on.
I am glad to hear an endorsement that Gibraltar is unequivocally British—end of story. That was not there 10 years ago from the Labour party, but that is progress and we must welcome it. We respond to actions rather than rhetoric on the part of Spain. The hon. Gentleman has just witnessed me refuse to rise to the rhetoric—albeit agreeing with the direction of policy—of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). That will continue in the Government’s approach.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In an interview with Decca Aitkenhead in The Guardian on 30 August, the violinist Nigel Kennedy was asked if he voted in the last general election, to which he responded:
“Oh yeah. In fact, my wife wasn’t there, so I got another friend to go and vote for Jackson with my wife’s voting card.”
Asked if he was being serious, he stated:
“Yeah, yeah, man, and it was really worth it in that case.”
That admission undermines the democratic process and is a criminal offence. There have been many accusations of voting irregularities in many seats, including my own, but this is the first time that someone has publicly admitted to having been complicit in the act of personation. What action should occur in this scenario, where wrongdoing has been admitted?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I also thank the hon. Gentleman for informing my office that he was going to raise this issue today? I entirely endorse what you have said, Mr Speaker. As it is my understanding that the allegations are being examined by the police under the Representation of the People Act 2000, I have nothing further to say on this issue.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for young apprenticeships for 14 to 16 year olds; and for connected purposes.
The Bill is about expanding educational opportunity, plugging the skills gap and giving 14 to 16-year-olds a credible, work-oriented vocational option. The 50% target for young people going to university introduced by the previous Labour Government was inevitably something of an arbitrary distraction, and I am relieved that the coalition discarded it. As the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said, it led to Mickey Mouse courses at mediocre institutions.
University is only one piece of the educational jigsaw and it is not right for all youngsters. Some children are not inspired by academic study. Yes, they need basic numeracy and literacy, but we must ditch the snobbery that looks down on vocational alternatives to getting a degree. That lingering prejudice serves neither the economy nor youngsters looking to equip themselves for an increasingly competitive labour market. With the raising of the school-leaving age to 18, we risk compounding this mistake unless it is flexible enough to accommodate an early transition into work. Youngsters need wider options and the absence of choice is particularly stark for those from lower income households who have less financial support to fall back on.
The coalition Government have made huge strides in promoting the “tech bacc”, university technology colleges and apprenticeships, but we still lack a work-based alternative for 14 to 16-year-olds. However, that is precisely the age in state schools when truancy rates spike by 75%. It is at that age that the number of half-days missed by persistent truants doubles. It is the critical moment when increasing numbers of children become dislocated from school. We know why: research from the Department for Education in 2007 found that many youngsters became disaffected with school because they question its relevance, find it too conceptual rather than hands-on and find it demoralising persisting with academic learning if that is not where their talents lie. According to research by the Prince’s Trust, one in three youngsters leaving school with poor GCSEs believe that they will end up on benefits. That is a tragedy. Today, a report by the Centre for Social Justice highlights the acute underperformance of white 15-year-old boys from poorer backgrounds.
Why not offer those youngsters the option of a young apprenticeship between the ages of 14 and 16? As Sir Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, argues:
“If a child at 14 has mastered basic literacy and numeracy, I would be very happy for that child to leave school and go into a combination of apprenticeship and further education training and a practical, hands-on, craft-based training that takes them through into a job.”
“Does anybody seriously think these kids who are truanting at 13, 14 are going to stay in school in a purposeful, meaningful way through to 18? It just seems to me the triumph of ideological hope over reality.”
He is absolutely right.
Young apprenticeships were first introduced by Tony Blair’s Government back in 2004, to plug precisely the gap that I am talking about. They offered a two-year programme, combining English and maths with optional subjects such as engineering or construction, along with various others. Crucially, pupils spent two days each week in the workplace, gaining hands-on experience and gathering practical skills. That route rapidly became immensely popular, with the numbers rising from 1,000 pupils at the outset to 9,000 just three years later. Young apprenticeships went on to win praise from Ofsted, following reviews in 2007 and 2012. Ofsted noted the strong personal development of students, high attendance and positive feedback from employers.
