With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the disaster in the Philippines and the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka.
Ten days ago a category 5 super-typhoon brought massive destruction across the Philippines, where the city of Tacloban was devastated by a tidal wave almost 2.5 metres high. The scale of what happened is still becoming clear, with many of the country’s 7,000 islands not yet reached or assessed, but already we know that more than 12 million people have been affected, with over 4,400 dead and more than 1,500 missing, including a number of Britons. This disaster follows other deadly storms there and an earthquake that killed 200 people in Bohol last month. I am sure the thoughts of the whole House will be with all those affected, their friends and families.
Britain has been at the forefront of the international relief effort. The British public have once again shown incredible generosity and compassion, donating £35 million so far, and the Government have contributed more than £50 million to the humanitarian response. In the last week HMS Daring and her onboard helicopter, an RAF C-17 and eight different relief flights have brought essential supplies from the UK and helped get aid to those who need it most. An RAF C-130—a Hercules—will arrive tomorrow and HMS Illustrious will also be there by the end of this week, equipped with seven helicopters, and water desalination and command and control capabilities.
Beyond the immediate task of life-saving aid, the people of the Philippines will face a long task of rebuilding and reducing their vulnerability to these kinds of events. Britain will continue to support them every step of the way.
Let me turn to the Commonwealth, and then to the issues in Sri Lanka itself. The Commonwealth is a unique organisation representing 53 countries, a third of the world’s population and a fifth of the global economy. It is united by history, by relationships and by the values of the new Commonwealth charter which we agreed two years ago in Perth. Britain is a leading member. Her Majesty the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales did our country proud acting on her behalf and attending last week.
As with all the international organisations to which we belong, the Commonwealth allows us to champion the values and economic growth that are so vital to our national interest. At this summit we reached important conclusions on poverty, human rights and trade.
On poverty, this was the last Commonwealth meeting before the millennium development goals expire. We wanted our Commonwealth partners to unite behind the ambitious programme set by the UN high-level panel which I co-chaired with the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia. For the first time this programme prioritises not just aid, but the vital place of anti-corruption efforts, open institutions, access to justice, the rule of law and good governance in tackling poverty.
On human rights, the Commonwealth reiterated its support for the core values set out in the Commonwealth charter. Commonwealth leaders condemned in the strongest terms the use of sexual violence in conflict—an issue that has been championed globally by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. We also called for an end to early and forced marriage, and for greater freedom of religion and belief. We committed to taking urgent and decisive action against the illegal wildlife trade ahead of the conference in London next year. And Britain successfully resisted an attempt to usher Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth without first addressing the deep concerns that remain about human rights and political freedoms.
The Foreign Secretary and I also used the meeting to build the case for more open trade and for developing our links with the fastest-growing parts of the world. The Commonwealth backed a deal at next month’s World Trade Organisation meeting in Bali that could cut bureaucracy at borders and generate $100 billion for the global economy. Before and after the summit in Sri Lanka, I continued to bang the drum for British trade and investment. I went to New Delhi and Calcutta in India before heading to Sri Lanka—the third time I have visited India as Prime Minister. And I went from the summit to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where Airbus agreed new orders from Emirates and Etihad airlines that will add £5.4 billion to the British economy. These orders will sustain and secure 6,500 British jobs, including at the plants in north Wales and Bristol, and open up new opportunities for the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby.
The last Government agreed, late in 2009, to hold the 2013 Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka. That was not my decision, but I was determined to use the presence of the Commonwealth and my own visit to shine a global spotlight on the situation there, and that is exactly what I did. I became the first foreign leader to visit the north of the country since independence in 1948 and, by taking the media with me, I gave the local population the chance to be heard by an international audience.
I met the new provincial Chief Minister from the Tamil National Alliance, who was elected in a vote that happened only because of the spotlight of the Commonwealth meeting. I took our journalists to meet the incredibly brave Tamil journalists at the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna, many of whom have seen their colleagues killed and who have themselves been beaten and intimidated. I met and heard from displaced people desperately wanting to return to their homes and their livelihoods. And as part of our support for reconciliation efforts across the country, I announced an additional £2.1 million to support de-mining work in parts of the north, including the locations of some of the most chilling scenes from Channel 4’s “No Fire Zone” documentary.
When I met President Rajapaksa, I pressed for credible, transparent and independent investigations into alleged war crimes, and I made it clear to him that if those investigations were not begun properly by March, I would use our position on the United Nations Human Rights Council to work with the UN human rights commissioner and call for an international inquiry. No one wants to return to the days of the Tamil Tigers and the disgusting and brutal things that they did. We should also show proper respect for the fact that Sri Lanka suffered almost three decades of bloody civil conflict and that recovery and reconciliation take time. But I made it clear to President Rajapaksa that he now has a real opportunity, through magnanimity and reform, to build a successful, inclusive and prosperous future for his country, working in partnership with the newly elected Chief Minister of the Northern Province. I very much hope that he seizes that opportunity.
Sri Lanka has suffered an appalling civil war—and then of course suffered all over again from the 2004 tsunami; but it is an extraordinary and beautiful country with enormous potential. Achieving that potential is all about reconciliation. It is about bringing justice, closure and healing to the country, which now has the chance, if it takes it, of a much brighter future. That will happen only by dealing with these issues and not ignoring them.
