House of Commons
Monday 13 January 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Work Capability Assessment
1. What plans he has to improve the work capability assessment. 
We remain committed to reviewing continually and further improving the assessment. Dr Litchfield’s independent review was published in December, and the Government will publish their response in the first quarter of this year.
It has come to my attention through research conducted by several disability campaign groups that as many as four people a day are dying within six weeks of being declared fit for work under the Department’s work capability assessment. Will the Secretary of State reflect on those figures? When he finds them to be true, as they are based on his Department’s data, will he come back to the House and apologise to the families of the deceased, who suffered unnecessarily in their last precious days? We can recuperate benefits that are awarded incorrectly, but we cannot recuperate a person’s life.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the people and families who have lost their loved ones. There is a system in place for people with life-threatening illnesses, and particularly for those who are likely to die. As I said to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Chairman of which is in the Chamber, we are trying to get the decision making down to seven days, which we would all welcome.
Am I right in thinking that we spend more than £13 billion on sickness and incapacity benefit for almost 2.5 million people of working age? Is it not right to ensure that the support goes to those who need it most?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Of course, the scheme was brought in by the previous Administration—the Opposition have selective memory loss about that. We are determined to get the scheme right to help people get back into work and to help those who cannot get back into work through the benefits system.
As the Court of Appeal recently threw out the Government’s appeal against the decision that the work capability assessment disadvantages those with long-term mental health problems and learning disabilities such as autism, will the Minister accept that the test is simply not designed to deal with such people? What will he do about that?
The Harrington report referred to that matter specifically. Ensuring that people with hidden disabilities get all the help we can give them is is close to my heart, but the Harrington pilot is on hold because of the judicial review.
In my part of the world, the work capability assessment and the personal independence payment are administered by Atos. When my constituents finally get an assessment, they find an organisation that is as insensitive as it is incompetent. Would not the best way of improving the work capability assessment be to remove the incapable Atos?
We inherited the contract with Atos as the company running the WCA. We were not happy with the quality of its work, which is why we brought in measures. We accept that that is causing delays to the system, but it is better to have the necessary quality than to get it wrong.
How many people have to lose their appeal after 12 months of trying to get justice done? How many more people—including the four a day referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns)—have to die before they get an appeal? Surely it is time for even this insensitive Government to understand that Atos is not fit for purpose and should be abandoned, and that we should start all over again.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman said that all the way through to his own Government when they brought in Atos. What the Opposition put in place when they were in government was a complete mess. We are determined to get it right. We are listening to why the tribunal judges make their decisions so that we get the decisions right earlier on.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that that the Department has service level agreements with Atos and Capita that include claimant satisfaction and timeliness?
Yes, we do. There is a financial penalty regime that I have every intention of implementing.
Personal Independence Payments
2. How many claimants have received the personal independence payment since April 2013. 
The Department intends to publish official statistics in the spring. In the meantime, we are looking to see whether we can publish interim information as soon as it becomes available.
I thank the Minister for that answer, which is good news for a lot of people. He will appreciate that a lot of people are suffering while Capita takes so long to get that information out; they have the anxiety of not knowing whether their appeals, or even their applications for assessment, have been agreed. What kind of monitoring of Capita is he doing, and does it have enough people to do the job?
We are monitoring the work of both Capita and Atos, and we will have the figures as soon as we can. Under the previous Administration’s scheme, fewer than 6% of people claiming this or a similar benefit were ever assessed. It must be right and proper that there is not self-assessment; it is done by the experts.
Will the Minister look into the fact that personal independence payments seem to get stuck in the system and are not passed on to the Department for Work and Pensions? My constituent waited three months for an assessment. Three more months later, it is still stuck in the system. The Department wants to sort it out. What more can he do to ensure that they liaise with each other?
The Department’s officials and the contractors, Atos and Capita, are working closely every single day. We need to ensure that we get the decisions right. In such situations as the one brought to the House’s attention by my hon. Friend, we will work closely. If my hon. Friend contacts me later, we will look exactly at that point.
When the Minister appeared in front of the Select Committee, he admitted that there had been very long delays in getting PIP assessment determinations. People had applied in the summer and still did not have a determination by December. We are a month further on and they still have not yet heard anything. I am now receiving e-mails from people across the whole country, as well as from my own constituents, who have been waiting for more than six months since they had their face-to-face assessment. They still have not heard whether they will get the benefit or not. What is the Minister doing to ensure that people find out whether they qualify?
The evidence I gave to the Select Committee—the Committee’s questions were useful to me and I hope the evidence I gave was useful—is that the key to this is that we roll it out until we get the decisions right. The next part of the roll-out is taking place today in south Scotland. If we get it right, it will be a much better benefit for everybody. As we know, there are delays, but they are based on getting the quality and the decisions right. We are working very closely and very hard to make sure that decisions are correct when they are put out.
I, too, have constituents who have been waiting since September. I have received letters in writing from the DWP saying that it cannot speed it up. What can the DWP do to speed up the process?
That would depend on where the claim is within the system and whether it is with Capita, Atos or DWP. I will look into the individual complaints. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to come and see me and I will make sure we get on with it.
Discretionary Housing Payments
3. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the award of discretionary housing payments. 
9. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the award of discretionary housing payments. 
13. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the award of discretionary housing payments. 
Figures published in December show that in the first half of the financial year 2013-14 the average committed spend by local authorities was 40% of their allocated budget. Against those who had said that they were overspending, in fact it turns out that the vast majority are not.
Will the Secretary of State explain the particular circumstances for people who have been on housing benefit constantly since 1996 in relation to discretionary housing payments?
Yes, this is a narrow but complicated area dating back to 1996 with the introduction of local reference rent rules. They were intended to offer transitional protection at that time for existing claimants, but they were not in any way time limited. There was another opportunity, in 2008, to change the regulations when the previous Government brought in local housing allowance. They were not adjusted then. This protection had been dormant for 17 years and not used. This is a complex area that we are now resolving, but I have to say that in three different Governments it has missed the attention of Ministers.
Some would have had us believe that the discretionary housing payment will run out very quickly and that people will be forced out of London to live elsewhere. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there was an underspend in discretionary housing payments of nearly £11 million, and that the claims of social cleansing from the Opposition were complete rubbish?
Yes, I can. The reality, as my hon. Friend says, is that last year about £11 million in underspends was returned to the Department. It is interesting to note the claims made by some in this House. The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) said that the money in her area was fast running out. It turns out that, at the six-month cut, only 28% of discretionary housing payment has actually been used. In Nottingham South, only 33% has been used. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said that too much had been spent in Birmingham, Erdington, but only 47% has been used. Discretionary housing payments are there to be used to help those in the most difficult circumstances. Councils should get on and use them.
My right hon. Friend may not be aware that Suffolk Coastal has used 60% of its budget after nine months and Waveney has used half its budget. Does he agree that that shows that discretionary budgets are working and that it is wrong to try to make political capital out of potentially very difficult human circumstances?
It does. The reality is that about 71% have spent less than half of their discretionary budgets by the half-way cut of the year, and politicians should always be careful about using individual cases and making political capital out of what are often human tragedies.
The Secretary of State should be careful about throwing around accusations of incompetence in local authorities. I was going to ask a different question, but I want to put it on record, and reassure the Secretary of State, that Manchester city council will be spending all its discretionary housing payments and has recently applied for more. Will he accept that application for more funding?
The answer I gave previously was based on what the hon. Lady actually said previously, which was:
“The money is fast running out, if it has not already run out”.—[Official Report, 12 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 838.]
At the six-month cut, Manchester city council had spent 28% of the discretionary payments. I suspect that, in reality, the hon. Lady was about to ask me about that, but realised that she could not because she had got it wrong.
What a lot of waffle in response to that planted question from the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). The bulletin that the Secretary of State issued last week is a clear admission that he has been hitting thousands of people illegally with the bedroom tax since April. Is he aware of the latest survey from the Northern Housing Consortium, which says that nearly half of all front-line housing workers have dealt with someone who has threatened to commit suicide, largely because of the Government’s welfare changes? Will he apologise this afternoon to those people for the concern and chaos that he is causing?
I said it all right, and I say it again: the Department is, and I am, absolutely sorry that anybody may have been caught up in this who should not have been. However, what we were left by the last Government was this: 1,000 pages of complex housing benefit regulations. Under universal credit, they will be reduced to 300 pages and we will simplify them. The reality is that this is a problem of the massive complexity of housing benefit that the last Government left us, with a housing benefit bill that has been rising and that doubled in 10 years on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch.
Discretionary housing payments simply will not plug the gap for disadvantaged tenants in Scotland. Given that last week the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities published clear evidence showing that the policy is costing more to implement than it saves, will the Secretary of State finally accept that it has been a disaster and abandon it?
What I never hear about from the other side of the House, including from the hon. Lady, is what was left to us, which is 250,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation. Nobody on the Opposition Benches ever speaks for them or for the 1 million people they left on waiting lists who cannot get into homes while the taxpayer subsidises people to live in homes that they do not fully occupy. I simply put it back to the hon. Lady: I wonder when she or Opposition Front Benchers will ever speak for those they left in terrible conditions in overcrowded accommodation.
24. As always when I talk about my wonderful South Derbyshire district council, I declare an interest: its leader is my husband. Does my right hon. Friend agree that good councils are spending the appropriate amount of money on this issue and that councils need to look at the systems they have to look after the most vulnerable people in our society? 
That is exactly the point. I am sure that the leader of South Derbyshire district council is doing almost as good a job as my hon. Friend did previously, although I leave her to sort that out with him later. The key thing is that discretionary housing payments are there to help the most vulnerable. Councils should use them. We have allocated an extra pot for those that think they might run over, so there is extra money to bid for, and we are happy to entertain those bids.
4. What recent estimate he has made of potential savings to the public purse arising from implementation of the benefit cap. 
Capping benefit at average earnings is forecast, by reducing the large benefit amounts previously paid to households, to save £85 million this year and around £140 million next year. What is more, some 19,000 potentially capped claimants have moved into work, where paying tax and national insurance contributions brings a further benefit to the Exchequer.
Residents in my North-West Leicestershire constituency are doubly astonished, first, that more than 30,000 households were claiming more than £26,000 in benefits prior to the introduction of the cap and, secondly, that the Labour party completely failed to support the introduction of a cap at all. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that this Government will persevere with its benefits cap policy and review the level at which the cap is set—currently at considerably more than the average post-tax income in my constituency?
My hon. Friend is not alone, when 73% of the public support the cap as it stands, as did nine out of 10 Londoners in a recent poll. It appears that the only people who do not support the cap are Labour Members. We will keep the policy under review, but the one thing we should celebrate is that we are reforming welfare to ensure that those who need the money get it, and those who do not get back to work.
When previous Governments changed benefits, they commissioned research to find out about the consequences. Given that we are talking about a benefit cut, is the Secretary of State in a position to tell us who is doing the research?
I am not sure from that whether the right hon. Gentleman supports the change or not. [Interruption.] He supports it—yet again a lone figure on his side, on which I congratulate him. We have carried out a whole load of revisions and changes, making sure that we watch implementation carefully. We carry out research constantly when it comes to the effects of all of our benefit changes. This one is an overall positive rather than a negative.
Personal Independence Payments
5. What recent assessment he has made of Capita’s timescales for processing medical assessments for personal independence payments and providing them to his Department. 
As I said earlier, the end to end journey time for people claiming PIP is too long—within the DWP as well as with Capita and Atos in the hon. Lady’s constituency. More than anything else, this is to do with quality issues that we want to get right. There is no point in having a very quick journey if we get the wrong decision.
I thank the Minister for that reply. My constituent Mr Weaver applied for PIP in June, and Mrs Curran did so in July. They both had their assessments with Capita in August. The assessments have still not reached the DWP, which is totally unacceptable. Legitimate claims are being denied, which cannot be good money for the Government and cannot be a quality service. This company is inept, inefficient and not fit to carry out the work it is asked to do.
I thank the hon. Lady and we will obviously look into the individual cases she mentioned. It is absolutely crucial to get it right and to get the quality right so that when benefits are claimed, those who deserve them get them and those who do not deserve them do not. Face-to-face assessment is a crucial part of this and I have said previously, that fewer than 6% of those who claimed benefit were ever assessed.
Is it not the appeals process against the initial decision that is slowing the process down? Will my hon. Friend use his good offices and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to raise this issue as a matter of urgency with the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. What often happens is that evidence is produced on the day of the tribunal that the Department’s officials have never seen before. In some cases, evidence has understandably come forward at that stage when we might not have known anything about it. We are looking closely at that as well as at getting more information from the judges.
Since June, I have had five cases brought to my attention at my constituency surgery where applications for PIPs have been made yet not one of them has been paid. The assessments have been carried out, yet DWP employees are telling people being treated for cancer to phone up and chase Capita. Will the Minister do something about it because this system is collapsing?
People suffering from terminal illnesses are being dealt with very quickly in most cases—
They are not.
Those with terminal illnesses are; cancer is not always terminal. I know this is an emotive subject, but fortunately plenty of people in this country live through their cancer. I will look carefully into what the hon. Gentleman says, but it is not the case that no benefits are getting through. The vast majority are. I see cases at my surgery the same as others do, but the vast majority are getting their benefits. We will, however, work on the quality.
A GP whose patient has particularly complex medical and learning disability needs is still waiting for an assessment and a decision many months after making his application. Why are doctors’ letters not accepted?
Even the last Administration had the sense to recognise that GPs were very close to their patients, and that it was therefore necessary to obtain evidence from other health experts as well, especially consultants. However, the assessment relates not to an illness or other condition, but to a person’s capacity to work. That is what is important.
OECD Disability Spend
6. What recent assessment he has made of the OECD disability spend. 
The most recent OECD figures, from 2009, show that the United Kingdom spent 2.4% of its gross domestic product on benefits for people with disabilities. According to UK figures for 2012-13, we are spending about £50 billion a year on such benefits.
Can the Minister explain how that money is being used to help disabled people in my constituency to lead full and independent lives?