In 2010, the Young People’s Learning Agency found that 78% of those in young apprenticeships achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with the national average of 64%. Above all, and perhaps most interestingly, participants with lower levels of prior attainment appeared to gain most relative to peers outside the programme. Of the cohort evaluated, virtually all went into further education, training, full apprenticeships or a job. Just 1% became unemployed. The success of young apprenticeships also mirrors international experience. They are popular in Australia. In Switzerland, youngsters can spend two days a week in school and the rest in company training. Germany also has a dual system from 15, balancing time in the classroom with hands-on, workplace experience.
Here in the UK, young apprenticeships used to enjoy strong bipartisan political support, but in truth the last Government lost interest, and the shadow Chancellor, then Education Secretary, wound them down. Nevertheless, there remains substantial cross-party support for reviving young apprenticeships, both on the Government Benches and among many in the Labour party—those who really get the challenge of boosting social mobility. I am grateful for that cross-party support and in particular to the right hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) and for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who are backing this Bill today.
As well as giving wider opportunity to youngsters, particularly those from tougher backgrounds, there is a strong economic case for young apprenticeships, which is equally compelling. The growing proportion of people not in active employment being supported by those in work is economically unsustainable. We need to be promoting a wider range of routes into the workplace, including youngsters with the right skills. For all the soul searching about the emergence of an hourglass economy in Britain, too few recognise the opportunity to nurture the vocational route into well-paid jobs, which are increasingly in demand, as well as its value as an entrepreneurial stepping stone to setting up what can be a profitable business.
Labour said it wound down young apprenticeships because of cost, and it is true: they cost about £3,000 a student more than if they had been in school. At their peak in 2007-08, young apprenticeships cost just under £34 million. That might be because the scheme was never allowed to develop the economies of scale achieved by apprenticeships for those over 16, but in any case that cost is dwarfed by that of the failure to provide suitable educational options for teenagers. Research carried out for the Audit Commission found that each teenager between the age of 16 and 18 not in education, employment or training costs £56,000 over their lifetime, mainly through welfare benefits and crime.
Government Members already recognise, through the pupil premium, the additional price tag on schooling youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds. I for one have no problem saying that we should invest a bit more in ambitious youngsters—the grafters rather than the geeks, if you like—who want to get into work sooner, rather than keeping their heads buried in books. The educational foundation Edge argues that limiting choice for 14 to 16-year-olds is
“inherently unfair, and in a rapidly changing economic climate, it is not sensible either. Young people need to be able to take academic and vocational courses in varying combinations linked to their aims and interests.”
The Bill would revive young apprenticeships. It would amend the Education and Skills Act 2008 to enable us to provide young apprenticeships as an alternative to staying in full-time schooling until the age of 18. We could easily cover the costs involved by scrapping the Government Equalities Office, which, frankly, just churns out pointless regulation and political correctness. Let us make it abundantly clear that Government Members stand for an aspirational society and not for social engineering. Reviving young apprenticeships would promote genuine opportunities for youngsters and strengthen the skills base of our economy, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Dominic Raab, Robert Halfon, Alan Johnson, Priti Patel, Mr Frank Field, Jackie Doyle-Price, Laura Sandys, Nadim Zahawi, Harriett Baldwin and Caroline Dinenage present the Bill.
Mr Dominic Raab accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 8 November, and to be printed (Bill 103).
Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As a coalition Government, we inherited a legacy of a lack of trust and confidence in our political system. [Interruption.] I am surprised that Labour Members would laugh at that thought, as they were responsible for 13 years of it. To tackle this, we have sought to be the most transparent Government in history. We are the first Government to publish details of meetings that Ministers and permanent secretaries have with external organisations, of our gifts and hospitality and of departmental business plans, as well as a wide range of raw data.
The Bill takes practical steps to take those principles forward. It implements our coalition commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, providing transparency in who lobbies whom, and for whom.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is unaware of two things: first, that a consultation took place on the issues relating to a statutory register of lobbyists in January 2012 and, secondly, that the Labour party did not respond to that consultation, so seriously did it take it.
The introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists will fulfil a commitment made in “The Coalition: our programme for government”. There are two key principles reflected in the Bill. The first is that transparency is central to accountability and that the public should be able to see how third parties seek to influence the political system. The second is that third parties should act in an open and accountable way. The Bill will give the public more confidence about the way third parties interact with the political system, including about how much money they spend on political campaigning, especially if they seek to influence elections directly.