I had a choice at this summit: to stay away and allow President Rajapaksa to set the agenda he wanted, or to go and shape the agenda by advancing our interests with our Commonwealth partners and shining a spotlight on the international concerns about Sri Lanka. I chose to go and stand up for our values and to do all I could to advance them. I believe that that was the right decision for Sri Lanka, for the Commonwealth and for Britain. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Let me start by saying that all our thoughts are with the people of the Philippines as they struggle to deal with the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. Thirteen million people have been affected by the typhoon, over 4 million of them children; nearly 3 million have lost their homes and, as the Prime Minister said, thousands are believed to have lost their lives, including a number of British citizens. The pictures we have seen are of terrible devastation. As so often happens when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the British people have reacted by reaching deep into their pockets: so far, £35 million has been donated by the British public through the Disasters Emergency Committee. I also want to thank our forces on HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious for the work they are doing to help with disaster relief, and to commend the leadership of the Prime Minister and the International Development Secretary in providing £50 million in aid. We need to see the same from other countries, as the UN appeal has only a quarter of the funds it needs. Therefore, may I ask the Prime Minister what actions the Government are taking to encourage other countries to commit and free up resources as quickly as possible to the Philippines, so that this UN aid target is met? Serious damage sustained to airports, seaports and roads continues to present major logistical challenges for the emergency response, so may I ask the Prime Minister what steps are being taken to ensure that humanitarian relief is reaching those in very remote and isolated areas who have been worst affected by the typhoon?
On the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting —CHOGM—we welcome the communiqué’s conclusions on global threats and challenges, on programmes promoting Commonwealth collaboration and, of course, on development. At its best, the Commonwealth summit gathers together 53 countries seeking to promote common values, including democracy, accountability, the rule of law and human rights. I believe that this House is united in our abhorrence of terrorism and in recognising that what happened in Sri Lanka, particularly towards the end of the conflict in 2009, when tens of thousands of innocent civilians were murdered, totally fails the test of those values.
It was for that reason that, at the 2009 Commonwealth summit, the last Labour Government blocked the plan for Sri Lanka to host the summit in 2011. As the current Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs:
“The UK made clear…during the 2009 CHOGM...that we would be unable to support Sri Lanka’s bid to host in 2011.”
Those are the words of the Foreign Secretary. Delaying the hosting of the summit until 2013 was to allow time for the Sri Lankan Government to show progress on human rights. This has not been the case; indeed, things have got worse, not better. I say to the Prime Minister that when he attended the summit in 2011, he could have acted precisely as the Labour Government of 2009 had done and brought together a coalition to block Sri Lanka’s hosting the Commonwealth summit in 2013.
Let me ask the Prime Minister a series of questions. First, the Deputy Prime Minister said in May to this House that
“if the Sri Lankan Government continue to ignore their international commitments in the lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, of course there will be consequences.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 634.]
Can the Prime Minister tell us: what were those consequences for the Sri Lankan Government? Secondly, at the summit on Friday, the Prime Minister called for the Sri Lankan Government, as he said, to initiate an independent inquiry by March into allegations of war crimes. But by Sunday, President Rajapaksa had already appeared to reject this. The UN human rights commissioner called two years ago for an internationally led inquiry, and we have supported that call. Is not the right thing to do now to build international support for that internationally led process?
Thirdly, after this summit the Sri Lankan President will be chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years—that includes attending the Commonwealth games. Did the Prime Minister have any discussions at the summit with other countries about whether President Rajapaksa was an appropriate person to play that role? Finally, the Prime Minister of Canada and the Prime Minister of India decided not to attend this summit. In explaining his decision, Prime Minister Harper said:
“In the past two years we have...seen...a considerable worsening of the situation.”
Accepting the good intentions of the Prime Minister, were not Prime Ministers Harper and Singh right to believe that the attendance of Heads of Government at CHOGM would not achieve any improvement or prospects for improvement in human rights within Sri Lanka? Indeed, the summit communiqué failed even to reference the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka.
The legacy of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka is in contradiction to the good traditions of the Commonwealth. We believe we cannot let the matter rest. Britain must do what it can to ensure that the truth emerges about the crimes that were committed, so that there can be justice for those who have suffered so much. When the Government act to make that happen, we will support them.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the response on the Philippines. I agree with him: other countries need to do more, and we will continue to work with them, through both the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, to make sure everyone lives up to their responsibilities. He asked specifically how we will ensure that relief gets through. That is why HMS Illustrious, with seven helicopters, joining the American carrier there can make a difference—because of the lift capacity.
I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his response on Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth, but it is worth recalling that, had we listened to his advice, we would not be having this statement now in the House and discussing this issue. Given that Labour agreed to this conference taking place in Sri Lanka, criticising my attendance breaks new records for opportunism and double-speak. Let me respond very directly. In 2009, some time after the end of war, the last Government agreed that the conference should take place in 2013 in Sri Lanka. If he knows anything about foreign affairs—I doubt it, because he barely gets out of Islington—he would know that this is a consensus organisation: once something has been agreed, it is very difficult to unblock it. So it was in 2009 that the pass was sold. I have to say to him that, more than that, this shows very poor judgment. This is a multilateral organisation of which we are a leading member and our Queen is the head. How do we advance free trade if we are not there? How do we stand up for issues such as tax, transparency, tackling poverty, and preventing sexual violence in conflict? How do we do all that from 4,000 miles away?
On Sri Lanka, the right hon. Gentleman specifically asked whether we pressed for our agenda. Yes, we did, very directly, on the importance of land reform, on the importance of human rights, on the importance of an independent inquiry. Of course, some other leaders decided to stay away, and everyone must take their own decision, but frankly, no country on earth has a more direct relationship with the Commonwealth than this one, and that is why it was right to go. If he is concerned about the rights of Tamils, as I am, and reconciliation, the right thing to do is to go and shine a spotlight on their plight. You cannot do that sitting at home. I remember when his brother said that we needed Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers who could stop the traffic in Beijing. He will not even get out of Primrose Hill. This whole area of judgment by the right hon. Gentleman is a sign of weakness. He was given a choice: an easy political path or a tough, right path, and he cops out every time—too weak to stand up to Len McCluskey, too weak to stand up for Britain abroad.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s observations about the Philippines and congratulate him and the Government on ensuring such a remarkable response on behalf of the United Kingdom?