The reason we are spending so much money is that we want to ensure that people with disabilities or other long-term conditions can lead lives that are as fulfilling as possible, and, if they are able to do so, enter the workplace. Much of the money is spent on the Access to Work scheme, which has proved very successful. It is interesting that not many Opposition Members seem to approve of the £50 billion that the Government are spending.
Ministers have been taking a pick-and-mix approach to the OECD figures, claiming that the United Kingdom is a top spender on disability-related benefits while referring to only one indicator rather than to total incapacity-related benefit spending. Is it not time that they came clean? Will the Minister now admit that disabled people are bearing the brunt of the Government’s welfare reforms?
We do not “pick and mix” at all. Those who look carefully at the figures will see that Germany spends roughly half the amount that we spend in relation to GDP. If the hon. Lady thinks that we should spend more, that will mean another spending commitment from the Opposition.
7. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the most recent employment statistics. 
14. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the most recent employment statistics. 
The latest employment statistics, which show a record number of people in work and falling unemployment, demonstrate that our policies are working.
Will my hon. Friend tell the House by how much the number of claimants has fallen since the Government were elected in 2010, and what has been the consequent saving to the public purse?
I know that my hon. Friend is very interested in this subject. I understand that he runs business breakfast clubs to help people to obtain work, and to secure growth in his constituency. I can tell him that 525,000 fewer people have claimed the three main out-of-work benefits since the election, that both unemployment and the claimant count are lower, and that in his constituency the claimant count has fallen by 23% in the last year, long-term unemployment has fallen by 16%, and youth unemployment has fallen by 28%. Obviously, all that is saving the Government a considerable amount of money.
Youth unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 25.6% in the last 12 months alone thanks to this Government. I organise a job fair every year, and last year more than 2,000 people came through the doors, many of them wanting to swap jobs. Thanks to the Government, things are moving very much in the right direction. Meanwhile, the Government are expanding the new enterprise allowance scheme, which is designed to improve young people’s entrepreneurial skills. What is the Minister’s assessment of how that is going?
My hon. Friend is another Conservative Member who is doing a great deal in his area. He has got together 2,000 people from his local community—job seekers and businesses—and has found everyone work. He is right: youth unemployment has fallen by 28% over the year, and long-term youth unemployment in his area has fallen by 26%. The new enterprise allowance scheme is expanding—2,000 young people have already set up businesses in that way—and we are investing more money by extending the scheme until December 2015.
The December report of the Office for Budget Responsibility increased its projection for increased spend on housing benefit by £1.8 billion between March and December and attributes half of that to people in employment who will have to claim housing benefit. Is not the truth that because of low hours and wages, savings in one respect are simply popping out as increased spending in another?
That is not the case. We want to look at the numbers. If we look at the spend on housing benefit, we see that it doubled under Labour from £12 billion to £24 billion. What we have got to do is look in the round at those people who are in overcrowded housing and those on waiting lists as well as those who have got houses that are bigger than they necessarily need and yet the taxpayer is funding all of it. The figures are right: the cost doubled under Labour’s watch.
What plans does the Minister have to tackle the new record level of people wanting full-time work but only able to get part-time work? That went up in the most recent statistics to 1.47 million. It is the highest level it has ever been. What is the Minister going to do about it?
Actually, in the last three months the vast majority of people who got jobs were getting not only full-time jobs but also permanent full-time jobs, and three out of every four jobs have been full-time.
22. For the past three years running I have had an apprentice caseworker in my office who has been an A-level school-leaver. Does my hon. Friend agree that having apprenticeships perhaps before university is an opportunity for young people to get on to the road to work by getting some work experience and that that is an incredibly valuable experience for young people that more and more of them are taking advantage of? 
I totally agree with my hon. Friend who set up one of the biggest and best job clubs in her area, supporting people into work. Work experience is key and it does not matter whether people are on their way to university or just wanting to get into a job because this helps in understanding what jobs they want to do and what jobs they do not want to do. Around 113,000 people have gone through work experience and over 50% of them have ended up in a job. My hon. Friend is right to sing the praises of work experience.
Employment and Support Allowance
8. What steps he is taking to increase the ability of employment and support allowance claimants in the work-related activity group to gain paid employment. 
ESA claimants in the work-related activity group have access to a wide range of employment support, including the Work programme where claimants receive tailored support for two years, and a flexible menu of support through their Jobcentre Plus. Specialist support is also available through Work Choice.
The Minister will be aware that the Lichfield review analysing the system said that it was beset by delays beyond the stipulated regulatory period and that Work programme providers consistently reported that they had very little information about the people referred to the scheme. Can the Minister explain to the House what specific steps she has taken to address those concerns?
First, let us talk about the Work programme, which is the first time we have ever had a coherent way to address and support these people back into work. We know through industry statistics that over 440,000 people have got a job from that programme and that over 100,000 have found a long-term job. We are supporting people as best we can—the first time we have ever done this. We are taking specific steps, too: we are analysing everything, watching what works, conducting a best-practice group and implementing the findings. So this is new, it has started and we are getting it better.
Can the Minister confirm that the pilot is the first time that ESA has been looked at in a co-ordinated way to try and get people to fulfil their potential? Will she also confirm that it is innovative policies such as this that mean our unemployment is so much lower than that in countries such as France where the Labour party’s policies are being pursued to economic catastrophe?
My hon. Friend is right. Most of Europe is looking to us to see how we get people into work, whereas the Opposition are looking to France where the exact opposite is happening. This is a very complicated journey for people who are in the ESA group and for most of them it is about understanding their lifestyles and getting them closer to the workplace and then into a job.
10. What recent assessment he has made of trends in auto-enrolment. 
I am pleased to update the House and say that more than 2.5 million workers have now been automatically enrolled into a workplace pension. That puts us roughly a quarter of the way through the entire programme of automatic enrolment.
What have the Government done to ease the burdens on employers, particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises that play such a dominant role in the business mix in my constituency?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Every change that we have made to the administration of automatic enrolment has been designed to reduce the burden on firms. For example, we have raised the wage threshold at which people are automatically enrolled, and we have delayed the staging for the smallest firms so that no one who employs fewer than 50 people will have to stage before April 2015.
Basic State Pension Inheritance
11. What transitional arrangements his Department will make in respect of the ending of basic state pension inheritance. 
The ability to access or increase a state pension based on the national insurance record of a partner or former partner was introduced in the 1940s, but less than 5% of people reaching pension age after the single tier is introduced will be affected by the removal of this facility. We are putting in place transitional arrangements for certain women who paid the married woman’s stamp, but to go beyond that and make transitional arrangements for a broader group would severely damage the simplicity of the scheme.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that protection will be put in place for those women who have paid the married woman’s stamp, to ensure that they receive a decent state pension?
Yes, I can. Women who paid the married woman’s stamp at any point in the 35 years before the scheme comes in will get the pension that they expected—namely, the 60% for married women and the 100% widow’s pension.
When the Minister announced his flat-rate state pension reform, the key argument was that the public would henceforth have clarity about what they could expect from the state in retirement. Now we find, via a parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), that the Government have no intention of writing to individuals to communicate what the state pension changes will mean for them and their families. Why did the Minister give the impression that the Government would write to people about their state pension entitlement if he has no intention of doing so?
I am slightly baffled by that question, because our reforms to the state pension will affect everyone who reaches state pension age after 2016. That is almost the entire working age population. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that we should write 40 million letters?
12. What assessment he has made of the appropriateness of the eligibility criteria for funeral payments allocated from the social fund. 
It is important that help is targeted at those who are least well off at the time the need arises. The Government therefore firmly believe that the qualifying criteria for the funeral payments should be linked to the receipt of one of a number of income-related benefits.
I thank the Minister for his response, but the reality is that almost one in five people struggles to pay the cost of a funeral service for a member of their family, and more and more are taking on debts so that they can afford to pay for a service for their loved one. Will the Minister therefore consider adjusting the criteria so that families suffering emotional hardship need not experience financial hardship as well?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We have expanded the scope of the budgeting loans scheme to include funeral costs, which were not previously eligible. If someone is short of cash to meet funeral costs, they can borrow money through the social fund if they are eligible for a budgeting loan, as well as applying for the grant that we pay, which averages £1,200.
16. What assessment he has made of the effect of the under-occupancy penalty on household incomes. 
The average weekly reduction in housing benefit resulting from this measure is £14.50. However, two thirds of those affected experience weekly reductions of less than that, and the average weekly loss for those who have moved off benefit as a result of this policy is £8.
When I visited the Scunthorpe food bank recently, the excellent volunteers there reported a significant increase in the numbers of people using the food bank. When I asked them why that was, they chorused in unison: “The bedroom tax.” When are this Government going to do a proper evaluation of the damage the bedroom tax is doing to hard-working families?
I, too, praise the local community, the voluntary groups, the Trussell Trust and the Churches that are helping people through the food banks, but I do not agree that we can draw an analogy between what is happening there and our attempt to get fairness through changes to the spare room subsidy. What about those people who are in overcrowded homes? What about those people who are on a waiting list? How do we support everybody in this way? Labour shirked dealing with this problem, and it is a very difficult issue to get right. Labour shirked it but we are dealing with it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is financially unsustainable for the housing benefit bill to continue rising at the level that it has historically without the type of fundamental reform to housing benefit that this Government are introducing?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. There are many dimensions to this, because it is not just about a housing benefit bill that doubled under Labour’s watch; it is also about the lack of houses that were built, fairness in the system, getting housing right and building right for the future.
This might be all right if there were smaller properties for people to go to, but there are not. It might be all right if £14.50 was a tiny sum, which it may be to the hon. Lady or to any of us in the Chamber, but it is not to the carers who do an invaluable job, not only on behalf of the person they care for, but for the whole of society. So how can it possibly be right that 60,000 carers are paying, on average, as the Minister has just admitted, an extra £14.50 a week? Are this Government dim-witted, short-sighted or just plain cruel?
I am afraid none of those are true. I see that the hon. Gentleman gathered much information together, but let us see what happens; as I said, we have got to get this right. We have to get the housing right. We have got to have more smaller buildings. He wrote to me as he did not understand about conversions and I had to lay it out clearly in the letter; the National Housing Federation agreed with me. Despite not knowing the facts, he did produce a press release for the papers. We are getting conversions right, sorting out the problem and helping as many people as possible.
17. What assessment he has made of the effect of the under-occupancy penalty on carers. 
Live-in carers are provided for as part of the assessment of household need. An additional room for non-resident overnight carers is allowed in certain circumstances. Discretionary housing payment funding has been increased to £180 million for 2013-14 to help support vulnerable claimants to adjust to the reforms.
Many children grow up with separated parents, but I think we would all agree that joint parenting is in the best interests of the child. One of my constituents is a devoted father whose small son lives with him 50% of the time, but he now has to lose his son’s bedroom because the benefits system will accept only one parent as the “main carer”. Will the Minister re-examine that rule and consider an exemption?
The hon. Lady is right to bring this matter to the House, and such situations are always difficult, but the room would be allocated to whoever was the main carer of the child. In this instance, that is the mother and that is who we would be looking to. We would not be supporting two sets of rooms in two separate houses, as we are trying to get this housing policy right.
May I bring the Minister back to the issue of unpaid family carers of sick and disabled people? She recently admitted in a response to my question that 50,000 or 60,000 of those carers were affected by the bedroom tax. More than 1 million of those carers have given up work to care, and they have nowhere to go to find the money. She has talked about live-in carers, but it is not about that. Will she answer about the 50,000 or 60,000 carers? Will she admit that it was a mistake not to exempt them from the bedroom tax?
What we did is not name absolutely everybody who could have part of the discretionary housing payment. We have allowed discretion for those people who might need it the most, hence it is called “discretionary”, hence it has been trebled and hence we are supporting these people. Obviously, if somebody on housing benefit, or their partner, needs an overnight carer on a regular basis, they would have their spare room subsidy; they would be exempt from this.
Habitual Residence Test
18. What plans he has for the habitual residence test. 
Migrants must now meet a much tougher habitual residence test than before, showing the efforts they have made to find work before coming to the UK and that their English language skills are not a barrier to getting a job. They must also have been resident in the UK for three months before being able to access out-of-work benefits. We have plans to make it even stronger, by introducing a minimum earnings threshold, with tougher questions on whether work is genuine, and job seekers from the European economic area will not receive housing benefit.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that detailed answer. I urge him to go a bit further and listen to the representations he has received to extend the qualifying period for the habitual residence test, and make people have to be here for a year before they can get those benefits.
As has been made clear beyond this Chamber, we are looking at that matter at the moment, and we have been discussing it with a number of other European nations, the vast majority of which are clear and with us on the idea that freedom of movement should not result in an opportunity for people to take benefits from wherever they want and to pick and choose their benefit areas. We are looking at how we can come to an agreement on those time scales and limits.
19. What his most recent estimate is of the number of people who will be claiming universal credit by April 2014. 
Based on caseload projections, we expect more than 6,000 claimants from the pathfinders to be on universal credit in January.
Beyond the pathfinder scheme and in the live running of universal credit, we are also rolling out other components, such as the claimant commitment. Jobcentre Plus advisers have agreed around 120,000 JSA claimant commitments, rising by some 30,000 each week. That continues our progressive approach to date, enabling a safe and successful delivery.
The Secretary of State has made a pig’s ear of the roll-out of universal credit. Does he agree with his colleague, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who claimed that the mess was all his fault?
Actually my right hon. Friend did not make that claim. If the hon. Gentleman had gone on with the quote, we would hear that he said:
“I’m a very strong supporter of what he is doing…and I’m absolutely confident that”
he is capable of implementing it.
Kettering Jobcentre Plus
20. How many adults and young people have been helped to find employment by Kettering Jobcentre Plus in each of the last three years. 
In the last three years, the number of young people and adults claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Kettering has fallen by 26%, long-term unemployment is down 8%, youth employment is down 35% and long-term youth unemployment is down 31%. Claimants are not required to tell us their reason for leaving JSA, but surveys suggest that it is that 77% of people move into work.
I thank the Minister for that extremely good news for Kettering. Will she say what assistance is being provided to help young people find employment?