As a proud former lobbyist, both in-house and in consultancy—indeed, I learned my trade in the same firm in which Mr Speaker himself had worked—I fully appreciate the value that the industry brings to inform and educate Members of Parliament, often on very technical issues. Having worked for many charities and voluntary organisations, too, I recognise their concerns about this Bill, so will my right hon. Friend explain how or why the Bill will not, as many fear it will, gag them, but will allow them to continue their excellent work of informing MPs as a healthy part of the democratic process?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It must have been a fine training ground indeed that she shares with you, Mr Speaker. I will, of course, come on to explain in detail how aspects of the non-party campaigning provisions will work, but let me give this assurance. We are very clear that we are in no sense seeking substantively to change the boundary between campaigning on policies and issues, which charities and other third parties do to a substantial extent, and being required to register spending for electoral purposes—[Interruption.] We are not proposing to change the boundary, so charities, think-tanks, non-governmental organisations and campaign organisations should not be alarmed that this Bill will impact in any sense on their ability to campaign on policy issues.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House, and I am quite delighted to have the opportunity to burst his bubble of confidence, because his Bill has created almost a fire-storm in my constituency. My constituents are appalled at what they regard as a gagging Bill. They wish to see a list of lobbyists that is transparent to ensure that Government cannot be bought—even though that is a debatable issue. They know that the Bill as it stands would prevent democratic voices from being heard.
I look forward to the hon. Lady having an opportunity after today’s debate to go back to her constituents to tell them that the things they are alarmed about will not happen. I am very clear and the Bill is very clear. [Interruption.] I will come on to deal with this in more detail later, but let me explain to hon. Members that election law already has a clear provision that determines that if third parties wish to engage in expenditure, the intention or effect of which is to procure electoral success, they are required, beyond a certain point, to register with the Electoral Commission in respect of that expenditure—and there are limits on it: that expenditure is controlled.
At the last election, I think that only a couple of charities registered for this purpose and the levels of expenditure were relatively modest. Other third parties—a larger number of them—that were not charities engaged in such third-party expenditure, but charities by and large did not. That does not mean that they cannot campaign during an election period, because they campaign on policies and issues and they interact with political parties on those issues, and they will continue to be completely free to do so. All the Bill does—it is the right thing to do—is, first, to make sure that the limit is more appropriate for the future so that it does not allow those third parties to engage in distorting activity during elections; and, secondly, to extend the definition of controlled expenditure so that it includes advertising, rallies and such like, as well as electoral material, and to disaggregate the total into parliamentary constituencies so that third parties cannot disproportionately concentrate their spending in individual constituencies. I think that all of that is perfectly rational.
Is not my right hon. Friend missing the elephant in the room, which is the fact that only two organisations spent over the £377,000 cap? The first, by quite a long way, was Unison. The reason why there is agitation on the Opposition Benches is that they do not like having political expenditure limits on political parties on account of their own parent organisations, the trade unions?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is accurate because at the last election, relatively few organisations—only two, I think—spent a sum of money that was above the proposed limit. It is conceivable that a whole range of organisations might try to spend large amounts of money to influence directly votes for candidates and political parties rather than campaigning on policies and issues. It is important—election law already provides for this—that elections are fought essentially between political parties, and the expenditure undertaken to support candidates of political parties should be authorised by them. That is why many people donate to political parties to support the campaign at a constituency level.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. Many people would want him to reassure third parties and charities, but he seems to me to be complacent about the issue. The Electoral Commission briefing for today’s debate states that,
“the Bill creates significant regulatory uncertainty for large and small organisations that campaign on, or even discuss, public policy issues in the year before the…general election, and imposes significant new burdens on such organisations”.
Surely, the right hon. Gentleman’s complacent attitude is completely at odds with what the Electoral Commission—his own regulator—has written to all of us.