I am not one of those who believes that the Prime Minister should not have attended. Unlike other Prime Ministers, he had a constitutional obligation to be present to provide support and, if necessary, advice for the Prince of Wales who was representing Her Majesty the Queen. Is not the rightness of the Prime Minister’s decision demonstrated eloquently by the quality and volume of the coverage he was able to achieve? Of course, the test will be the extent to which there is a proper follow-through. In that respect, will my right hon. Friend assure us that everything will be done to try to achieve unanimity of purpose at the United Nations for an inquiry of the kind he has outlined?
I am very grateful for what my right hon. and learned Friend says about the importance of attending. This point about media organisations is important, because they have been unable to travel freely in the north of the country. By taking respected organisations such as the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 directly to the areas affected in Jaffna, they were able literally to shine a spotlight on the things that have happened. He is entirely right to say that what matters now is follow-through, but what is important is that this is now an established part of Britain’s foreign policy—to raise at every international forum, in every way we can, the importance of a strong, united, prosperous and reconciled future for Sri Lanka, and that is exactly what we will do.
The report from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on the FCO’s human rights work stated:
“We recommend that the Prime Minister should obtain assurances from the Sri Lankan Government that people who approach him to talk about human rights while he is in Sri Lanka to attend the CHOGM do not face reprisals or harassment by security forces.”
Was he able to obtain those assurances from the Sri Lankan Government, or not?
I made very clear to all the authorities I spoke to how important it was to be able to visit the north of the country, to meet refugees and displaced people and to raise their cases. That was exactly what I was able to do with the President. The world will now be watching what happens to those people, and I was given assurances that people were being re-housed and given new livelihoods. We will watch very carefully to see what happens to the people I met.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on going to Jaffna and raising those difficult questions with President Rajapaksa. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that as Sri Lanka will be in the chair of the Commonwealth running up to the Mauritius CHOGM, it is incredibly important that it focus relentlessly on the agenda he encapsulated of good governance, the rule of law, free trade and wealth creation?
That is absolutely the agenda we should be addressing and pushing for. I would make the point that the role of the Commonwealth chair can be overstated, as it is the Secretary-General who sets the agenda for the Commonwealth. Again, however, the Commonwealth is a consensus organisation. Once the previous Government had signed up to CHOGM’s being in Sri Lanka, the natural consequence was that Sri Lanka would be the de facto chair for two years. That flows from a Labour Government’s decision, not our decision.
May I press the Prime Minister on the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)? She asked him whether undertakings were given that there would be no harassment of those he met and had dealings with in the north. Re-housing is one thing, and it is important, but I would be very grateful if he expanded on that.
The point I was trying to make was that although undertakings that those people should not be harmed were vital, their cases should also be taken up by the Sri Lankan Government. The response of the Sri Lankan Government to such issues is not to say that such people do not exist or that there is nothing that can be done. They are saying, “Please give us time. We are dealing with this.” It is right for the international community to press them on these issues. Yes, there were many more internally displaced people four years ago, but there are still too many today and they need to be properly looked after.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real issue at stake is the approximately 40,000 women, children and men—innocent people—who were slaughtered at the end of the conflict, and that the robust approach he showed on the visit to Sri Lanka and CHOGM should be carried through, as their memories deserve justice as well as the work that he has done? I have had many e-mails over the past few days thanking the Prime Minister for his robust approach, while also asking him to ensure that we take things forward in March if President Rajapaksa does not take his stance.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I challenge almost anyone in the House to watch even part of the Channel 4 documentary about the events at the end of the war—when there were appalling levels of casualties among civilians in the north of the country who were, it seems, targeted—and not to believe that there should be a proper independent inquiry. Of course, dreadful things happened throughout the war and it is for the Sri Lankan Government to decide how they should be investigated. It is clear, however, that those particular events at the end of the war need an independent inquiry so that the issue can be properly settled.
Will the Prime Minister explain how exactly he proposes to follow up his demand for an inquiry? What monitoring and reporting will there be, and what action will the Commonwealth take if and when Sri Lanka does not follow up on the assurances he was apparently given? Many people are dead, and many people are very angry about the abuses of human rights by the Sri Lankan Government.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he says. The key thing is that the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has made the point that there should be an independent inquiry and has set the deadline for when it should at least begin. If it is not begun, there needs to be, as she has said, an international independent inquiry. We are saying that we support that view and will put behind it Britain’s international diplomatic standing in all the organisations of which we are a member, including, of course, the United Nations.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the fierce reaction in the Government-influenced press in Sri Lanka throughout his visit ensured that human rights in that country was the stand-out issue? Would he agree that in future CHOGMs, a stronger presence on the part of Commonwealth parliamentarians would help the whole matter of the promotion of human rights?
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that links between Commonwealth parliamentarians are very helpful for raising these issues. His first point is absolutely spot-on: because of visiting the north and raising these issues, human rights, and questions about land reform, reconciliation, and investigations, were top of mind for the press, the media, and everyone in Sri Lanka in a way that they simply would not have been.
The Prime Minister says that the Government will press the issue in March next year at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In the light of that council’s woeful record—at one point, it actually praised the Government of Sri Lanka for their internal policies—how confident can he be, given the authoritarian states and friends of Rajapaksa who are on the council, that we will get anywhere on this in the UN?
I think this is going to be very hard pounding for a very long period of time, but what the Sri Lankan Government need to understand, and I think understand more today than perhaps they did a week ago, is that the issue is not going to go away, and if they do not hold an independent inquiry, the pressure for an international inquiry will grow and grow. Using the UN human rights machinery is the right way to do that.
The UN Special Court for Sierra Leone has been sitting in The Hague for some time now. It demonstrates that there is plenty of precedent showing that if the United Nations Security Council has the will, it is perfectly possible to devise mechanisms for independent judicial inquiries into crimes against humanity by UN member states.