I will indeed. I was planning to give my hon. Friend some information for those young people in Kettering. There is a growth hub, Brackley job club, Christ Church work club, the graduate boost work club, Kettering library work club and a whole host of extra support. Across the country, we have put £1 billion in the Youth Contract to help young people get into work.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
I welcome industry figures that suggest that business hiring intentions are at their highest for two and a half years and that even more UK businesses are reporting that they intend to recruit in 2014. Those positive signs are backed up by the latest labour market statistics that show that more people are in private sector employment than ever before—up by more than 1.6 million since the general election.
With the popularity of the Post Office in mind, does the Minister agree that the value of the Post Office card account is immense, benefiting some 2.9 million people? Will he think about extending it?
I indeed agree with my hon. Friend that the Post Office card account has played an important part in supporting the post office network and enabling pensioners and benefit recipients to receive their money at a local post office. All of the options under consideration conclude that access to pensions and benefits via the post office will continue beyond March 2015.
We already know that 600,000 people are affected by the bedroom tax, two thirds of them are disabled and 60,000 are carers. Will the Secretary of State now tell the House exactly how many long-term residents have been wrongly paying the bedroom tax since April because the Government failed to spot a loophole in the legislation?
We have already made it clear that the number is likely to be between 3,000 and 5,000, but we will be clearer about that when the local authorities, which are responsible for collecting the data, come forward with the final facts.
The fact is that the Secretary of State has not got a clue. It could be 5,000 or it could be as many as 40,000 people, as reported by the experts. What a total shambles! Will the Secretary of State now guarantee that everybody who has been wrongly paying the bedroom tax will be reimbursed, and instead of closing the loophole, will the Government now do the right thing and scrap the bedroom tax?
Yet again, what we have from the hon. Lady is a moan about a policy that helps people in difficult circumstances. I said earlier that not once has she come to the Dispatch Box and said that she was concerned about those her party left behind living in overcrowded accommodation. Not once has she mentioned the 1 million on the waiting list or apologised for the fact that building levels for social housing fell to their lowest point since the ’20s. Of course we will look after those affected by the policy, but she must make it clear that she supports one of these policies; otherwise, there will be a total cost to the Exchequer. The shambles is on the Opposition’s part.
T7. Will the Minister confirm that under the new system, 80% of individuals will be entitled to a full single-tier pension in their own right by 2030? 
I am encouraged by the close interest my hon. Friend is taking in the single-tier pension, and I feel he is a kindred spirit. He is right that, as the 35-year qualifying rule includes not just earned contributions but credits for caring and so on, the vast majority of people will qualify for the full single-tier pension.
T3. In response to an inquiry, the Department for Work and Pensions has confirmed to me that employers advertising vacancies on the Government’s jobmatch service must provide a full, clear and accurate job description. Does the Secretary of State agree that they should also make it clear when they are offering zero-hours contracts, rather than simply listing them as part time? 
Of course, the key point is that all contracts must be clear from the beginning and every employee must know what contract they are on. A very small percentage of the population are on zero hours and great care is needed, as some jobs and some individuals prefer such contracts—as the hon. Gentleman’s Government found out when they were in power.
T8. Will the Minister update the House on the progress in providing support for mesothelioma sufferers? 
Legislation on compensation for mesothelioma sufferers went through the House last week, and I was pleased to see the Bill receive its Third Reading. As I said at the time, it is not perfect but it will help as a fund of last resort for those who have had nothing from the system because they could not trace their employers or insurers. I hope that Her Majesty will grant it Royal Assent at the earliest opportunity.
T4. The Government’s auto-enrolment pension scheme will provide relatively poor and insecure returns, based as it is on the private pensions industry and subject to stock market vagaries. Is not the only long-term solution a comprehensive and compulsory state scheme for all, with defined and guaranteed returns, in line with schemes overseas? 
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his consistency on the issue. His view is that he wants his income in retirement to be wholly dependent on a promise that future taxpayers would fund it. I must say that I would prefer to spread my risks by having a decent, simple state pension, such as the single-tier pension that we are introducing, and a stock market-linked investment that will benefit in the long run as the economy grows and, crucially, will benefit from a contribution from the employer, too, which is not the case in the state scheme.
T9. Will the Secretary of State say how many fewer children there are in workless families since 2010? 
The total figure for the fall in the number of workless households has been in the order of 17%. The position we inherited was that it had not fallen for 30 years and approximately 2.5 million children were living in such households. That number has fallen by several hundred thousand—a clear change and a clear improvement for the public and those going back to work.
T5. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be no further delays to his roll-out of universal credit? 
Universal credit is set to roll out according to the timetable I laid out the other day. We have been round this—[Interruption.] With respect, Mr Speaker, I know that Christmas is over but I think one of the pantomimes left its dame behind on the Opposition Front Bench. Universal credit will roll out in the time scales available and will be a major benefit to all those who come under it, including the constituents of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith).
Constituents of mine who face mandatory reconsideration are stuck with the possibility of a gap in their benefits until their tribunal hearing. I know that the Secretary of State is very keen to deal with that problem. Will he tell the House what further steps can be taken to protect my constituents?
One of the things we have done in the past couple of weeks, since I came to this post, is get information back from tribunal judges. Previously, we did not have that information. We are studying why judges are making those decisions, so we can make sure that we get decisions right before they go to tribunal.
T6. Given the praise for the Health and Safety Executive from respondents to the recent triennial review, including positive feedback from the business sector, will the Minister support its regulatory function of saving British workers’ lives, instead of repeating the tired old Tory mantra about work-based dangers: “It’s health and safety gone mad”? 
I am slightly disappointed in my hon. Friend for asking that sort of question, because it is very important that health and safety is taken seriously in the workplace and in public areas. Right across the Christmas period, I went public about the need to ensure that Christmas was not spoiled by stupid comments, and stupid local authorities saying, “We shouldn’t do this or that”—throw snowballs, or have Christmas trees in certain areas—“because of health and safety.” That is wrong, and it has nothing to do with health and safety; it is an insurance risk.
Has the Secretary of State managed to watch programmes such as “Benefits Street” and “On Benefits & Proud”? If so, has he, like me, been struck by the number of people on them who manage to combine complaining about welfare reform with being able to afford to buy copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos, and watch Sky TV on the obligatory widescreen television? Does he understand the concerns and irritation of many people who go to work every day and pay their taxes but cannot afford those kinds of luxuries?
My hon. Friend is right: many people are shocked by what they see. That is why the public back our welfare reform package, which will get more people back to work and end these abuses. All these abuses date back to the last Government, who had massive spending and trapped people in benefit dependency.
May I ask the Secretary of State to look carefully at his many policies that are delivered through intermediaries such as G4S, Capita and Atos? Are not many of those private sector providers deeply ineffective and inefficient? They cause many of my constituents great grief.
While I accept some of the things that the hon. Gentleman says—in particular, I accept that Atos’ contract for the work capability assessment was brought in by the previous Administration—there can be benefits, and savings can be made, if assessments are done correctly. To look after our constituents, we have to make sure that companies do them properly.
In the Minister’s reply to my written question of 5 December, we learned that there was a prosecution in fewer than one in four of 45,000 cases of benefit fraud. Only 400 cases resulted in a prison sentence; the vast majority were handled through informal recovery processes. What proportion of the informal repayment arrangements are up to date, and does the Minister believe that increasing the incidence of prosecution would be helpful in reducing the incidence of benefit fraud?
We have made great progress in pursuing more people than have ever been pursued before. The reality is that the amount got back from those who have been defrauding the state is better than it has been, but in the answer to which my hon. Friend refers, we made it clear that we have much more to do. It is the nature of many benefits that they are open to abuse; changes such as universal credit will simplify the process and give far less opportunity to those who would defraud the system. That is the right way to deal with the issue.
In Northern Ireland, 300,000 pensioners enjoy the winter fuel allowance. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether, if he is returned to office after the next election, that benefit will remain in place?
It is this Government who have stood by that. The Prime Minister gave a pledge before the last election, and we intended to, and will, see that all the way to the election. As always, all further commitments will be made and published in the manifesto.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that universal credit will improve the lives of those in our poorest communities, including those of many people in Brighton, Kemptown?
I can indeed. Universal credit replaces the benefits that are most open to fraud, in many cases. Also, housing benefit doubled in value under the last Government; universal credit will deal with those problems, get things back into order, and provide an incentive to go back to work; that is the key thing. Getting people back to work, which the Opposition are not interested in, is the key element of welfare reform.
Given this latest bedroom tax shambles, can the Secretary of State clarify whether he will write off, or seek repayment for, discretionary housing payments that have been made to those people who will now receive back payment of housing benefit?
I made it clear in my previous answer that I will be coming forward with full details about that, including the number of people affected.
I urge the Secretary of State to promote fairness for people on housing waiting lists, fairness for people in overcrowded accommodation, where children have to do their homework in the hallways, and fairness for hard-working people and their families when it comes to welfare tourism.
That is exactly right. The reality that my hon. Friend has spotted is that the Opposition have voted against every single one of our welfare reforms. Not only would the welfare bill have been £45 billion higher under them, but more people would be out of work and they would have failed the British people.
On the Work programme, can the Minister explain why Dundee is once again the least supported city in Scotland, with only 9.79% of people being helped back into work by the programme? Will she apologise to the people of Dundee and explain why 90% are still not being helped?
The majority of people are being helped by the Work programme. As I said earlier, this is the first time we have had a co-ordinated approach to support, and it has supported 2.5 million people so far. Of course we have to make it better and support more people, but 444,000—that figure is from industry statistics—have actually got a job.
Tragically, nearly 10,000 families suffer the death of a child each year, including 7,800 babies under the age of one. Is it not time that the Government did the right and compassionate thing in the remainder of this Parliament by backing the Change Bereavement Leave campaign and introducing a statutory right to bereavement leave for all parents who lose a child?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are reforming bereavement benefits. The intention, having talked with bereaved families, is to focus the funding on the point of bereavement and the immediate year thereafter, but obviously ongoing support for bereaved families will be available through universal credit. I will be happy to discuss the matter with him further.
A few moments ago the Secretary of State quoted the Minister for the Cabinet Office on universal credit, but he forgot to mention the part where the Minister called its implementation “lamentable” and said that a lot of money has been wasted. We also learned last week that the Cabinet Office withdrew the Government Digital Service from universal credit, a decision described as “disappointing” by the lead official. Why did the official describe it in such terms?
Yet again the Opposition are farming in and around old e-mails. The truth is that universal credit and the Cabinet Office are working together, with the Cabinet Office supporting us on the digital ask. The Minister for the Cabinet Office made it absolutely clear that that is where we are going. I know that in reality the Opposition do not support universal credit, but it would be better if they came clean: it will be delivered and they will be thankful in the end.
Several hon. Members
I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but we must move on.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on Syria. I would first like to inform the House that we have reached E3 plus 3 agreement with Iran on implementing, from 20 January, the first stage nuclear agreement reached in Geneva, as set out in my statement on 25 November. We will now move to seek a comprehensive settlement on the nuclear issue with Iran.
Yesterday I attended the meeting of the core group of the Friends of Syria in Paris to prepare the ground for the Geneva II peace negotiations beginning in Montreux on 22 January. In his letter of invitation, the UN Secretary-General makes it clear that the aim is to
“assist the Syrian parties in ending the violence and achieving a comprehensive agreement for a political settlement, implementing fully the Geneva Communiqué, while preserving the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria.”
That means agreeing a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent, to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people.
Our united message in Paris yesterday, from all 11 countries represented, was the vital necessity of this process, the great importance of both the regime and the opposition being prepared to attend, and our determination to support a political settlement and end the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people. No one should underestimate the difficulty of the negotiations ahead, but we will not give up on diplomacy as the route to stopping the appalling bloodshed, nor will we waver in supporting the moderate Syrian opposition, for if there is only a murderous regime on the one side and extremists on the other, there can be no peaceful settlement in Syria.
President Jarba of the Syrian National Coalition has always said that he is ready to attend the Geneva negotiations. His task is to persuade the rest of the moderate opposition to agree to that at a time when their towns, villages and homes are under relentless attack. The National Coalition is expected to make a final decision at its general assembly this Friday. We urge it to attend and to put the spotlight on the Assad regime’s responsibility to end this terrible conflict. Today Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov met UN and Arab League envoy Brahimi for further discussions ahead of the talks. There is a pressing need for measures that can build confidence ahead of the negotiations such as prisoner releases and progress on humanitarian access, including through local ceasefires. We call on all parties in Syria to work towards such actions.
Since my last statement to the House, the violence has remained intense. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights now puts the death toll at over 125,000 people. The regime continues to bombard Aleppo and other towns and cities, including through the repeated use of barrel bombs. These huge canisters, filled with explosives and shards of metal and dropped from helicopters on to civilian areas, have killed 600 people in Aleppo alone since mid-December, including 172 children, and injured 3,000 people. The use of this deliberately indiscriminate weapon is yet another war crime and is clearly designed to sow terror and weaken the will of the civilian population. Assad and those around him should be in no doubt that the world will hold them to account.
The deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is also utterly unacceptable. The UN Security Council presidential statement in October last year demanded that aid must be able to reach all Syrians. However, the UN estimates that 2.5 million people inside Syria are currently not receiving assistance, including 250,000 people trapped in besieged or hard-to-access areas. Countless numbers of people are being denied access to food and medicines, and there are now sickening reports of innocent people dying from malnutrition. Last week at the Security Council we proposed a new statement calling for immediate and unfettered access for aid. This was blocked by Russia, but we will continue to seek action at the UN Security Council and to work with Russia to try to bring about progress at Geneva and in the humanitarian situation. More than half the Syrian population is now in need of humanitarian assistance: 9.3 million people within Syria, and 2.3 million refugees in the region, who are facing bitter winter conditions.
The UK has now provided half a billion pounds in aid—the largest sum our country has ever committed to a single crisis. Today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced that we have now allocated or delivered on all our funding promises. On Wednesday she will attend a pledging conference in Kuwait where the UK will make a major further donation, in response to the new UN appeal, of $6.5 billion for Syria in 2014, and we will urge other countries to be equally generous. We will also press for the lifting of sieges and access for humanitarian organisations, the immediate end to attacks on civilian areas and medical facilities, and respect for international humanitarian law.