I had conversations yesterday with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which helpfully supplied us with a copy of its legal advice, which of course illustrates that, technically, the uncertainties that are being talked about could in large part be construed to relate to existing legislation rather than the Bill that we are bringing forward. In truth, it is the responsibility of the Charity Commission, where charities are concerned, and the Electoral Commission for all third parties, to work together to ensure the soundness of the definitions in the Bill. Frankly, they are substantively the same definitions for electoral purposes—[Interruption.] The definitions on controlled expenditure and on the appropriate limits are changed, but the definition that relates to spending being for electoral purposes if it is intended or has the effect of procuring or promoting support for candidates of political parties is not changed. The Electoral Commission knows that part of its job is to make sure that that boundary is policed, and the guidance on that is very clear.
I want to make some progress before giving way again.
As I say, we need to give confidence to the public about the way in which third parties interact with the political system, including about how much money they spend on political campaigning, especially if they seek to influence elections directly. The Bill will also give the confidence that trade unions know who their members are. These are sensible and reasonable steps: we are not setting out to create a burdensome bureaucracy or to deter legitimate campaigning or representation.
Let me deal with part 1 first.
I will give way in a few moments.
Part 1 relates to the creation of a statutory register of consultant lobbyists. Let me be clear, first, that lobbying is a necessary—indeed an inevitable and often welcome—part of policy making and the parliamentary process. We should not seek to prevent lobbying, but to make it transparent who is lobbying whom and for what.
On that very point, let me assure the Leader of the House that many Opposition Members, particularly myself, believe that lobbying is at the very heart of our democracy. We should have it, but it should be regulated and should be transparent. What worries us is, first, that many charities believe that the Bill will have deleterious effect, but secondly, we are worried about all the people that are left out—the big law firms, for example. Many of those firms are 50% lobbyists and 50% lawyers, yet they will not be tackled by the Bill. Big accountancy firms that are full of lobbyists are the same, as are the in-house lobbyists of these major companies. Why are they being left out of this register?
I think we agree about the intention, although I would add that Parliament is at the heart of our democracy and lobbying is an essential aspect of the way in which Parliament does its job. It is clear that Members on both sides of the House have been lobbied extensively in relation to the Bill, and rightly so.
We are not leaving out a large number of people who engage in consultant lobbying. If people have a substantial business involving such lobbying, they should register, and that will be made clear.
I think every Member would agree with the Leader of the House that we want lobbying to be transparent. As he knows, however, many people all over the country are fighting a project known as HS2, and they firmly believe that the Bill contains provisions that will inhibit their effectiveness in ensuring that their voice is heard by the Government and by Ministers. Will the Leader of the House undertake to give specific consideration to the effect on anti-HS2 campaigns that is apparent from provisions that are already in the Bill, and to ensure, when examining the Bill further, that the voice of those people will never be inhibited by legislation?
Let me give my right hon. Friend this assurance. I believe that absolutely nothing in this legislation would prevent those who campaign on issues relating to the High Speed 2 rail route from making their case as forcefully as they wish. However, if at the time of an election they went further and spent money on trying to procure or prevent the election of particular candidates, and if that expenditure exceeded a certain limit, they would quite properly be required, by existing legislation as well as by this Bill, to register and be accountable for it.
I shall carry on for a bit, but I will give way again after that. I intend to be generous and open about this.
We agree that lobbying is necessary, but, as was rightly pointed out by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), transparency is key. We want to know who is lobbying, and for whom. However, there is a gap in the current transparency regime. When Ministers meet consultant lobbyists, it is not always clear on whose behalf they are lobbying. We want to rectify that, and the specific aim of the register is to put the information in the public domain.
I am grateful to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for its work in examining part 1 of the Bill last year, and for its subsequent scrutiny of the draft version of the entire Bill.
Let me apologise to the hon. Gentleman before I give way to him. I think the Committee was irritated by the long delay that took place before the Government responded to the report that it published in June last year. I reiterate our apology for that, although, as the Committee knows, our response had to wait for our policy conclusions, and that took some time. Let me add, however, that in most instances the Committee, and many who have proffered alternative plans, are seeking to do something different from what the Bill sets out to do. They are seeking to regulate lobbying activity, while we are seeking to create a transparency regime so that we can see who is lobbying, but are not attempting to control the industry.
I thank the Leader of the House for apologising on the Floor of the House for the way in which the Government have treated the all-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I accept his apology, and hope he will be able to help us create a Bill that is viable for all parties.