My hon. Friend brings considerable expertise and experience to this area. I would argue that the Commonwealth, like the United Nations, is of course an imperfect organisation, but even with the Commonwealth, it is possible to point to examples where it has stood up for human rights and for democracy —perhaps particularly recently in the case of Fiji. We have to use these organisations to get the results that are right, in terms of human rights and these sorts of issues.
I thank the Prime Minister for what the Government are doing on the Philippines disaster, and pay tribute to the many communities up and down the land who are contributing massively to the public appeal, not least in my constituency, where there is a community sit-out on the Shankill road to raise funds; I pay tribute to those involved.
On the Commonwealth summit, may I press the Prime Minister on the issue of combating poverty? Will he tell us in more detail what has been done to combat corruption and promote good governance?
First of all, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in praising all those who are raising money for the Philippines Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. I think it is incredibly striking, in all our communities, how many people come straight out on to the streets and are rattling those tins and raising that money; at the weekend in my constituency, I saw rotary clubs doing precisely that.
On the issue of tackling poverty and the link between corruption and poverty, in the report from the high-level panel, which I co-chaired, if we look at the 12 targets that we thought should be set, a lot of those concern things like access to justice, freedom from corruption, absence of press censorship, proper democracy and the rule of law, because those issues are vital in helping countries to move sustainably from poverty to wealth. That, I think, is the great thing about this high-level panel report: yes, it is about aid, and yes, it is about economic growth, but it recognises the golden thread of vital issues to do with democracy and institutions as well.
Regarding the Philippines, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Government and the British public for their very generous response? In addition, may I say that the Secretary of State for International Development has done the most amazingly sterling work? We owe her and her team enormous thanks for everything that she has done.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Department for International Development and the Secretary of State have done a superb job—in marshalling resources in response to the crisis, in working with the Ministry of Defence to get HMS Daring and then HMS Illustrious alongside, in generating income and money to go directly to the appeal, and in making sure that we work with our partners to do that. There are now two teams out there to assist with the Foreign Office effort, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just told me that some of our experts on victim identification will be part of an Interpol team that will be there soon as well.
The Prime Minister’s call for an inquiry into the terrible events in Sri Lanka would carry a great deal more weight if he had not obstructed the report on the Iraq war. The Chilcot inquiry demanded papers to reach a conclusion on why, 10 years ago, the House made a decision to join Bush’s war in Iraq, with the loss of 179 British lives.
I am responsible for many things, but holding up the Iraq inquiry is not one of them. Conservative Members and, indeed, my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches called for an inquiry, we voted for an inquiry and we worked for an inquiry year after year before one was finally set up. I very much hope that its conclusions will shortly be available for all to see.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Commonwealth is in many ways uniquely placed to take advantage of the global world in which we all live? Will he say a little more about the opportunities for commercial development between Commonwealth countries, particularly this country and the Commonwealth?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Commonwealth brings quite different and disparate countries together—some of the largest on earth, such as India, but also some of the smallest and most fragile island states in the world. It is a forum in which we can discuss issues, share values and perspectives, but also, yes, talk about business and trade, which is why there is a business angle to the events in which we took part. We should use all those forums to push for our agenda of free trade and trade facilitation, and there is an important meeting coming up in Bali very soon.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s third visit to India, and his first to Calcutta. In Jaffna, he saw the devastation and grief inflicted on the Tamil people by President Rajapaksa. Is he aware that we continue to deport Tamil people from this country to Sri Lanka, where they are tortured? Will he speak to the Home Secretary about updating the advice given on the Home Office website so that we can protect those people, who are genuinely seeking asylum in our country?
The asylum system should work on the basis of the best and latest information about whether someone genuinely faces a risk of torture and persecution if they return. Of course, I shone a light on some of the human rights abuses that are taking place, but it is also right to point out that in Sri Lanka today warfare, civil war, terrorism and violence of that kind are not taking place, so we should be clear and welcome that.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about my third visit to India and my first to Calcutta. This is part of building the special relationship that I believe should exist between Britain and India, and which spans diplomacy, politics, trade and other international relations.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on the high impact that he and the British Government have had in relation to the Philippines. That includes not just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development but the extension resourced through the armed forces, which is most welcome.
In relation to CHOGM, the Sri Lankan President proposes a truth and reconciliation process, but that is not adequate to meet the concerns and anxieties about alleged war crimes. We therefore need to follow the process proposed by the Prime Minister, however good the truth and reconciliation processes have been in South Africa and Mali.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I accept that the Sri Lankan Government have set up some processes, including the ones to which he referred, but too many of them have been military-led inquiries—basically, private inquiries into events at the end of the war—rather than a proper, independent inquiry, which is what needs to be held.
I have to confess that I thought it unwise to go to Sri Lanka, but having heard the Prime Minister’s statement and what he now plans to do I am changing my mind—not a bad thing, possibly. As someone who has raised the Tamil question many times in the past 20 years or so, may I urge him and the Foreign Secretary to give due priority to the issue to ensure that at an early stage we will have a just peace and reconciliation on this worried island?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind and very generous remarks, and for the way in which he put them. I completely agree. Having made this visit, having taking this important stand and having given the issue the attention it deserves, we must now make sure that we follow through, but we should do so on a basis of huge optimism about the potential future of the country. If proper efforts at reconciliation are made, there is no reason why that country, which is now essentially at peace and is not suffering warfare and terrorism, cannot be an immense success story in the future.