In this House and this country we are very conscious of the importance of a greater role for women in ending conflicts and building peace. The UK has led the way in advocating a direct role for women in the Geneva negotiations. We have put forward proposals to ensure that both sides include women in their delegations, we have urged the UN to facilitate a clear role for women’s groups and civil society in the form of a consultative body present at the negotiations, and we are providing £200,000 in funding to enable Syrian women’s groups to take part.
On top of our humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, we have given more than £20 million in support for opposition groups, civil society, human rights defenders and media activists. This includes training and equipping search and rescue teams, providing power generators and communications equipment, supporting and training civil administrations, and helping survivors of sexual violence.
In November last year, we announced an increase in non-lethal support to the supreme military council of General Idris, including communications assistance and medical and logistics equipment. In December, we took the decision to impose a temporary halt to deliveries of those supplies, following fighting over control of the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. We are ready to resume—and to consider increasing—this assistance as soon as we are satisfied that conditions on the ground allow the military council to take safe delivery of our equipment.
Since 3 January, Syrian opposition groups have been battling an al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group—the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”—in dozens of locations across northern Syria. Opposition groups are reported to have driven the al-Qaeda-affiliated group back in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and al-Raqqah governorates. The fighting has been accompanied by widespread public demonstrations against the torture and summary executions carried out by the extremists.
The fact that the moderate opposition is prepared to fight against these groups is a demonstration to the world that they reject extremism, just as they reject the Assad regime. It gives the lie to Assad’s claim that that there is no choice other than his regime or extremist terrorists. And it underlines the importance of supporting the moderate opposition forces to help them counter the extremists—which is vital for security in the region and in the UK. Assad’s brutality is the best recruiting tool the extremists have. Ultimately, the only long-term way to deal with the extremist threat is to reach an inclusive political settlement.
We have always warned that the longer the conflict continues, the greater the consequences will be for regional peace and security. There have been further car bombings in Lebanon, as well as clashes on the Lebanese border. There has also been fierce fighting in western Iraq involving al-Qaeda extremists—at least in part the result of the conflict in Syria. And both Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, are generously coping with the strain of the ever-increasing burden of Syrian refugees, hosting more than 575,000 and more than 860,000 refugees respectively. We have given more than £111 million in humanitarian support to Jordan, more than £109 million to Lebanon, and more than £15 million to the Lebanese and Jordanian armed forces to help protect their borders.
One area in which progress is being made is the destruction of Syria’s chemical stocks. The first consignment of the most dangerous chemicals has now left Syria, after a short delay caused by intense fighting and poor weather. The Syrian regime must ensure that the remaining material is transported to the port as quickly as possible, to ensure that all chemicals can be eliminated by the end of June. The disposal of Syria's chemical stockpile is a strong example of international co-operation. Italy, the United States, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland and China are all making important contributions.
In addition to the support worth £2.4 million that the UK has provided to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons destruction effort, we announced on 19 December that we would accept some of the chemicals for destruction in commercial facilities here. These chemicals are similar to many other industrial chemicals routinely handled in the UK and we are working to ensure the safe management of this operation.
A Royal Navy ship, HMS Montrose, is about to join the escort of the Danish and Norwegian vessels transporting the chemical stocks from Syria. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has also informed the House today that we will provide specialist equipment for use on board the US vessel where material of greatest proliferation concern will be neutralised.
The situation on the ground in Syria is appalling and getting worse, as I have described. The threat to regional and international security continues to grow, as the conflict increasingly cannot be contained within Syrian borders. We will continue to intensify our efforts to reach a political settlement, to save lives and to protect our own security.
It is only through a political resolution that the conflict can be brought to an end. The start of the Geneva II peace conference on 22 January is an important step, and, while we have no illusions about how difficult and challenging a process this is likely to be, we will do everything possible, with other nations, to help it succeed.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for giving me advance sight of it.
On Iran, agreeing the terms of the deal in Geneva back in November was indeed an important first step, but the real test remains how it is implemented on the ground. Given the past conduct of the Iranian regime, it is now vital that the international community remains vigilant and stringently monitors the implementation of the first stage nuclear agreement in the months ahead.
Turning to Syria, a conflict that began nearly three years ago as an uprising against the Assad regime has since inflamed sectarian fault lines within the country and mutated into a proxy regional conflict, so delivering support to those most affected by the ongoing violence remains urgent and vital. Ahead of this week’s long-awaited second pledging conference in Kuwait, Baroness Amos has already stressed that the conference will need to raise much more than the $1.5 billion raised last year if it is to meet the scale of the humanitarian need.
The Opposition of course welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement that the UK Government have now allocated or delivered all our funding promises, but earlier today the Secretary of State for International Development confirmed that contributions from others have so far fallen well short. Will he therefore tell the House what action the Government are taking to encourage other nations to meet their obligations on past pledges, before further pledges are made in the coming days? We also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s efforts, along with the Friends of Syria group, to encourage the Syrian National Coalition to commit to attending the Geneva talks.
In the light of experience of such conflicts, such as the 15-year Lebanese civil war, and the apparent intractability of the factions fighting within Syria today, we all recognise the scale of the challenge, of which the Foreign Secretary spoke, involved in securing a full transitional deal in Geneva in the coming days. Yet surely the first goal at Geneva II, between the main international and regional players, could and should be to aim to secure a stop to the escalation and fuelling of the conflict.
That is why the role of Iran in particular may yet be crucial. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said that Iran would take part in the Geneva II peace conference if invited without preconditions. He added:
“We support any initiative aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis.”
It is of course right to acknowledge the role that Iran has so far played in deepening and inflaming this conflict. Yet with the need for resolution now so urgent, does the Foreign Secretary agree that Iran’s claimed resolve to be part of the solution should now be tested, and if so, does he agree that one way of doing so is to bring Iran to the table at Geneva to participate in the conference?
A key priority for the international community at that conference must surely be to minimise the problems of overspill across the region by working with allies in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what other steps, beyond humanitarian support, the UK Government are taking to help the Governments of Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to respond to the growing internal political and economic pressure that the Syrian conflict is placing on them?
The rise of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, such as those the Foreign Secretary mentioned, is not of course simply a concern for Syria; they form but part of a crescent of crisis that stretches from Iraq to Lebanon. Will the Foreign Secretary set out his assessment of the extent to which British citizens are playing a role in these conflicts, and will he assure the House today that our agencies are sufficiently focused on these deeply troubling developments?
The challenges to be addressed by the Geneva II conference are of course considerable, but the process under way to secure the peaceful destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile offers us a point of hope amid the death and destruction still being witnessed in the country. The Government will therefore have our support in the coming days in their effort to secure real and substantial progress in Geneva next week towards a political settlement that ends the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, including for the strong support across the House for our trying to do everything we can to make a success of the start of the Geneva II process. He is of course absolutely right to say that a beneficial early product of that could be measures that stop the fuelling and escalation of the conflict. That is why I have talked, as have Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov at their press conference today, about the great desirability of local ceasefires and improved access for humanitarian aid even before we all get to Geneva next week. These are of course things that could also be beneficial products of the process.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the role of Iran. He said correctly that Iran has done quite a bit to deepen and inflame the crisis, including through much direct support for the Assad regime and its brutal treatment of its people. Our position on Iran depends very much on its readiness to work with the outcome of Geneva I. The invitation letter of the UN Secretary-General is clear about the purpose of our invitation to Montreux and then to Geneva, where we will carry on next week, which is to implement the original Geneva communiqué of 30 June 2012. Iran was not present at that conference, but all the other nations are united behind that communiqué. That includes Russia, which was represented there.
That is the basis of Geneva II. It is about bringing about a transitional governing body with full executive authority that is formed by mutual consent. A signal of support for that being our united purpose would be very helpful in getting Iran to Geneva II. There is no problem in principle in any quarter, and certainly not among western nations, with Iran coming, but there is the practical problem of whether it is prepared to play a constructive role if it gets there. We would welcome stronger signals of that from the Iranians.
On the questions about Jordan and Lebanon, a great deal of the help that I have described is humanitarian assistance. In the case of Lebanon, where there has been violence, we use our diplomatic presence in every possible way to help the authorities to calm the situation. We also give direct support to the Lebanese armed forces. We help to finance some of their border posts. I welcome the recently announced support from Saudi Arabia for the Lebanese armed forces. It is providing $3 billion of assistance to build up the Lebanese armed forces. We have assisted Jordan with a good deal of equipment, as well as with the support that I have mentioned.
It is clear that the number of British nationals who have travelled to the region to fight is into the hundreds. We are vigilant about that and all our security agencies are focused on it. It is important to make it clear that we are prepared to act to obstruct people from doing that. The Government have the right and the power to confiscate passports. When people are resident in the UK but are not British nationals, we can cancel their leave to remain in the UK on the basis of such activity. I stress, as I have stressed since April 2011, that we advise against all travel to Syria. We of course advise people against going to fight in Syria, but we advise against all travel to Syria even for those who go there for more laudable motives. We are very limited in what we can do to assist people once they have gone there.
Our work on the destruction of chemical weapons will, of course, continue.
Although I welcome unreservedly the Foreign Secretary’s diplomatic efforts, does he acknowledge that neither he nor his American counterparts have any real clout on the Syrian moderate opposition because of our collective inability to provide them with any of the material help that they need to press home their objectives? Does that not contrast with the Russian Government’s ability to influence the Assad regime, as was demonstrated by their ability to deliver the sacrifice of all the chemical weapons within days, once the Kremlin had decided that it was necessary? If the west cannot give material help to the Syrian moderate opposition, must we not swallow our pride and work with the Russians to find the minimum that is required to bring this ghastly conflict to an end and to enable the international community to help the Syrians get rid of the jihadi terrorists who are threatening the whole of the middle east?
Of course we work with the Russians. We discuss endlessly with the Russians, in any case, if there is any way in which we can together resolve the crisis. On chemical weapons, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, working together, have made the progress that we have described.
I think that my right hon. and learned Friend goes too far in saying that we have no clout with the Syrian opposition. What he says is not true, in that stark form, of the United States and the United Kingdom. I have many extensive discussions with the Syrian opposition. I was with the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition in Paris yesterday and they do listen carefully to what we say. They know, of course, that we have sent them assistance in the past. It is not the lethal assistance that my right hon. and learned Friend has consistently called for, but we have sent a great deal of other assistance to help to deal with chemical attacks and to save lives.
We have had to put on hold the delivery of that assistance because of what happened at the Bab al-Hawa border depot in December. To deliver assistance to the opposition we have to have confidence, and this House would expect us to have confidence, in its destination and in who will have control of it. We can resume and increase such assistance when we are satisfied on that point. That is of value to the opposition, and they are conscious of what the UK can do to provide that support.
I draw to the attention of the House the fact that, as co-chairman of the all-party group on Iran, I visited Tehran as a member of an all-party delegation last week at the invitation of the Iranian Parliament.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on the issue of Iran’s attendance at Geneva II? Iran was not present in June 2012, but the circumstances were very different, not least of which was that President Ahmadinejad was President of Iran at the time and not the much more moderate President, President Rouhani. Lakhdar Brahimi, the distinguished UN diplomat, has himself called for Iran to be allowed to attend Geneva II unconditionally. I plead with the Foreign Secretary to back Mr Brahimi, and to have a conversation with Mr Kerry who seems to be saying, according to news reports today, that the current Government in Iran have to sign up to a communiqué that is now 18 months old, Geneva I, and to which they were not a party and had no decision on whether to attend because they were not in that Government.
The 30 June 2012 communiqué is 18 months old, but it is also the basis of the Secretary-General’s invitation letter to the participants in Geneva II issued on 6 January—last week. That is the basis on which we are going to Geneva II. The Geneva I communiqué is the basis of that letter: that is what we will be there to implement. Geneva I is not, therefore, just an old thing from some time ago when not everybody was there; it is the Secretary-General’s basis for the conference. It is therefore not asking too much to ask those who participate to express their support for that and their readiness to engage in a conference on that basis.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Government have changed in Iran, and what we have been able to do on the nuclear issue has changed in that time. Nevertheless, from everything we can see, the active support of the Iranians for the Assad regime, which is now carrying out some of the terrible crimes I have described, continues today, even with a change of Government in Iran. That is the background and we must not forget that. That is why we are putting the pressure on Iran to say, “If you want to come, show very clearly that you are going to engage on the same basis as the rest of us.”
Of the three groups in Syria—the regime, the Islamists and the Free Syrian Army—the weakest is the Free Syrian Army. As my right hon. Friend said, many have concluded that the choice is now coming down to one between the al-Qaeda-backed Islamists and the regime. Given that both are backed by Russia and Iran, however, is that not a false choice? The Islamists are happy to support the regime, which is why the regime is not attacking them. If the people of Syria are to get their country back, we should do all we can to support the moderate opposition in Syria and, if necessary, revisit the decision to supply only non-lethal weapons.
There is a three-way contest; my right hon. Friend is right. Of course, in reality it is even more complex, because many different groups make up the Free Syrian Army and the groups that are affiliated to al-Qaeda. I would never accuse Russia—or, indeed, Iran—of supporting the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. They draw their support in other ways. Nevertheless, he makes the case for giving more support to the moderate opposition. I say again: we are ready to resume and increase our support through important but non-lethal supplies, provided we are confident about what will happen to those supplies. That is a condition on which this House would always insist.
The situation in Syria is an indictment of the international community and our failure to take seriously the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. Is it not time for this Government and, indeed, the international community together, alongside the process in Geneva, to look seriously again at all options of intervention to bring this horror to an end?
It is an indictment of the international community—I will readily agree with that—and I have often spoken myself of the failure of the UN Security Council and the international community. Nevertheless, that is a failure with which we have to work, because as we have found before, with the vetoing of resolutions at the UN Security Council, we are not able to win agreement in the UN Security Council for far less radical or interventionist measures than what the hon. Lady is calling for. Therefore, we have to tackle the situation in other ways: to relieve humanitarian suffering in all the ways I have described; to promote a political settlement, working with Russia wherever we can; and to ensure that the chemical weapons are disposed of. Yes, there would have been earlier solutions, but they were not practical at the Security Council, so they would not have been legal and would not have commanded international support.