The Leader of the House mentioned that my Committee had examined part 1 of the Bill. We did not examine part 1; we examined only the consultation document relating to what has become part 1, the reason being that parts 2 and 3 did not appear until one day before the recess.
I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but Members—especially those who have had the privilege of being in Government—will be aware that Bills often contain more than one specific measure. What is important, and what this Bill accurately reflects, is the Government’s recognition not only of the necessity—as we saw it—for a statutory register of lobbyists that would enable us to see how third parties seek to influence the political system through consultant lobbying, but of the existence of further issues relating to third-party influence in the political system, and the need for assurances in regard to trade unions and the way in which third parties campaign during elections.
I will give way in a moment, but let me first pursue the point about those who are trying to regulate all lobbying activity. Having thought very carefully about whether there was a considered or credible basis for taking that much wider action, we concluded that there was not, and that is therefore not our objective in the Bill. I readily accept that some people would like the Bill to be very different. Indeed, the reasoned amendment indicates that the Opposition have suddenly decided that they want to include all professional lobbyists and everything that they do in a register, although they presented no such proposal to the Government last year.
I know that the hon. Gentleman presented a private Member’s Bill. The point is, however, that we are not aiming for the creation of the bureaucratic monster that would result from action of that kind. We are aiming for transparency rather than the control of lobbying, the result of which would be the registration of thousands of lobbyists and a requirement for a draconian system of reporting and enforcement.
The Leader of the House must be well aware that the Bill will catch grass-roots campaigners in the crossfire. Charitable and Christian groups feel that it will disadvantage them, and have pointed out that big parties can spend millions of pounds when they are picking on a little guy in politics. How would the Leader of the House respond to that?
Let me repeat, and add to, what I have already said about charities. Charities know, and have told us, that the Charity Commission guidance is clear about the fact that they should not undertake party political activity. To that extent, there are very limited circumstances in which charities might consider it essential, from their point of view, to register their spending as spending for an electoral purpose. I am at a loss to understand how they think the Bill could have an adverse impact on their ability to campaign on policies and issues for their charitable purposes.
The statutory register of lobbyists will require anyone who is lobbying Ministers or permanent secretaries on behalf of a third party and in return for payment to declare his or her contact details and clients on the register.
Schedule 1 makes an exception for Members of Parliament who lobby on behalf of people living in their constituencies, but does not refer to Members of the European Parliament, Members of devolved Administrations, city councillors and the like. Do the Government intend to require councillors who write to Ministers on behalf of their electorates to register themselves as consultant lobbyists?
I share a concern that has been expressed by others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker), who is not in the Chamber at present. Paragraph 1 of schedule 1 effectively repeats a fundamentally important tenet of the House which is enshrined in the 1688 Bill of Rights, namely that anything said in this House shall not be questioned in any court of the land. Paragraph 2, however, qualifies that by stating:
“A Member of Parliament who makes communications…on behalf of…persons resident in his or her constituency does not, by reason of those communications, carry on the business of consultant lobbying. “
I, for example, have an interest in defence. What will happen if I raise the question of a company that is not in my constituency? Will I then be in the business of lobbying? And what about colleagues who raise questions about wind turbines? What protection is provided by the Bill of Rights?
My hon. Friend is right: schedule 1 refers specifically to the principles of exclusive cognisance and parliamentary privilege, and does not seek to impinge on them in any way. However, we consider that the normal activities of Members of Parliament could never be considered to be lobbying, and we have included exclusions in the Bill which we believe make it clear that MPs are not included. I am perfectly willing to reassure colleagues that I will continue the conversations I have had with the House authorities, and that I will continue to maintain discussions with colleagues. If there is any doubt about whether Members of Parliament might, in any form in respect of their activities in the House, be included or compromised in relation to this, we will put a specific provision into the Bill to make sure that does not happen. We will be very clear about that.
May I remind the Leader of the House that the reason the Government decided a few months ago to bring forward the lobbying Bill was that they had dropped their proposals for plain packaging of cigarettes following the employment of a paid lobbyist of the tobacco industry as the head of the Conservative party election campaign? Given that that is the origin of this Bill, can the Leader of the House explain why no provisions in this Bill would shed any light or give any transparency on the involvement of Lynton Crosby in these matters?