As somebody who was very uncomfortable about the meeting happening in Sri Lanka in the first place and very troubled by our participation endorsing President Rajapaksa, may I, too, commend the Prime Minister for being extremely robust and effective on the war crimes issue, and encourage him down that road? Was he able to ask any questions about disappeared people and about assassinations, and is there a chance that the Commonwealth, under its next Secretary-General, will stand up for human rights better than it has been doing?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his very kind remarks and for what he said about my attendance at the summit. I did raise the issue of the disappeared, and at the refugee centre in the displaced persons village I met some people who told me about relatives who had disappeared. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), held a meeting with families of the disappeared, so the issue was raised at every level in our engagement with the Sri Lankan authorities. We must continue to raise these issues in the months and years ahead. There is much to commend in the Commonwealth, but it is an imperfect organisation. At its best it does stand up for values that we all share and believe in, and the more it does so the better an organisation it will be.
In answer to a question, the Prime Minister suggested that he had made a tough and brave decision to go to CHOGM. May I tell him through you, Mr Speaker, that the tough and brave decision was that of those family members of the disappeared who were willing to approach him? They are now at serious risk for their lives, the lives of their families and the future of relatives they have not seen for years. What are the Government going to do, and principally what is the British high commission in Colombo going to do, to ensure the safety of those families?
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. The bravery that was shown was by the displaced people who were prepared to meet me and to speak out about their concerns. Bravery was shown by all those who have lost relatives and who do not know where they are. Also, it was incredible to meet journalists who have stood up for freedom of the press and risked assassination, torture and persecution. In the offices of the Uthayan newspaper are pictures around the walls of journalists who died reporting facts and truth in Sri Lanka. We should do everything we can, including through the high commission, to make sure that nobody who spoke out or met me suffers in any way at all. It is now very public who I met and where I went, and our engagement with the Sri Lankan Government could not be clearer about the importance not only of their safety, but of making sure that they are properly housed and have access to a livelihood as part of reconciliation.
At this time of national crisis for the Philippines, will the Prime Minister join me in calling on the splinter groups of the MNLF and MILF in the southern Philippines to lay down their arms in order that the Philippines army can help the needy throughout the whole of the country, rather than take up arms against rebel groups?
In the wake of the disaster in the Philippines, our leading aid agencies have said that the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events should act as a wake-up call for the international community to do a lot more on climate change. Does the Prime Minister agree, and what does he intend to do?
I do agree that climate change presents huge dangers for our planet. There is a strong case for saying that there are connections between unusual weather events and the climate change that is taking place. That is why it is important to keep the issue high up the international agenda. At the Commonwealth conference I was able to raise the fact of the international climate fund, to which Britain has made a significant contribution, and how it should be helping these countries. The Commonwealth is a good place to make the point because many members are very vulnerable small island states for whom climate change is literally an existential challenge.
Manufacturers in the black country will be reassured to hear that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary used the Commonwealth meeting to promote our trading links with the fastest-growing parts of the world. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the prospects for more open trade with India following his very successful meeting with Mr Tata?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We continue to push with India the case for a free trade agreement. With India being effectively in an election year, I am not sure that we will make huge progress now, but we continue to make the arguments and demonstrate the figures for how beneficial it would be for both our countries, and for the EU, to have this agreement go ahead.
What progress can the Prime Minister point to in relation to human rights in the Commonwealth? Is he, for example, aware of the excellent report of the Kaleidoscope Trust, chaired by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), on the state of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s rights in the Commonwealth? An incredible 41 countries still criminalise same sex activity by adults. Is not that a disgrace?
We have a very clear view that there should be proper rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and we do raise these issues, including at the Commonwealth meeting, as the Minister of State and the Foreign Secretary did. The report that the hon. Lady mentions is an excellent report. It is still depressing that so many countries persecute gay people, but there has in some countries been some progress in terms of greater rights and, as we have done in this country, celebrating gay marriage.
Despite the fact that 53 countries signed up to the communiqué to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values, does my right hon. Friend not think that the Commonwealth has a long way to go to uphold those core values, particularly if some countries thought that Zimbabwe could creep back in?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. At its best, the Commonwealth comes together and signs up to important declarations, such as the Perth declaration on human rights, but sadly, at its worst, those values are not always stood up for in every case. We can point to the good places, such as Fiji, excluded from the Commonwealth, given a path back to the Commonwealth if the right things happen, but we can all point to examples where these values have not been properly upheld. But it is an organisation that we should be proud to belong to and want to make it deliver to its best.
Given what happened at the end of the war in Sri Lanka and what has happened since, why does the Prime Minister think that the Sri Lankan Government can be trusted to set up a proper independent inquiry? Why is it not right for us to press now for what he said he might press for in March, which is an international inquiry in which the world can have trust?
Just to be clear, I have not said we might support it; I have said we will support it. What is required is an independent inquiry, and if there is not a proper independent inquiry, we will—will, not might—push for an independent international inquiry in March. That is the right approach. The Sri Lankan Government need to be put to the test. The war is over. The terrorism is finished. They have this incredible opportunity. It is no good the shadow Foreign Secretary just sitting there. He was the first one who said there was no point going; there was nothing to talk about; nothing Britain could do. It is the sort of stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach to diplomacy that does absolutely no good for this country or for human rights.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the excellent work of the Royal Navy in the Philippines crisis well illustrates its unique capability not only to project power but to provide assistance around the world, and will not that capability be massively increased when we have two fleet carriers providing that sort of potential for the future?
My hon. Friend is entirely right that our Royal Navy does have these multiple purposes. One of the strengths of HMS Illustrious is that it has the ability to desalinate water, and it also carries seven helicopters, and the two new carriers will be even more capable of such a role in the future.
The Prime Minister looks a little like someone sticking their head in the sand when it comes to the environment. All the world’s scientists are looking at what is happening to our planet’s climate, but I read all the news reports of the conference and saw nothing on the environment, and there was nothing on the environment in his statement today. Global warming is going to destroy our planet. Why did he not take a lead on that at the conference?