If we cannot guarantee safe delivery of non-lethal supplies, would it not be particularly unwise and foolish to start delivering weapons into this cauldron? Is it not right to concentrate on diplomacy, which is not compatible with war?
As my right hon. Friend knows, we are very much concentrating on the diplomacy. As my statement reflects, I am not proposing lethal supplies—I have always been clear that we would come to this House and have a vote if we were going to do that—but there is a role for non-lethal supplies, if they can be safely delivered and controlled, that save lives and help a moderate opposition to function, because without them diplomacy will not work. If it is only extremists and the Assad regime, diplomacy will never succeed, so there is a role for our support for the moderate opposition in that regard, but we must have confidence in how such supplies will be used.
All diplomatic progress involving Iran and Syria is welcome, but the Foreign Secretary is right to highlight the fact that the situation involving refugees in Syria is calamitous. It is also right to support refugees in situ in neighbouring countries, but there are thousands of refugees who have made it to Europe. Germany has accepted 80% of pledged places among Syrian refugees. Amnesty International has described the attitude of countries, including the UK, towards Syrian refugees as “shameful”. Why does the UK have such a poor record in not accepting Syrian refugees?
It is clear from what I have said that the UK has a strong record on the humanitarian side. Our donation, of £500 million so far, is the biggest ever in our history and one of the biggest in the world. We are the second most generous nation in the world in this regard, and we are trying to help people, as the hon. Gentleman says, in situ. On the question of refugees, last year between January and September, we accepted 1,100 Syrian refugees into the United Kingdom for asylum, treating them on their individual merits, as we do people from other nations. That fact is sometimes neglected and overlooked.[Official Report, 16 January 2014, Vol. 573, c. 14MC.]
I support the Foreign Secretary’s plea to the Syrian moderate and peaceful opposition to vote on Friday to take part in the Geneva II talks. However, if they show that willingness to overcome their genuine qualms and participate, can we reward them by stepping up support, in practical and operational ways, for the peaceful opposition, as called for in the letter by many honourable colleagues in The Times today?
Yes, we can. I hope we can, and my hon. Friend will understand from what I am saying that I would like to be able to do so. I stress, however, that because of the difficulties that arose and the loss of control at the main depot in Bab al-Hawa, we had temporarily to put on hold the supplies of communications and logistics equipment we were sending in December. We will need to be assured that the restructuring of the supreme military council that is meant to be taking place over the coming days has satisfactorily addressed those problems, so that we can receive a high level of assurance in respect of the equipment we send.
Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn(Mr Straw), I was part of the all-party delegation to Iran last week, which I put on the record. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement about the tentative nuclear agreement with Iran. If there is to be a successful Geneva II process, however, I agree with the former Foreign Secretary that it must involve Iran. If other countries are involved in the Syria talks and themselves support jihadist forces in the country, questions need to be asked about the amount of resources they are putting in. Why is it that the Foreign Secretary and, apparently, the United States are still opposed to Iran being part of the process, which can bring about a permanent peace and save a lot of lives?
I can only reiterate what I said to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)who asked about the same point: it is not a dogmatic opposition in principle; we simply want those who attend Geneva II to be there on the same basis. Let me put the argument another way. If we think back to the Geneva I communiqué, which is now the basis of the peace talks to come, I do not believe that, had Iran been present at that time, we would have been able to arrive at that agreement on creating a transitional governing body in Syria. We all hope, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, that there will be a change of policy, but it is necessary to have a little more evidence of such a change than we have seen so far in order for Iran to play a constructive role at Geneva II. We would be very pleased to see in the coming days further signals of a readiness to play such a constructive role.
The House will welcome later today the spokesman for the president of the Syrian opposition coalition, and the moderate opposition could have had no more staunch supporter than my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. If the negotiations in Geneva are to succeed, and if the imbalance of forces that my right hon. Friend described so graphically in his statement is not to be addressed by the Geneva process, how can some balance be made that will give the regime an incentive to negotiate as opposed to feeling that its position is particularly strong?
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to what some of the leading members of the National Coalition have achieved, in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, in helping to bring together, in a country without any free political institutions, a coalition of people committed to a democratic and pluralist future for Syria. For the reasons my right hon. Friend described, it is important for people in other countries to help keep a moderate opposition in being and in business. We have contributed to that in various ways and, as I mentioned, we are ready to do so again, but we need assurances about how our assistance will be used. If the opposition go to Geneva II and the regime is not prepared to work on the basis of creating a transitional governing body drawn from regime and opposition, I think many people across the world will draw the conclusion that they should give increased support to that moderate opposition in the face of diplomatic blockage from the Assad regime.
I am grateful for the update but so far I am still searching for a coherent British policy on Syria. If we want to be anything other than willing participants in the failure of the international community, would it not be a good start simply to say that the future of Syria will not include Assad?
We have been saying for a couple of years that Assad has no role in the future of Syria. After all, the proposition that will be before us at Geneva II is the establishment of a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent from regime and opposition. It is inconceivable that any opposition group, however moderate or extreme, would give its consent to Assad’s being part of that transitional governing body. Nor is it realistic, after the death of 125,000 people and years of torture, abuse and murder, to think that Assad could ever again unite the people of Syria. I think it is clear to us and to most observers that he has no role in the country’s future.
Our policy is very clear: to promote the political solution, to help keep a moderate opposition in being, to deliver humanitarian assistance, and to assist with the destruction of chemical weapons stocks. On those things I think we are fairly united across the House.
My right hon. Friend has referred to a murderous regime on the one hand and extremists on the other, and to the 2.5 million displaced people in Syria who are receiving no aid whatsoever in terms of food or assistance. Within that 2.5 million, the Christian community is probably suffering disproportionately. Will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure through the United Nations at Geneva II that that community is not dismissed as a sideline?
My hon. Friend has made a very good point. This conflict has affected minorities in Syria, including Christians, particularly sharply and horribly. It is important for that point to be made, and it will be made strongly at Geneva II. It reinforces the case for seeking the political solution which alone can protect those minorities, including Christians, and for the National Coalition—the opposition—to be as broadly based as possible. I am pleased to say that there are leading Christians in the opposition ranks, and it is important for them to retain that broad support so that they do not fall into the trap of sectarianism into which so many have already fallen.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that in recent weeks the jihadists—some of whom, as he conceded, are from these shores—have been promoting sectarian division between Sunni and Shi’a. Does he agree that any way forward must involve protecting not just the rights of Christians, but the rights of all people—of whatever faith—including their human rights? What guarantees does he think can be provided to ensure that that happens?
The right hon. Gentleman has made an important point, which adds to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). It must be stressed that the people of Syria, in the main, are not extreme, and have not been sectarian in their history. This is a country which, for a long time, has been able to combine happily alongside each other people of many different cultures and religions. Extremists are taking advantage of the conflict in Syria, rather than the conflict’s being a reflection of the true nature of the Syrian people, and we need a political solution to be arrived at as soon as possible so that they can return to their true nature. That is not for the benefit of any outside power; it is for them, so that they can go back to the happier solutions at which they had arrived together, living alongside each other.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on his answer to the question about refugees? The 1,500 figure that he gave referred to those who had been accepted for asylum, rather than those who had been accepted as part of a co-ordinated resettlement programme. Just before Christmas I visited the Zaatari refugee camp, and saw a project run by the Jesuit Refugee Service to support refugees living in host communities in Jordan. The situation is dire, particularly for those who are very vulnerable, which is why I want to urge the Foreign Secretary to think again. We could make a real contribution to a co-ordinated programme of resettlement for the most vulnerable refugees, who could benefit greatly from coming here.
There will of course be a variety of views about this, but I hope no one will think the United Kingdom has anything other than a strong record in trying to look after vulnerable people caught up in this conflict. We are currently providing food for 320,000 a month, medical consultations for 300,000 a month, and cooking sets and mattresses and blankets for 385,000 people. The United Kingdom is one of the most generous countries in the world in looking after vulnerable people affected by the conflict in Syria.
Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House who he thinks is arming the jihadist al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria and what discussions has he had with the Governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar about shifting their emphasis towards humanitarian assistance rather than arming al-Qaeda-linked groups?
Gulf states also provide humanitarian assistance. For instance, Saudi Arabia has provided $373 million to the UN appeals, and of course in Kuwait on Wednesday we will be looking to some of the Gulf states to make huge contributions to the humanitarian appeal so we will be reinforcing this point. At the meeting we had in Paris yesterday, those states—including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were very clear about channelling their support through the National Coalition and making sure it is fighting for people who want a democratic and pluralist Syria, and that is what we always look to it to do.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s confirmation that the UK has made a substantial contribution to humanitarian aid and also in relation to chemical weapons decommissioning, but notwithstanding the strength of feeling we have heard across the House today, will he accept that it is the settled will of this House that there should be no military intervention by the UK in Syria?
As my hon. Friend can gather from what I have said, I am not proposing that. There was no mention in my statement of military intervention in Syria. We are addressing this crisis in many other ways. I do not want to anticipate what the settled will of the House will be months and years into the future, but the Government are not planning for, and are not proposing, any military intervention of our own in Syria; he can be assured of that.
Did not this House on 29 August beneficially influence world opinion and reduce substantially the threat to the world from both chemical and nuclear weapons? Will the Foreign Secretary continue to resist the cries to give war a chance, and insist on the most likely path to peace which is through diplomacy, not through military intervention?
I hope the hon. Gentleman heard the statement I gave a moment ago because I do not know how he could have got any impression that it was about anything other than diplomatic success and, through diplomacy, making sure the crisis is addressed as best we can. On the chemical weapons, I think we have had this disagreement before. There was a very important change of policy by Russia and by Damascus on chemical weapons in September, but I believe the origin of that was the fact that military action was being considered and debated in the United States, so sometimes diplomacy benefits from the soft power having some hard power behind it.
As the Foreign Secretary knows well, the reason the moderate opposition are weak is unfortunately not only that they lack weapons. It would be extremely difficult and very dangerous for the west to try to micro-manage the balance of forces on the ground. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore please concentrate on ensuring that our humanitarian assistance is more focused, in particular in relation to Jordan? Refugees in Jordan are currently unable to work. Could we work with the Jordanian Government to ensure employment and livelihoods for refugees in Jordan?
This is also a very good point because we are now seeing people who have been displaced for the long term: children who have been away from their schools for two or three years; people who have been without work for that amount of time. That is reflected in our redefinition of some of our aid priorities, so we are trying to help in more ways than just feeding people when they are in refugee camps. We will have to shift increasingly in that direction and my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary can speak about this in greater detail and with greater authority when she returns from Kuwait, but I very much take on board the point my hon. Friend makes.
The news today that there have been serious discussions about localised ceasefires—particularly in places such as Aleppo, which has suffered badly over the past year—is obviously welcome. Does the Secretary of State accept that it must be a top priority for this Government and the international community to try to roll out those localised ceasefires as quickly and widely as possible? That would help to bring support to those who are suffering in the humanitarian crisis throughout Syria, and it would also provide a good foundation for the Geneva talks and for any settlement reached thereafter.
Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was discussing that matter with the other delegations at the Paris meeting yesterday. These are very difficult things to bring about, and I do not want to heighten expectations too early. In such a complex and brutal conflict, even localised ceasefires are difficult to bring about. However, it is important to pursue discussions about that matter with Russia, and it could well be an important track to discuss at Geneva II.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the one area of progress, on chemical weapons, has been instructive? On that issue, western nations were able to agree to co-operate with Russia on a strategy. Until the parties to this conflict are no longer able to look to their respective international patrons for support because those patrons have agreed on a way forward, they will be pretty unlikely to come to an agreement in circumstances that Eugene Rogan has described not as “winner takes all” but as “loser must die”.
Yes, I think there is a lot in that as well. It is generally true to say that there is now a greater appetite among some of the outside powers for a political settlement in Syria than there might be among some of the people who are fighting each other in Syria. It was clear in our discussions yesterday that all 11 members of the core group of the Friends of Syria supported a political settlement and wanted the opposition to go to Geneva II. That included Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, which have been mentioned in these questions. We also need Russia to assist in bringing the regime to Geneva II in the same spirit, and that is what Secretary Kerry has been pursuing with the Russians today. We will all be pursuing it with them over the coming days.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s acknowledgement of the impact on Christian and other religious minorities of the al-Qaeda depredations in northern Syria. I also welcome his assurances of focus in that respect. May I press him further and say that one of the key issues is humanitarian aid? Many of the people affected will require resettlement in areas in which their families have lived for hundreds of years. It will also be important to extend diplomatic assurances to those people so that President Assad does not try to recruit them as proxies to shore up his own power in Syria.
Yes, that is also true. The hon. Gentleman is looking ahead a bit, however. We are not yet in a situation where people can go back to their homes or be resettled, or where assurances can be given about the position of different communities in Syria. In a way, that would be a good problem to have. It is the next stage that we will need to move on to. Our overwhelming emphasis now is on staunching the bloodshed, but we will have to move on to those issues and he is quite right to raise them.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment not to provide any lethal support to the so-called moderate rebels. When thinking about a transitional Government, may I also urge him to learn the lessons from places such as Bangladesh? It had a transitional Government put in place but they did not consider the outcomes in regard to the delivery of democracy for those people who were not part of that Government.
A transitional governing body is no easy thing to bring about in any country, and, as I said in my statement, we must not underestimate the difficulty of doing that in a war-torn, divided country such as Syria. The provision to do so by mutual consent is very important, because through that a transitional governing body could just work, mutual consent being required for the membership on both sides. It is very important to uphold that commitment of our Geneva communiqué of 2012 as we go into the talks next week.
Will any democratic settlement at Geneva II include or preclude Assad? Will it include or preclude those around him—those who are culpable in what has gone on? In particular, will it include or preclude the jihadists and the fundamentalists?