Since I am here presenting the Bill to the House and I was the Secretary of State who initiated the consultation on plain packaging, I am probably in quite a good position to tell the right hon. Gentleman that what he just said was complete tosh.
Sit down. I am not giving way at the moment.
To ensure the independence of the system, the register will be administered and enforced by an independent registrar of consultant lobbyists who will provide guidance on compliance and publish an online register on a quarterly basis. The registrar will have the power to issue information notices to investigate where he or she believes that consultant lobbying is taking place without registration. Where this is found, the registrar will also have the power to impose civil penalties. Criminal sanctions will be available for those guilty of deliberate non-compliance.
The register will be funded by the lobbying industry via a subscription charge, but to reduce the burden on the smallest businesses, organisations that are not VAT-registered will not be required to pay the charge. There will therefore be no impact on the public purse as a result of these measures.
May I return briefly to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and give an example? Richard III is dead; he is clearly nobody’s constituent, yet the hon. Members for York Central (Hugh Bayley), for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) want his bones in their constituency. In campaigning for that, do they need to register under the provisions of the Bill, and if not, what is the purpose of the reference to Members of Parliament’s constituents in schedule 1? Why not simply rely on the protections to Members of Parliament in the Bill of Rights and the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009?
We could not simply rely on the parliamentary privilege provisions because they would not extend to all the activities of Members of Parliament beyond those in this Chamber and our activities directly in relation to the House. That is why in the Bill there is, we believe, both a specific exemption in schedule 1—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) were less insistent, he might listen more.
Right as ever, Mr Speaker.
To respond to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), we believe there is both the exemption that Members of Parliament are not caught because they are not engaged in the business of lobbying and also the specific exemption in relation to representing constituents, but I will repeat what I have just said: if there is any doubt about this matter, we will come back to the House and put it beyond doubt. So I do not think colleagues should continue the debate about whether Members of Parliament are caught or not, as we will look at that.
(Brighton Pavilion) (Green): The very fact that the Leader of the House is having to say he will come back to the House to address our concerns shows that this Bill is incredibly badly drafted, but the point I want to make is that recent freedom of information requests reveal that Treasury officials met fracking industry representatives 19 times in the last 10 months about their generous tax breaks, yet the public are denied any further details of that lobbying on the grounds that it could prejudice commercial interests. Is the Leader of the House not ashamed that this Bill will drastically curtail the ability of charities to campaign in the public interest on issues such as fuel poverty and energy but do nothing to curb such secretive corporate influencing?
Of course the Bill does not constrain the ability of charities to campaign. Let us look back at 2010. Only two charities registered for expenditure for electoral purposes and they spent very little. The campaigning by third parties at the last election was not in any substantial way undertaken by charities. It was undertaken by other third parties—trade unions, companies, campaign groups and so forth. The idea that charities are in any way constrained is completely wrong.
The Standards Committee met this morning and has agreed a report on the implications of this Bill for Members of Parliament, and we are making strong recommendations that paragraph 2 of schedule 1 should be removed and that there should be a sub-paragraph in paragraph 6 stating that any payments we get from IPSA cannot be interpreted as money for lobbying. I hope the Leader of the House will take this into account and make sure the requisite amendments are made before the Bill leaves this House at the end of next week.
My colleagues will, of course, take what the Standards Committee has said very much into account, and I think that illustrates, contrary to what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, why the Bill has not been badly drafted. This is not the first time this has happened. It happens with every piece of legislation in my experience. Sometimes we have to have belt, braces and a piece of string to make sure everybody is absolutely convinced that we are doing what we intend to do.
I am deeply grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. He says this is all about transparency, but if I have got it right every single member of the public affairs team in-house at BSkyB will be able to visit as many Ministers as they want and every single lawyer employed by BSkyB to advance its case will be able to do so without any need to register. The only person who would have to register would be an independent consultant in a company that solely lobbies. How does that possibly afford greater transparency?
It promotes transparency because if a representative of Sky visits a Minister in order to discuss that business, it is transparent that they are doing so in order to represent the interests of Sky. However, if somebody from “XYZ Corporation”, a consultant lobbying firm, visits a Minister in order to discuss somebody else’s business but it is not transparent through the ministerial diary publication who they are representing, that is not transparent. We propose to remedy that by making it transparent.