It is obviously quite difficult to take a lead at a conference if one does not attend, which of course is what Members on the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench were suggesting. In my contribution I talked about the importance of integrating our goals on climate change into our general approach to tackling poverty. I made the point that, with so many small island states in the Commonwealth that are so vulnerable, this is an existential issue for them and we should support them, including through the international climate fund, which is exactly what we are doing.
For some time now many Government Members have been privately pressing the Sri Lankan Government to undertake an independent inquiry in order to allay the fears of our constituents, including my constituent, Mr Jana Mahalingam, who regularly corresponds with me on the issue. Does the Prime Minister agree that although peace has come through the ending of violence, the battle is now for reconciliation, which could be achieved through an independent inquiry?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. An independent inquiry is essential, but we should be clear that reconciliation is so much more than that. There were issues put to me about restoring land to people who have been moved from their homes, about the army needing to play a reduced role in the north of the country, and about real change being needed with regard to respecting the elected chief Minister in the north of the country. That is both frustrating and yet quite exciting: the country is, at one level, at peace, because there is no more war or terrorism, so the Government there can afford to be generous and magnanimous, and that is exactly what they should do.
Further to the question from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), does the Prime Minister accept that over the past few years the British Government have forcibly returned Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, only for them to be bundled into white vans at Colombo airport and subjected to horrific torture? Is he proud of his asylum policies?
Our asylum polices should be based on the latest information and on proper judgments about whether people are likely to be tortured or persecuted on their return. That is not a decision that is made by Prime Ministers, or even by Ministers, but it is right that those decisions are properly taken account of in each case, and that is the way it should happen.
Many people will be really pleased to see something in the communiqué about the illegal trade in wildlife. The Prime Minister and his fellow Commonwealth leaders have grasped that that is about not only the tragic loss of iconic species, but the funding of organisations such as al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army. What can he and his Commonwealth colleagues do now to try to influence the demand for those items of trade, which is fuelling the high prices that poachers can get in African countries, for example?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There needs to be a process of education to try to reduce demand for those products, because that, of course, is what drives the trade in the first place. I am excited that next year we will be having that very important conference in the United Kingdom, bringing all the experts together, when we can really give as big a boost as possible.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, which I warmly welcome. I think that he was absolutely right to go to Sri Lanka and demonstrate this country’s commitment to the Commonwealth. Does he agree that one concrete way of demonstrating our continued commitment to the Commonwealth would be to establish dedicated channels of entry at UK airports for Commonwealth citizens, on the grounds that if it is good enough for the European Union it is good enough for the Commonwealth?
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I think that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary might have a few things to say about new, simpler routes for people to come to this country. What we have tried to do is improve our visa system. For instance, in India we have introduced a one-day visa system. Of course, we should look at all countries on the basis of how we can have an improved visa system and encourage people who genuinely want to come here to visit, but we should also ensure that there are not abuses, and I am afraid that we have to apply those rules to Commonwealth countries as well.
The war may be over, as the Prime Minister says, but there are still many Sri Lankans here in this country, particularly Tamils, who are seeking asylum and are being given first decisions that are so dubious that they have been overturned at appeal. Will the Prime Minister, with the new information that he has personally gained, look again at the way we treat people who are seeking asylum from Sri Lanka in this country?
As I have said, our work should be based on the latest evidence. It is not the case that every single Tamil who comes here or to another country would be persecuted on their return. We would be making a great mistake if we took a blanket view like that; it should be done on the evidence.
Like other colleagues, I thank my right hon. Friend for the tremendous effort that the Secretary of State for DFID and her Department are undertaking in relation to the truly shocking humanitarian disaster in the Philippines. This is of course Britain showing, as always, where we morally belong and should be. I know that it is very early days, but can the Prime Minister update us on whether any longer-term help has been requested or, indeed, offered for when the initial crisis is over?
We are working on the issue of longer-term assistance. The real need now is to help with the disaster in its recovery phase. That is why the heavy-lift equipment, the planes, the helicopters and the work of the RAF are so vital. That is what needs to be done now, and then we need longer-term planning about the needs of the Philippines and how we can help.
I am frequently lobbied by the high commissioner for Sri Lanka who is here in the UK, and obviously he wants to put the best gloss on everything that is happening in his country, but one of the most important things is going to see some of these things for yourself rather than simply reading about them.
Some hon. Members may recall David Miliband, the chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, saying when Foreign Secretary that the Sri Lankan Government have engaged in a war without witness. Can the Prime Minister assure me that following his visit Sri Lankans can all benefit from a peace with witnesses?
That decision rests with the Sri Lankan Government. I do not think it is fair to say that they have done nothing in response to the need for action or, indeed, international pressure. As I said, the fact that an election has taken place in the Northern Province and a new Chief Minister has been elected who is part of the Tamil National Alliance is a very positive step forward. We will not get anywhere if we do not point to the positive things that are happening as well as being very tough and firm about where further action is needed.
Yesterday in church I heard the moving testimony of some Filipino members of our congregation about the effects of the disaster on their families and relatives. Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), does the Prime Minister agree that we should be working very closely with the large Filipino community in the United Kingdom on how we can continue to help in the future development and rescue of the country?
My hon. Friend has lots of expertise in the area of aid and development, and I am sure that he will want to work on this issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who has recently met the Philippine ambassador here in the UK. We want to bring all these brains to bear to make sure we get the right development and reconstruction effort together.
While recognising the good intentions of the Prime Minister in going to the north of Sri Lanka, that action has failed to drag any concessions out of President Rajapaksa or to convince his Commonwealth colleagues to sign a communiqué criticising human rights in Sri Lanka. What confidence does the Prime Minister have that in five months’ time or so action can be taken on its chairmanship of the Commonwealth and on setting up a United Nations investigation?