I go back to what I have referred to before. What we are seeking—the basis of the invitation letter from the UN Secretary-General—is a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent. Such a thing, drawn from regime and opposition, would naturally guard against the extremes, as each side would have to agree to the representatives of the other. That would not be a recipe for Assad to continue, as I mentioned earlier, or for the al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists to have a role. Again, that shows the importance of our sticking to this principle and this formula in the forthcoming negotiations.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what support his Department is providing to individuals working for aid agencies, and their families, to ensure that they are getting all the information and support they need to keep as safe as possible while carrying out their vital work, for which I am sure the whole House will wish to thank them?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the people working for the aid agencies do an extraordinary job. They are often in danger, and quite a number have lost their lives in the Syria conflict. They are the unsung heroes, and she is right to refer to them in the House. Of course we do everything possible to provide the information and equipment they need, but if at any stage she or any other hon. Member thinks there is more we need to do on that, we are always open to ideas.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy of it. He mentions the E3 plus 3 agreement with Iran. What impact will that have on the sanctions against that country? Will there be an early release of them?
As I mentioned to the House, we were able to announce in the past 24 hours that this agreement will come into force next week, on 20 January. That means that the sanctions relief we have offered Iran starts from then. That will involve the amendment of some European Union sanctions and United States sanctions, and it means that the US will unfreeze a certain amount of Iranian assets—that will be spread over the six-month period of this agreement. It is anticipated that this amounts to about $7 billion of sanctions relief for Iran, provided the Iranians are sticking to their part of the agreement on the nuclear issue. That agreement is then renewable for further periods of six months while we work on a comprehensive solution. So a limited measure of sanctions relief is available to Iran from 20 January.
My right hon. Friend, with his command of history, will know that Britain, America and Russia have all had embassies sacked by mobs in Tehran, although in the Russian case that happened rather longer ago. Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), does my right hon. Friend agree that the key to a change in attitude by the slightly more moderate regime in Iran, and indeed in Damascus, lies in persuading the Russians that they share the same interest in this as we do in the long run?
That is a very important factor. I have often discussed it with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Prime Minister has discussed it with President Putin, and the American leaders continue to do the same. After all, it is in the interests of Russia, as with all of us, to make sure that extremism does not take hold, in Syria and in the wider region. That means that we all have to work together on bringing about a political solution. So we hope that, just as we have done that on chemical weapons, we will be able to do it during and around the Geneva II process to make a political process viable. We will spare no effort to work with Russia in bringing that about.
I had a meeting earlier today with the chief of staff of the Syrian National Coalition, who claimed he had evidence that the Iranian and the Assad regimes are providing covert support for ISIS—the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—and Islamists operating in Syria. He said that the target of ISIS is not the Assad regime but the Free Syrian Army. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that all attacks are taking place on the Free Syrian Army with the support of Assad? If he is and believes it to be true, does it not put a totally different complexion on the war in Syria in that the Free Syrian Army is on its own? We should look at more ways to support it and not just provide humanitarian assistance.
I am aware of that suggestion. Whatever the truth of it, it is the case that the Assad regime has fed the growth of extremism. I cannot corroborate statements of it giving direct support to such groups, but if there were such evidence I would be interested to see it. None the less, it is its position, its politics and its brutality to the people of Syrian that have fed the growth of extremism. Assad is not the alternative to the extremists; he is producing them. Although I cannot confirm exactly what he says, I think it supports the same analysis, which means that we must do what we can to keep a moderate opposition in business, with all the constraints that we have discussed in our questions today.
What is the Government’s assessment of the flow of arms into Syria from the arms markets that emerged in Libya after our action there?
It is not possible to be precise about such things. Clearly, arms flow in from many different sources and in many different ways. Funnily enough our concerns about arms in Libya are more about the ones that remain there. There is more evidence of those arms remaining in Libya. We are working on a UN decommissioning programme to be able to take arms out of Libya and out of commission in Libya. Of course we cannot be precise about those flows of arms, but my hon. Friend can be sure that a high proportion of them that flowed into Libya in 2011 are still in the country. However, there would have been more of them had we not taken the action that we did, which helped to bring the conflict in Libya to an end.
The Assad regime and the al-Qaeda affiliates have been targeting medical teams. It is extremely difficult for the people in Syria and in the refugee camps around the region to access complex medical care. Is it not time now for the UK to respond to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ urgent request for countries to open their doors to cases of complex medical need, particularly to those who have also been victims of torture?
A number of views have been expressed in the House about that. I reiterate our very strong work and commitment to help people in such countries. I know she is making a slightly different point, but that is where we are concentrating our help. That includes providing 250,000 medical consultations within Syria as well as tens of thousands outside it. The UK is playing a very big part in trying to provide medical care to the most vulnerable people. I am afraid that I cannot offer her more than that at the moment.
As we were responsible, almost 100 years ago, for drawing up the borders in this part of the world, it would perhaps seem most appropriate that we now play our part in helping to contain the Syrian crisis within those borders. I know that in his statement the Foreign Secretary said that we are giving £15 million to Lebanon and Jordan. Compared with our generous humanitarian assistance, that does not strike me as a huge amount of revenue for those countries. Will he assure the House that we are doing all we can to ensure that the conflict stays within Syria itself?
Yes, but I am not in any way excluding the possibility that we will need to do more on that. That is what we have given so far and it is hugely appreciated by Lebanon and Jordan. Some countries are in a position to do much more; I mentioned briefly that Saudi Arabia has announced a $3 billion donation to build up the Lebanese armed forces, largely to be delivered and implemented by France. I hope that my hon. Friend will also bear it in mind that those countries are rightly receiving assistance from other quarters as they try to contain the crisis.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving the House this update. Will he talk about Russia’s blocking of a statement condemning the atrocities in Aleppo as well as a statement calling for immediate unfettered access for aid agencies? What more can be done to ensure that Russia lives up to its responsibility to the most vulnerable in this conflict, regardless of the politics?
We must continue to discuss that with Russia. I mentioned in my statement the discussions today between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. They covered some of these issues, such as how humanitarian access can be improved ahead of next week’s talks and the possibility of localised ceasefires. Of course, we are disappointed that Russia is not readier to agree international statements or resolutions at the UN that we ought to be able to pass and that it would be wholly appropriate to pass and enforce. The Russians are not prepared to do that, so we try to work with them in other ways to relieve humanitarian suffering and we will spare no effort in doing so.
President Putin has made some small conciliatory steps in connection with the forthcoming winter Olympics. Is there any sign that the same logic and approach apply to his thoughts on Syria?
We will see. The subject is very different and, of course, Russia has played an important role in the work on chemical weapons—it has been and remains indispensable in that regard. I hope that, following the discussions today between the US, Russia and the UN, Russia will demonstrate its readiness to deal with the Syrian regime. The Syrian Foreign Minister is going to Moscow this week and I hope that the Russians will say to him, “There are now certain things you have to do to relieve the suffering and to give humanitarian access, as well as to go to the Geneva talks, fully in the spirit of the Geneva communiqué, to bring about a transitional governing body.” We look to Russia to make those things plain to Damascus.
It has been said that that Mr Jarba attended the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris and asked for certain guarantees and commitments before the Geneva II conference. What requests were made by Mr Jarba and what was the response of the Friends of Syria group? On Iran and the E3 plus 3 agreement, does the Secretary of State understand the concern raised by many countries in the middle east about the agreement? What steps have been taken to get those countries to have confidence in it?
Of course we understand the concerns about the agreement with Iran. People will inevitably be sceptical about that and we have given extensive briefings about the detail, which has greatly reassured many countries. Those countries will want to know that we are monitoring it very carefully and that the International Atomic Energy Agency is playing the full role it needs to. We want to know that, too. They will want to see the evidence over the coming months that the agreement is working, which is completely understandable. In the meeting yesterday, President Jarba of the National Coalition asked for more support for the National Coalition, in whatever way any country around the table could provide it. I made it plain, as I did just now, that we can resume and increase the support we give through non-lethal supplies provided we can be confident about where it will be delivered to and who will be using it.
I welcome the measures that have been taken on the agreement with Iran on nuclear arrangements, but the key is to monitor compliance with the terms. Reports suggest that Iran is still pursuing the use of advanced centrifuges, which would give it nuclear weapons capability. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what additional arrangements are being made to monitor Iran’s compliance with its agreement with the United Nations?
That is an absolutely crucial point. Our monitoring of the agreement involves the formation of a joint commission by the E3 plus 3 and Iran, and there is a very active role for the IAEA. It is important that all the agreements that Iran has made with the E3 plus 3 and the IAEA are enforced and monitored. The IAEA is determined to do that; it was agreed, in the implementation plan, that that would happen. We, and the IAEA, will monitor this very carefully indeed.
Last night, I returned from a four-day trip with the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists to the Nizip 2 refugee camp, just inside the Turkish border. Turkey’s amazing humanitarian action and our aid programme—its provision of food, in particular—should be complimented. While I was there, I met representatives of UNICEF, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and AFAD and, separately, Syrian opposition leaders and military commanders, as well as dozens of refugees, whom we are helping with winter clothing and a social action project. All the Syrians I met want their country back and are desperate to return home. I urge the Foreign Secretary to take all steps necessary to enable Syrian refugees to return to their homeland, both diplomatically through Geneva II, and ultimately through the provision of safe havens.
I applaud what my hon. Friend and other colleagues have done in going to assist the people in that region, and I do not doubt at all the sincerity of the message that he brings back, which is that people want to be able to go to their homes in peace. That again underlines the urgency of the political process that we are beginning next week. It is a formidably difficult process, but it is right to start and to try a political process; that is the only sustainable hope of peace. He can be assured that we will give every effort to that.
There have been calls—some from unexpected quarters, and some from the Chamber today—for the UK to take a small number of refugees in this crisis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is pure tokenism? If the UK were to take 500 refugees from a pool of more than 2.5 million people who have been displaced from their country, it would have very little effect. The answer really is for the UK to stick with its policy of supporting the refugees in situ, so that they can return to their country when the conflict is over.
Ours is a generous policy, as I say. Whatever views people across the House hold on the subject, I hope that no one will say anything other than that the United Kingdom is among the most generous and big-hearted nations on earth on this. We are by some distance the second largest donor country in the world, helping hundreds of thousands of people with medical consultations in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. That is the right policy for the United Kingdom, and it is making a very positive impact.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At Prime Minister’s questions last week, the Prime Minister said, in relation to the Scottish independence referendum, that the subject was one for
“debate among the people in Scotland.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 307.]
However, we have learned that a Cabinet Office official working on Scottish constitutional issues and Andrew Dunlop, who is Downing street’s Scotland adviser, have been co-ordinating in Madrid with the Spanish Government in opposition to independence. Meanwhile, the official ITAR-TASS News Agency has cited a source in the Prime Minister’s office as confirming a desire in Whitehall for Russian support in opposition to Scottish independence. What options are open to Members to scrutinise UK Government special advisers, given the Prime Minister’s assurances that the issue is one for debate among the people in Scotland?
Order. First, Ministers are of course responsible for the accuracy of what they say in the House, in common with all other Members. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asks what avenues are open to Members to enable them to scrutinise special advisers and undertake scrutiny more widely. The answer is that there are manifold mechanisms available to them, including the use of the Order Paper and, dare I say it, the ingenious, and some might think occasionally outrageous, deployment of bogus points of order.
European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords]
[Relevant documents: 23rd Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2012-13, HC 86-xxiii, Chapter 11; and 25th Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 83-xxii, Chapter 1.]
I call the Minister for—well, for a number of different matters. Mr Edward Vaizey.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am, in fact, the Minister responsible for culture, communications and the creative industries. They are a number of different matters, but they are all linked.
The sole purpose of the Bill is to support two draft regulations of the Council of the European Union. They both rely on article 352 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, which permits the adoption of a measure to attain one of the objectives set out in the European Union treaties but for which no specific power is given in the treaties, provided that it has the unanimous support of all member states.
Thanks to this Government, who passed the European Union Act 2011 to ensure that no treaty could be passed without a referendum, such measures must be approved by Parliament. Parliamentary scrutiny of European measures is a matter of lively debate at the moment, and I am delighted to see so many of my colleagues who are experts on European matters present in the Chamber this afternoon. I am also delighted that it is this Government who have given Members of both Houses the chance to decide whether to approve such measures. I note that the Bill was debated in the other place, which is renowned for its scrutinising abilities, for precisely 37 minutes. The German Parliament carried out similar scrutiny before approving the measure—its measures are similar to ours—although I am not sure how long that debate lasted.
Will the Minister give way?
I will now take my first intervention.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Europe for Citizens programme could be construed as no more than a provision to enable grant-making for organisations that tend to be of a Europhile capacity? Hopefully it would be resisted by the Government on the grounds that it would be likely to induce propaganda for the purposes of European elections and the like.
I do not want to get ahead of myself, because I must first cover the specific regulations. My hon. Friend is a lawyer and an expert on European matters. I am not here to defend every measure. For example, I note that one of the measures audited in 2013 related to supporting the “European Network on forward policies and actions for seniors in Europe”. With one in five Europeans already in their 60s, our take on old age needs reconsidering. That programme focused on older people in the European Union, not European federalism. I will address the Europe for Citizens programme, to which he refers. It is one of two regulations—I say this for the benefit of all hon. Members taking part in the debate—that will be approved by the Bill.
Will the Minister give way?
I will now take my second intervention.
How does the Minister’s earlier example meet the test of subsidiarity?
It is not a question of subsidiarity. The question of subsidiarity applies to the whole programme, which has been in place since 2007 and supports a number of measures. I will come to examples of the programme shortly.
Following my hon. Friend’s perceptive intervention, I hope he will indulge me for a few minutes while I deal with the first measure and see what interventions we have on that. The measure establishes a legal obligation on the European institutions to deposit their paper historical records at the European University Institute, which is based in Florence. Previously, European institutions have voluntarily deposited their archives at the EUI under contractual agreement, and the proposal is to make this obligatory. It is designed to provide long-term certainty that the archives will be preserved in accordance with recognised international standards at a single accessible location.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will take my third intervention.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be wonderful news if the EU were not archived?
Speaking on a measure on archiving documents of European Union institutions gives rise to the possibility of many light-hearted comments. I have resisted making such comments, but that is in no way an indication that I would resist those of other Members about the interest, or otherwise, that these documents could engender when being read by future generations.