Following on from my right hon. Friend’s exchange with the Green party member, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), this morning I received a plea from a constituent to stop bullying charities. I asked which ones she was concerned about and she said, “The Green party.” I said it is already covered. She also mentioned 38 Degrees, to which I replied, “That is not a charity”—even though it has wiped from its Wiki-entry the Labour activism of many of its founders.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The public might well think that many of the organisations that registered for electoral purposes were charities, but in fact they registered because they were seeking to undertake expenditure which would not have been regarded as charitable and would not have been lawful from the point of view of the Charity Commission’s guidance. It is overwhelmingly the case that charitable activity by charities does not constitute expenditure for electoral purposes and therefore is not in any sense constrained by this legislation. There are, however, other organisations that people might think are charities but which are not charities, or charities that set up campaigning arms that expressly do not have charitable status in order for them to undertake that activity. The law is already clear that where they seek directly to influence electoral outcomes, they should register. The Labour party’s reasoned amendment accepts that that is right and there should be such regulation.
I am not giving way now. This is an important debate to which I know that colleagues want to contribute, and I want to commence by giving them the chance to hear precisely what the Bill does.
We have heard repeated calls from the Opposition and others saying that the register should be expanded to include so-called “in-house” lobbyists, but what is not clear is what problem such an expansion would solve. As I said to the hon. Member for Rhondda, when a lobbyist from Shell or the WWF, to give typical examples, comes to meet Ministers it is quite clear whose interest they are representing, and these meetings are already publicly disclosed—the public can see that they happen. That is unlike what happens with any such meetings with shadow Ministers, as the Opposition have not committed to publish their shadow ministerial diaries.
In a debate some 10 weeks ago, I asked the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), who is on the Opposition Front Bench, to consider whether Opposition Front Benchers might like to agree now to publish their diaries as part of this process of openness, but I am afraid that they have not agreed to do so. While I am referring to the Opposition, I must say that I am bemused by their suggestions that we should create an unworkable bureaucracy with spiralling administrative costs without a policy rationale. There is some confused thinking there, and they are attempting to jump on a bandwagon without having considered the implications of their policies—policies that were so important to them that the Labour party did not even respond to the public consultation on our proposals last year.
I am therefore proud that the coalition has introduced a Bill to put in place this register, which is a practical step in an area that the Labour party simply put in the “too difficult” box when in government; it failed to do anything in its 13 years in office. Our proposal addresses a specific problem. It is designed to capture professional consultant lobbyists, and that will include multidisciplinary firms that run consultant lobbying operations—a point important to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, who is no longer in his place. There are exclusions, however, for those operating in a representative capacity, such as the vast majority of trade associations and charities.
I believe that the great majority of those in our Parliament and our political system behave well. But, human nature being what it is, the minority tempted to do otherwise need to know that they cannot engage in sustained, concealed efforts to peddle influence. Their activity will be brought into the open and they must expect to be held to account for their behaviour. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Let me turn now to the second part of the Bill.
My right hon. Friend said that the previous Government had put this issue in the “too difficult to do” box. A lot of those who, like me, were working in the charitable sector before we came into Parliament understand the distinction between being non-party political as a charity and being able to engage robustly in policy debate. However, if this is in the “too difficult” box—or certainly in the “difficult to do” box—and the Electoral Commission has issued a briefing indicating that it is creating regulatory uncertainty, would the Leader of the House agree that the programme for the Bill’s consideration is far too short? Would he agree that the programme motion needs to be rewritten and that this House needs to be given a great deal more time to consider these difficult things—as he says they are too difficult to do in many senses—and to clarify these issues to reassure the charitable and community sector?
I am not sure that I agree with the premise of what my hon. Friend says, which was that this is that difficult. Clearly, as I said before, my conversations with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations show that there are existing uncertainties for third parties as to what constitutes expenditure for electoral purposes. The legislation does not clear up those difficulties because it substantively repeats the existing test, so it is important for the Electoral Commission to provide guidance to support it. However, we intend to allocate substantial time for the Bill to be considered.