As I said, the decision will rest with the Sri Lankan President, but I do not think that anyone can be in any doubt that they are under more pressure today than they were a week ago, or a month ago, because of the international attention that has been shone on these issues—they know that the world will be watching. One only has to watch President Rajapaksa’s press conference, which was dominated by questions about human rights and inquiries into what happened at the end of the war, to see that there is pressure today that there was not a week ago.
Does the Prime Minister know that he was described recently in the Australian press as a
“defender of democratic ideals and confident international statesman”?
Is it not the case that he was right to go to Sri Lanka because of the constitutional obligation of supporting the head of the Commonwealth and her representative the Prince of Wales, and because the concomitant publicity, both in the UK and around the world, has highlighted the issue front and centre?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It was right to take that stand and attend, and to stand up for the Commonwealth. Above all, it was an important meeting of a multilateral organisation in which we play an important part. I have been called quite a lot of things in recent days, but let me put it this way: those views are not always necessarily shared widely in the Cameron household.
The Prime Minister has made much of the spotlight his visit has shone on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. What do we make of the fact that not only was there no communiqué, but that in the final statement there was no mention of those human rights abuses, let alone an inquiry into them?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, one of the strengths of the Commonwealth, but also the source of some of its trouble, is that it is an organisation based on consensus. If someone disagrees with a potential conclusion it is effectively struck out. It was not, therefore, possible to have everything in the communiqué that we wanted. Is there, however, pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to act, to reconcile and to sort these problems out? As I said, there is more pressure today than there has been for a while.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development on the work in the Philippines. I encourage the Government to make a clearer commitment over five years to ensure that the assistance in the Philippines does not cease when the headlines cease.
My hon. Friend makes the important point that we must be helpful in the long term. I do not think it is possible now to predict exactly what the needs and priorities will be—we are still in the recovery phase—but proper work should be done to see what we can do to help. With our 0.7% of gross national income aid commitment, Britain is in the forefront of doing the right thing internationally. I am sure we can bring some of that to bear in the Philippines.
The British people, seeing the television pictures from Sri Lanka of the Prime Minister smashing Muralitharan for six, will think that the Prime Minister is auditioning for a role in the England Ashes team. Afterwards, Muralitharan said that the situation in the north was improving. Would the Prime Minister like to comment on that?
First, I did not hit Muralitharan for six. Secondly, I think he was being quite gentle with me. I certainly could not read which way the ball was going to go and I was fairly lucky to hit it at all. He made a good point that a huge amount of progress has been made in terms of peace, stability and economic prosperity. His organisation is bringing together Tamils, Sinhalese and others to help forge the country together. He is doing amazing work and we should back that work. He also thought I was right to attend and to raise these issues. What he wants, as a proud Sri Lankan, is to ensure that a fair picture is painted of his country, and he is right to say that.
The Prime Minister clearly succeeded in raising concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka. At the Commonwealth summit, did he or his officials get the chance to raise, with the Government of Bangladesh, our Government’s wish for them to address concerns about the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh, the upholding of fair trial standards and the use of the death penalty for those convicted?
The typhoon in the Philippines is just the latest natural disaster to afflict the globe. In the light of such dreadful events, is the Prime Minister interested in hearing more about my idea for the Government to build a mobile army surgical hospital capability that Britain could deploy swiftly into the field. The deployment of naval forces, although very welcome, can take days, but a MASH unit can be deployed within 24 hours of his decision.
I would be interested to hear about that idea. As my hon. Friend knows, we have emergency capabilities that can be sent out of the country very rapidly, but there is always room to see whether we can improve such an issue, either at a British level or by doing things with partners.
Amnesty International has welcomed the Prime Minister’s call for
“genuine freedom of expression and…an end to the intimidation of journalists”.
Does my right hon. Friend think that it would have been as easy to speak up for the freedom of the Sri Lankan press had he stayed in London?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. Being able to take journalists to the north of the country, particularly to the Uthayan newspaper, so many of whose journalists have been injured or killed in the course of their work, was a very powerful way of drawing attention to the importance of a free press and of freedom from intimidation.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, not least because it rams home the importance of Britain’s involvement in the international community. On trade, does he agree that the welcome news about the Airbus order, worth £5.4 billion, is excellent for the south-west and for Stroud, which supplies parts of the aircraft?
It is very good news that both Etihad Airways and Emirates airline have effectively ordered 50 aircraft each. Of course, the wings are made in Wales, the landing gear in Bristol and, indeed, many of the engines will be made by Rolls-Royce in Derby. It is really good news. This is the high-end, high-skilled jobs that we need, and it has very much been backed by the Government, because we have put a lot of money into the Aerospace Technology Institute and the Aerospace Growth Partnership that we are building with the industry.
The Department for International Development’s work in the Philippines has been innovative, successful and very popular. Has my right hon. Friend considered supporting disaster resilience programmes similar to the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) more broadly, and looking at resilience planning for potential disasters, rather than simply waiting for disasters to happen?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are looking specifically at whether we can do even better in the rapid response element. I remember, particularly from what happened in Haiti, that British firefighters and experts can play a vital job in rescuing people in the early stages of a disaster, but only if they get there quickly. There is always room to try to do better, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will listen to those suggestions.
The Commonwealth can be a powerful force for good in the world, as demonstrated by the centrality of human rights and shared prosperity to its charter, but does the Prime Minister agree that it is only as good as the commitment of its members? I congratulate him on showing a real commitment to both the Commonwealth and human rights, rather than taking the easy political option of running away.
Any institution works only as well as the political will of its members. We can sometimes obsess too much about the precise make-up of the institution, but we need to look at the political will that goes into defending the values to which we have signed up.
The Prime Minister rightly highlighted the extensive work done by the Foreign Secretary to end the abhorrent practice of sexual violence in conflict. Given the evidence of that having occurred in Sri Lanka, what can our Government do to assist the victims?