A 1983 Council regulation already obliges the European institutions to preserve and provide access to the historical papers once the records are 30 years old, when they would no longer be in business use. Europe’s Council, Parliament, Commission, Court of Auditors and Economic and Social Committee, and the European Investment Bank, currently meet that obligation by depositing their paper archives with the EUI on a contractual basis. The proposed legal obligation reflects those existing arrangements and will not change the point in time at which the public can access historical records or the place at which they can be accessed.
Making this practice a legal obligation will help to ensure transparency and scrutiny of the European institutions’ work, and it fits alongside this Government’s drive for greater transparency both at home and in Europe. We should all welcome a measure that allows for greater accountability around EU decision making, the more so because it will have no impact, financial or otherwise, on the UK’s own archives.
As the European Union moves towards digital record-keeping, the measure also provides that the European institutions should, where possible, make their records available to the public in digital format. In addition, the EUI is to be given permanent access to each institution’s digital archives to fulfil its obligation to make historical records accessible to the public from a single location once they are 30 years old.
The European Court of Justice and the European Central Bank will be exempt from the obligations under the proposed regulation, although they can deposit their records on a voluntary basis. The Court is exempt because of the large volume of records, most of which are case files often containing sensitive personal data that need to be quickly accessed to support its functions. The exemption of the ECB is due to its organisational autonomy and the fact that its historical records are subject to a separate 2004 regulation.
The measure will be financed by the depositing European institutions from within their existing budgets and so will have no financial impact on the UK. Hon. Members will be delighted to learn that the Italian Government have made suitable premises permanently and freely available to the EUI to ensure that the deposited archives of the European institutions are preserved and protected in accordance with recognised international standards. The European Council has published the text of this measure and has received consent from the European Parliament. It is therefore ready for adoption, subject to the agreement of hon. Members.
Let me move on to the second measure, on which I do not anticipate a great many interventions. It provides for the continuation of the Europe for Citizens programme for the period January 2014 to December 2020, building on the previous programme that covered the period 2007 to 2013. It is important to point out that there have been some crucial improvements to the programme. More effort will be put into monitoring and evaluating funded projects against published performance indicators and boosting the transferability of results to give a better return on investment.
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend in his hope that there would not be too many interventions, but before he gets into how this will be improved, may I ask him to look at paragraph 4 of the document? It says that this is being introduced in order to
“bring Europe closer to its citizens and to enable them to participate fully in the construction of an ever closer Union”.
The Prime Minister said a year ago that he did not want ever closer union. Will my hon. Friend square the circle?
It is important to look at the kinds of programmes that will be supported by this measure. It is also important to note that when one uses the phrase, “Ever closer union”, it can mean many things to many different people. Perhaps if I spend some time giving examples of the programmes that have been funded and those that might be funded, we can have a wider, almost philosophical debate on the issue.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I can hear my hon. Friend making an attempt at a third intervention.
It is my hon. Friend’s fourth attempt and I think it would have been his third intervention, had I accepted it. I expect him to make several interventions during my remarks and I will take them at the appropriate moment. I also expect him to make one of his formidable speeches, for which he has become legendary in this House. With his indulgence, however, I will elaborate on the point I was making.
As well as highlighting the improvements in transparency and evaluation, I want to make the point that the commemoration element of the programme has been significantly increased. In the previous programme, commemoration was just 4% of the budget, but it now amounts to 20%. This is a serious point, because, of course, 2014 is the year in which we begin our commemorations of the great war, so I for one am pleased that the commemoration element of the programme will increase.
It is also very important—this is also serious—to point out that the commemoration element of the programme goes beyond simply commemorating the great war. It will include funding to commemorate the second world war—that is particularly relevant given the 70th anniversary of D-day this year—as well as the victims of totalitarian regimes such as Nazism and Stalinism, and, of course, the holocaust.
On my hon. Friend’s earlier point about ever closer union and what it means, is he saying, as has been said to this House before, that we should not pay attention to the detail of the document and that we should accept bland assurances that it does not mean what it says?
What I am saying is that one should look at the kinds of projects that have been funded in the past and the kinds of projects we expect the programme to fund in the future. Hon. Friends may well disagree with the funding of some events, both past and future, while other hon. Members of a different political persuasion may disagree with the funding of others. That is the nature of a programme that funds a huge range of projects.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, during these times of a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, anything that remembers what happened in the holocaust can only be a good thing?
My hon. Friend quite rightly achieves approbation from all corners of the House for his intervention. I know that the hard work he undertakes on these issues as a Member of Parliament is well recognised. It is a serious point that much of the programme’s funding supports issues relating to commemoration, which covers the holocaust, and some British organisations that commemorate the holocaust have received funding.
I suspect that the House probably feels that the United Kingdom is quite capable of providing its own recognition of the holocaust and the great war and that we do not need any help from Europe. At the start of his remarks, my hon. Friend said that the Bill had been debated in another place. I suggest to him that the bill that matters is that to the British taxpayer. Could he tell us how much cultural citizenship costs the UK taxpayer?
In this debate, we will find that many hon. Members are incredibly well informed and know a lot about the issue. My hon. Friend’s intervention is the second that tempts me to jump ahead in my speech. It is important, however, to answer a direct question directly: the budget is €185 million. I will come on to the budget, because there are certain things to say about it at the right moment.
Will the Minister give way?
I can hear another hon. Friend wanting to intervene, but I do not know whether or not the intervention is about the budget.
On questions of percentages and budgets, I understand that 20% will go towards commemorations, but will my hon. Friend comment on the 60% for projects linked to the Union political agenda?
My hon. Friend neatly takes us on to the next element of the budget. Some 60% of the budget will support other measures to encourage greater friendship between people living in Europe. One example of something that will be financed is twinning.
I was about to say that I did not know hon. Members’ views on the European Union, but I should perhaps say that I do not know their views on twinning, apart from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who has just made his view quite clear.
As a constituency MP, I for one see that twinning brings great joy to my constituents. If you will indulge me for a minute, Madam Deputy Speaker, the market town of Faringdon in my constituency is twinned with Le Mêle-sur-Sarthe in France, and it intends to twin with Lipcany in the Czech Republic. The market town of Wantage is twinned with Mably in France—in fact, we even have a Mably way—and Seesen in Germany, and Didcot is twinned with Planegg in Germany and Meylan in France. May I use this opportunity to pay tribute to the late Terry Joslin, a Labour councillor in Didcot—he sadly died at the end of last year—who was very much at the forefront of Didcot’s twinning arrangements?
Does my hon. Friend accept that many twinnings, which are jolly good, are done at no cost to the taxpayer?
I accept that point, and as a good Conservative, I am always in favour of anything that has no cost to the taxpayer. I also think that we all, as constituency MPs, know that when there is an opportunity for support, whether from the Big Lottery Fund or any other grants programme, we would encourage our constituents to apply for it, where appropriate.
Another example of the kind of programmes that are likely to be supported is shown by the recent grant of €100,000 to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which is a British organisation. It received the money last year to help European bodies understand how to run voluntary organisations. The rest of the budget will be spent on programme administration and the evaluation and dissemination of best practice between participating organisations.
Like its predecessor, the programme will be implemented through grants based on open calls for proposals and through service contracts based on calls for tender. To provide for the analysis and dissemination of the results, these activities will be supported by regular external and independent evaluation. Priority will be given to projects using new working methods or proposing innovative activities. An interim evaluation report on the implementation of the programme will be drawn up by the European Commission no later than the end of 2017, and a final evaluation report will be drawn up no later than 2023. The programme has no new impact on UK domestic policy. Such activities have been supported since the programme first began.
Will the Minister update the House on the size of the budget of the programme compared with the size of the budget of its predecessor, and on whether the budget reflects the search across the European Union—supposedly—for savings for the taxpayer in these straitened times?
I will certainly do so, but to put the answer to my hon. Friend’s question in context, it is important to stress that the Bill will have no financial effect on the UK Budget. Some might say, for the sake of argument, that the money could be better spent in the UK, but the fact is that it forms part of the European Union budget that has been agreed, so money not spent on this European project would be spent on a different one. I therefore take my hon. Friend’s intervention as an opportunity to remind the House that the Prime Minister secured a significant reduction in the European Union’s overall budget. In fact, I think it is the first time the EU has ever reduced its budget.
The original budget proposed for the programme was €229 million, which would have been a 7% increase on the budget for the 2007-2013 programme, which was €215 million, but I am pleased to say that, following the budget negotiations—otherwise known as the multi-annual financial framework—that figure came down to just over €185 million, which was a reduction of €44 million. It is also important to stress that the €185 million is spread over seven years and that we estimate the UK contribution to be about £2 million to £3 million a year. With that, I commend the Bill to the House.
As the Minister set out, the two purposes of the Bill are to provide proper archiving arrangements for European documents and to establish a programme for a citizens’ Europe. At first sight, they seem rather disparate, but they have a shared theme—history. The first is about preserving documents for future historians and the second is about looking back at the European events that catalysed the foundation of the EU.
I hope the programme can be used to strengthen people’s understanding of the EU, although I am not wholly convinced that more knowledge will mean a less critical view of the current institutional arrangements.
Would the hon. Lady agree that the more people know about how the EU works, the less likely it is to continue to exist?
That should be a reason for some people to support the proposals.
As the Minister points out, that should be a reason for some people to support the programme, but actually I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), for reasons I shall explain.
I have some observations and questions for the Minister about these two major themes in the Bill. As he has explained, EU documents will be archived at the European University Institute in Florence so that future historians can benefit from complete records. The Clerk of the House has explained to me that our own material is archived in Victoria Tower. Will the Minister tell the House—[Interruption.] Could he stop talking to his Parliamentary Private Secretary and listen to me? Would the EU institutions be able to make duplicates in vellum as we do in this Parliament?
The Minister said that the Bill does not cover the documents of the European Court of Justice and the European Central Bank. The ECB position is rather controversial, given our own decision, in 1997, to publish, after only six weeks, the meetings of the Monetary Policy Committee. Expectation management is an important part of monetary policy, so I wonder why we are not seeing the ECB papers in the same way. The whole exercise cannot be described as a measure to improve transparency, given the decision to keep everything secret for 30 years. Who decided that these documents should be kept secret for 30 years and why? My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), who sadly is not in his place, has commented on Mrs Thatcher’s approach to the miners’ strike, demonstrating how few people can fully understand the significance of papers when they are kept locked up for 30 years.
The aim of the citizen programme is to improve how citizens participate in and contribute to the EU by strengthening remembrance and common values and encouraging a broader engagement and debate. The budget is €185 million, so by my calculation about £7 million will be spent in this country—not, I would suggest, a vast amount. The Minister has said what he thinks we will contribute to the budget, but I wonder whether he can say how much of it he thinks will be spent in the UK.
As the Minister said, 20% of the money will go towards commemorating the world wars and victims of totalitarianism. The Government are spending some £50 million on commemorating world war one. If the remarks of the Secretary of State for Education and the decision to put Lord Kitchener on the £2 coin are anything to go by, the Government are embarking on an unnecessarily jingoistic approach, which this EU programme might usefully counterbalance.
I want to ask the Minister how the funds will be distributed. It is unfortunate that world war one appears only fleetingly for children in key stage 3, so a little more understanding can only be a good thing. Will the money for the commemoration of the world wars be distributed in its own channel, or will it be bundled up with the money the Government are spending directly and through the Heritage Lottery Fund?
As the Minister said, the major part of the moneys will be used on EU citizenship projects for learning and twinning. Since the major wave of twinning took place in the late-1970s, just after we joined the Common Market, and given that the EU now has 22 member states, it seems a good idea to give this initiative fresh impetus so that new relationships can be built across the Union.
I do not want to jump in on the hon. Lady, but there are 28 member states if Croatia is included.
I am happy to be corrected by the hon. Gentleman. His arithmetic is better than mine.
I wonder whether some towns will choose to be twinned with places in Bulgaria or Romania. I do not know whether the Minister has heard anything about that.
Projects for young people to learn about EU citizenship are particularly good, especially given the Government’s foolish decision to take personal, social, health and economic education, which included citizenship, out of the core curriculum. Young people are the most likely to self-identify as European. I hope that more information and education on, and more understanding of, Europe will mean that people will not be misled by the wilder claims about the European Union made by people who are Eurosceptic. However, I am not convinced that, once people know how the European institutions operate, their views towards them will be flattering.
I have received some interesting information from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations about how the Europe for Citizens programme is operating. I hope that it will reassure the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) that the money will not just be taken up by Europhile institutions. It states that the grants have enabled
“support for participation and democratic engagement”,
which is surely a good thing; projects on the
“impact of EU policies in societies”;
“exchange of expertise between members in different countries”.
When I was thinking about who might benefit from taking part in such programmes, I thought of the Minister. Many parts of his brief could benefit from a more collaborative approach with our European colleagues. For example, there could be collaboration on child protection on the internet, tackling the uncompetitive behaviour of the internet giants, and providing a proper copyright and intellectual property protection system. On the point about expertise, it might be worth looking at what some of our European colleagues do to prevent the export of heritage items, which is far more effective than what he is doing.
On the hon. Lady’s comments about my intervention, does she agree that grants that might be made to organisations to promote European values, as they are called, should be evaluated against what is in the interests of all citizens? Should they be confined only to political organisations or to charities?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I was going to come on to the question of whether they should be purely political, but he will surely agree that there is a shared commitment in Europe to democracy and liberty, and that is fruitful for people to understand how they can exercise their rights within the European context and in the European institutions.
It would have been better for these projects to be up and running before the EU elections in May. Why has it taken the Government so long to bring the Bill to this House? The Lords dealt with it at the end of July, when the Minister in the other place stated that his intention was for the Bill to receive Royal Assent by the end of 2013. Will the Minister say why the timetable has slipped? That is particularly unfortunate, as we are only four months away from the EU elections.
I am slightly concerned that the hon. Lady ties the Europe for Citizens programme with the European elections, because to gain funding from it people have to sign up and put in their contract bid that they will support the European Union’s initiatives and be pro-European. It would have been useful if the hon. Lady had bothered to read any background information on this before she stood up at the Dispatch Box. Surely it is not necessarily in the interests of democratic debate to have only one side of the argument funded by this programme?