The first thing we must do is to continue the Foreign Secretary’s excellent work to drive the issue to the top of the international agenda. Some really important steps in relation to commitments from other countries and through the UN have now been made. The specific allegations are one reason why the independent inquiry that we have talked about this afternoon is so important.
With personal experience of being affected by a natural disaster—I lost 30 relatives, as well as my grandfather, in the Kashmir earthquake in 2005—may I thank the then Secretary of State for International Development and the current Secretary of State for the work done by the UK and the public then and now to help rescue people and save lives? I urge the Government to provide long-term support and assistance to hard-to-reach rural areas whose whole livelihoods have been thrown away. Such people need our help, as I know from experience. Will the Prime Minister make them a top priority?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. He speaks movingly about how his family were affected by the situation in Kashmir. The key thing is to consider what long-term help and development assistance we can provide for rebuilding and to look at resilience against future natural disasters. That is something for which the international climate fund can be used.
Order. I have tried to be generous. We have heard the point. The Prime Minister has made his point of view very clear. We do not need to rehearse the position of the Leader of the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman needs to be a bit more delphic and perhaps a little less clumsy.
May I welcome the statement and the taskings of HMS Daring and HMS Illustrious, which are joining the USS George Washington? This situation underlines why we need both new aircraft carriers and to ensure that one is always available. Does the Prime Minister agree that the new aircraft carriers and the new Type 26s must have the ability to assist in upstream engagement, stabilisation and humanitarian tasks, as well as having the high-end war-fighting capabilities?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of the aircraft carriers and the capabilities that they will bring. In particular, they will be used as a platform for helicopters, for desalination and for command and control. They will bring a huge amount of capability to tasks like this one.
Given the generous response of the great British public to the disaster in the Philippines, it is clear that this is international aid that everyone can support. All of us applaud the efforts of our servicemen and women and British charity workers on the ground. Given that we meet our target of 0.7% of gross national income, that we are one of the most generous charitable donors of international aid in the world and that the defence budget is one of the tightest in Whitehall, how is our military spending on such occasions offset against our international aid target?
I think that we have the right balance. As a country, we spend almost £35 billion on our defence budget. It is the fourth largest defence budget in the world and it still will be at the end of this Parliament. Under this Government, there is much better co-ordination between international development and defence. That is why we have the conflict pool, which brings Whitehall Ministers and money together to work out how the money can best be spent. Sometimes that involves using our defence assets to help countries that are in need.
If you will bear with me for a second, Mr Speaker, I was disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition did not welcome the £5.4 billion order that Airbus gained over the weekend. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the deal and in congratulating the workers of Broughton, who manufacture the wings? It is their expertise and skills that make Airbus such a world-beater.
That was extraordinarily skilfully done. My hon. Friend is right to stand up for the workers in Broughton, whom I have visited several times. They have incredible skills and produce incredible technology. We should be proud of our contribution to Airbus’s international success and must do everything we can to back it. That is why I went to the Dubai air show, where far more British companies were holding stands and putting forward their wares. We should be full-hearted in supporting such industries.
I obviously discussed that issue with President Rajapaksa, as well as the need for an independent inquiry. The Sri Lankan Government’s current position is that they do not believe such an inquiry to be necessary and that they have their own processes and procedures. However, it is fair to say that they recognise that questions are being asked internationally and that they will have to provide some answers. The answer is that we must keep up the pressure.
Many people in our country will be proud of our Government for standing up against mass murder and genocide in Syria and Sri Lanka. The Tamils will be comforted by the Prime Minister’s strong visit to the north of Sri Lanka. Will he continue to ensure that the Sri Lankan regime is held accountable? If there is evidence that any member of the Sri Lankan regime has committed war crimes, whether from a Sri Lankan inquiry or a United Nations inquiry, will he look at bringing them to the International Criminal Court for justice?
Of course, that remains an option, but the most important thing is to get the independent inquiry under way. I would urge colleagues who have not seen some of the evidence in the recent Channel 4 documentary to look at that, because one really can see the need for rapid answers to the allegations made.
I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for International Development and for Defence for a model example of a joined-up government response to the horrors in the Philippines. Did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have time, in the margins of the conference, to discuss with President Hussain the dialogue that he has managed—singlehandedly more or less—to get going between himself and President Karzai over the vital future of Afghanistan?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he says about the joined-up nature of government between the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. That joined-up government is now working well, through the National Security Council and things such as the conflict pool, which brings money together for states, particularly those facing instability. We have massively increased the amount of money going into that pool.
I was fortunate to sit next to the Pakistani Prime Minister during one of the sessions and so had a good conversation about the progress we were making with the trilateral approach and the better relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both countries recognise their mutual interests in peace and prosperity as democratic states living side by side.
I welcome today’s statement and the leadership the Prime Minister is showing in the Philippines, as well as the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). Will the Prime Minister join us in highlighting the important work that Filipino community groups, such as MaccPinoy in Macclesfield, are doing across the country in raising the important funds, clothing and food required by families and friends back in the Philippines?
It is important to recognise that there will be many people from the Philippines here in the UK desperately worried about their relatives back home. We should be with them at this time and praising their efforts to raise money and resources for the disaster recovery appeal.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to stand up for British values abroad and not play opportunist politics while important human rights issues are being discussed? Many of the people affected by those issues are currently living through a nightmare.
That is important on two counts. First, this is the Commonwealth, a multilateral organisation, and we should be there making our arguments, because if we do not, we will lose important battles over the issues we care about. Secondly, it provided an opportunity to talk about human rights specifically in Sri Lanka and to raise their profile in a way that would not have been possible sitting at home.
Human Rights Watch has praised my right hon. Friend for honouring his promise and delivering a strong message on human rights abuses and allegations of war crimes while in Sri Lanka. Does he agree that had he listened to the advice of some political leaders and not attended in Sri Lanka, that message would have gone completely unheard and unreported?