The hon. Gentleman’s remarks are rather ungenerous. It is obviously important for people to understand what it is they are voting for. They are being asked to elect candidates and they need to know what powers the institutions have. I would have thought that could be shared across the House. I was struck by the energetic twinning arrangements in Oxfordshire.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), the programme says that strand 2 will spend 60% of the money and that
“It will give preference to initiatives and projects with a link to the Union political agenda”,
so there is an underlying political agenda. I agree with my hon. Friend that to spend the money before the elections could have an improper influence on them. It would be unlikely to give money to the UK Independence party, for example.
The money will not be given to political parties in any case, so the hon. Gentleman’s concern about unfairness is somewhat misplaced. The fact is that the money will not be spent before the European elections.
How will the money be publicised, so that we in Durham might benefit from it as much as people in Oxfordshire evidently have? How will people apply? It is crucial to the success of the project as a lever in raising people’s participation that it involves not just the same group of organisations that have a long-standing interest and involvement in European projects, but goes wider than that.
I hope the evaluation is not too onerous, because as much could be spent on the evaluation as the sums of money that are being given out, which would not be efficient. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that the arrangements are open and straightforward?
Given that the EU accounts, as I understand it, have not been signed off for the past 15 years, how can anyone be confident that this money will go where it is meant to go?
The hon. Gentleman needs to look at the areas that have caused the European Union’s auditors to qualify the EU’s accounts. My understanding is that they do not include the citizens programmes of education and learning for young people.
I am content with the arrangements on the Order Paper for further scrutiny of the Bill. I do not intend to divide the House tonight, but I agree with the suggestion made by other Members that it is important that we encourage and facilitate non-political cultural exchange, for which the Minister has responsibility. Over the Christmas holiday I was looking at the BBC’s collection of the nation’s favourite poems. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that the nation’s No. 1 choice is Kipling’s “If—”. I think that reveals something about the British, while the collection taken as a whole tells us something about our imaginary life and the value we place on our countryside. It would be fascinating if we knew more about the cultural life, views, experience and perspectives of the other member states, so I wonder whether the Minister has paid any attention to what we might do to facilitate more cultural exchange as well.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I have finished.
I am most grateful to you for calling me at this opportune moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I was going to ask a rather pertinent question about the BBC. There has been a lot of publicity recently about what I think is called the media action trust. This is an organisation within the BBC that apparently also has its own premises there and has, so we are informed, been provided with substantial funds from the EU for training journalists and activities of that kind. I have raised this issue in the House in the past, but that is typical of the kind of thing that is going on in the run-up to the European elections.
Let me say straight away that I do not have any particular concern about the first part of the Bill, which concerns the archives. There might well be some hidden problems buried in the archives in Florence that turn out to be a concern, but that is not what I am concerned about today. What I am profoundly concerned about, however—I shall vote against the Bill for this reason—is the question of European citizenship, which goes back to the treaties and the objectives of political union. One of the things that I well remember and that deeply concerned me in the very first part of the Maastricht debates, all those years ago, was the reference in the Maastricht treaty to conferring rights of citizenship on the people of the United Kingdom.
There was a good deal of debate about that in this House at that time. Although that reference did not say specifically what “European citizenship” would mean, we now know where it has been intended to lead. We only have to look at what Viviane Reding, the senior vice-president of the European Commission, said last week to know that it is based on an absolute determination to go pell-mell for a full united states of Europe. The proposals in this Bill, which, if it were possible, I would prefer to describe as a disapprovals Bill rather than an approvals Bill, aim to provide money for the purposes of generating information about and supporting the study and promotion—that is the key word—of political union.
I have with me the full documentation from the Council of the European Union dated 17 September 2013. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has already rightly referred to the passage that says that preference will be given
“to initiatives and projects with a link to the Union political agenda.”
However—no doubt when he rises to speak he will also refer to this; I hope I am not pre-empting him too much—under the heading “Programme Management”, that document also says:
“In general, preference will be given to grants for projects irrespective of their size but with a high impact, in particular those which are directly linked to Union policies with a view to participate in the shaping of the Union political agenda.”
These provisions are said to be done under article 352. Those of us who have been involved in the whole process—I have the honour to be Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, and I have been a member of it for the best part of 30 years—may remember the old article 308, now replaced by article 352. Those associated with administrative law will know that where there is a statute, there is often a supplementary provision that allows one to do all such things as are reasonably incidental to the carrying on of the main functions. That is precisely what article 352 achieves.
Although I deeply disapproved of the provisions of the Referendum Bill in most respects, which is why I voted against most of them, it is quite right that—and I am glad that the coalition Government have provided for this—for matters of this kind to be dealt with by Act of Parliament. This regulation and these arrangements are dictated by unanimity, which means that we could say no. I shall now provide a number of reasons to explain why I believe that this grant-making exercise is aimed at providing propaganda, as I see it, for purposes of political union. That is why we should say no.
I heard what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said in her reasonable speech about the whole question of European elections, and I alluded to the same point in my intervention on the Minister. I believe that although not much money is involved, this will benefit organisations—I mentioned the word “charities”, but this measure will not relate solely to charities—that are politically motivated for the purposes of promoting the objectives under article 352, which amount to the whole integrationist process. I have in mind statements of the kind recently made by Mr Barroso, who said in the so-called blueprint for the future of Europe that
“the European Parliament and only the European Parliament is the Parliament for the European Union.”
That shows the sort of propaganda whose mechanism and funding will drive the argument further and further in that direction. As many argued in the documents relating to the Bill, this could be extended towards schools, for example. Some in the House of Lords spoke of greater engagement with schools, educational colleges and the rest. Then there is the BBC and the training of journalists, and so it goes on.
If the money, albeit only £2 million, is to be tied under the contract and the tender by these arrangements, many of the organisations concerned will have a very significant impact because what they write will be reproduced in much of the press. There might then be, shall we say, £150,000 or £250,000-worth of grants, providing a very substantial opportunity to disseminate propaganda for the European Union.
In the present situation, however, 95 Conservative Members—I believe it is really well over 100—have said that we should veto European legislation if it is not in our interests. I would be interested to know whether I am right—I believe I am—that this is mainly aimed at providing money for foundations, organisations and, as it specifically mentions, think-tanks to promote European policies and European integration, and not the other way round.
At the same time a serious debate is taking place between those who are in favour of more integration and those who are against it. The Prime Minister is trying to find some middle ground, but it is crystal clear that what is also happening is the promotion of European integration, and this programme will assist that process. If we are to have an in-or-out referendum, albeit far too late in my opinion, I think it very important for the Bill’s immediate objectives to be confined to ensuring that no money is provided under the aegis of the United Kingdom, or with its encouragement, for the purpose of promoting activities in which we in this country have effectively said that we do not want to engage.
Does my hon. Friend fear that money from this pot could be used at any point to promote the European Union prior to a referendum in this country?
I sense that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would not wish me to go too far down that route, but the short answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes. That is a good illustration of why we need a provision—under the aegis of the European Scrutiny Committee’s report, which has been supported by numerous Conservative Members of Parliament—to ensure that we do not end up paying for the promotion of integrationist policies that are contrary to what we believe in.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points. Does the Bill contain any provisions or mechanisms that would prevent the use of money from this pot for propaganda purposes before a referendum in this country?
That is an extremely important question, to which the answer is zero: none at all. Perhaps the Minister would like to intervene in order to repudiate what I am saying, and to assure me that none of this money will be used for any propaganda exercises—that none of it will be given to think-tanks that are promoting the idea of the European Union—and to make absolutely clear that we are not, as a Government, supporting the promotion of propaganda for the purposes of political union in advance of European elections. The Minister is sitting with a Sphinx-like expression on his face. I suspect that he knows the answer, but is not terribly keen to give it to me.
It is a poker face, actually, not a Sphinx-like expression. I will respond to my hon. Friend when I sum up the debate. There are so many Members in the Chamber this afternoon who are experts on this subject and who will want to make lengthy interventions to educate the House about the Bill that I do not want to stand in their way, given that I know I have a slot.
There is another point, too. A very interesting statement, which I happen to know is true, was made under the aegis of the European Scrutiny Committee. In his letter of 19 November 2013, the Minister said that an agreement on the substance of the draft regulation had been reached by COREPER in March 2013. I need not spend too much time on that, because the COREPER problems are contained in our report, but the point is that the agreement to which the letter referred was ticked off by officials.
I am not denying that the Minister has come to the House and said that he endorses this, and the same situation arose in the House of Lords. However, I want to emphasise that our report, which has been supported by all those Members of Parliament, identified that process as a matter of concern, because it had been dealt with by officials in the first place and ticked off by them, and then along came the Government and agreed to it. We had recommended that the whole matter be dealt with in a European Standing Committee. Our recommendation has understandably been overtaken by events, in the shape of the Bill, but we remain deeply concerned about the way in which the money could be used.
I am always pleased to be able to be constructive, and to offer a tribute when it is required. I was glad to hear the Minister tell us—and I happen to know that this is true—that the amount of money in question started out as £229 million, and has been reduced to £185 million. I am glad he linked that to the reduction in the budget generally under the multiannual arrangements he described, but I would only make this point, especially on behalf of some on this side of the House: I put down the amendment that helped the Government to arrive at the decision that reducing the budget would be a good idea, because that was a unanimous decision that had been agreed to on both sides of the House.
My hon. Friend talks about propaganda and UK taxpayers’ money being used to fund it. Is he aware that, anecdotally, as we approach the centenary of the first world war it is being referred to by the European Union as the European civil war?
I am extremely interested in that because I recall that a serious dispute arose only a few days ago, when the distinguished Secretary of State for Education made remarks regarding the manner in which world war one was being addressed. The debate ultimately turned on the question of whether or not it was Germany that started the first world war, and I have no doubt at all, and nor did A. J. P. Taylor.
Order. The hon. Gentleman rightly said earlier that the Chair would be keeping a watchful eye to ensure that this debate sticks to the purpose of discussing this very short Bill. At the moment the hon. Gentleman is just within the bounds of discussing Europe for citizens. He may be straying somewhat, however, and I am sure he will bring his remarks back to the subject under discussion.
I certainly will, and precisely because of that reference to world war one. I took part in the debate on the Floor of the House about the idea of our helping to commemorate world war one, and I believe we can do it, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) said, on our terms without European money. It is about remembrance, and that is most emphatically in this Bill, as I am sure all Members of this House will recognise, so when I referred to the question of world war one, I was referring to the remembrance aspect of this strand of the programme. I would like to make it clear that I am very much in favour of that and in no way would want to prevent substantial remembrance events from taking place. Indeed, I shall be going to Normandy next year, where my father was killed in the second world war, and won the military cross, at Maltot near Caen. I shall be going there to commemorate all the brave men and women who died in the second world war and also to pay tribute to those who took part in the first world war. I am not against the principle of this, therefore, and I am very much in favour of moneys being provided for it, although I think we can do it on our own terms and we do not need this Bill to do it.
There is one final point I wish to make. I think the entire debate that we have had in the last few days about whether or not there should be vetoes and whether or not there should be disapplication of legislation is very important. For the reasons I have given, and because of the way in which the money, which is our money, is being spent by the European Union on projects that are not consistent with the voters’ wishes in general, this is not the kind of thing I would want to support. Furthermore, that is why I shall be voting against this Bill. I am also extremely surprised because I do not think the Minister is in any way disagreeing with my general proposition that, for the reasons set out clearly in the programme itself, this money is going to be made available to those who promote the political objectives of the European Union and the citizenship that goes with it and will provide substantial grants for that purpose.
All of these points are reasons why we should exercise a veto. Indeed, this proposal would provide a perfect example under my parliamentary sovereignty Bill, which I introduced a few months ago. If 100 Members were to decide they did not want something like this, I hope that would lead to its being vetoed.
In summary, I do not approve of this approvals Bill. This is all about democratic decision making. Let us bear in mind that the draft regulation is indeed a regulation, which is of a higher order even than a directive. We have to comply with every aspect of a regulation. I have great affection for the Minister, and I have heard what he has said. I greatly approve of almost everything he does, but not this measure. This should be a European Union disapprovals Bill.
Although we have just passed the auld Scots new year, this is the first chance I have had to congratulate you on your new appointment, Madam Deputy Speaker. In the context of another debate that is going on outside this place, which is not unrelated to Europe in some respects, it is good that a Scot has been elected by her colleagues to such a prominent and important UK constitutional position. Long may that capacity continue in the United Kingdom.
We are talking about another Union today, however. The matter of the United Kingdom draws the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and me together, but that other Union has forced us apart for 30 years. I shall not echo his concluding remarks about the question of a veto. Were that to be established as governmental and Commons practice, he would want to apply it even to something as gentle, timorous, limited and constrained as this European Union (Approvals) Bill. That would certainly vindicate my view that his election to the chairmanship of the European Scrutiny Committee was akin to putting King Herod in charge of a maternity ward. Indeed, he has proved that in his attitude to this generally meek, mild and inoffensive measure that the Minister has put before the House tonight.
Actually, such a veto already exists. The measure that I like to call “Bill’s Bill” would not even apply to this. I think the right hon. Gentleman followed us through the Lobby on the EU legislation that gave us a veto on the Bill we are discussing today. So, timorous though it might be, we already have the ability to veto it.
I gather from the hon. Member for Stone’s speech that we are going to face a Division on the Bill’s Second Reading, so the House will have an opportunity to decide. The Minister will be aware of the presence of some notable evergreens who remember the days, and particularly the nights, of the Maastricht saga in this House. He will know that, on this Bill, he has the backing of the Government and, I would imagine, of a swath of the parliamentary Conservative party. He also has the backing of Labour, as the official Opposition, and I think I am correct in saying that he has the unanimous backing of the Liberal Democrats, although I never seek or aspire to speak for them in any leadership capacity or in an ex cathedra manner.
Before the Christmas recess, I raised a question with the Deputy Prime Minister, my party leader, who was standing in for the Prime Minister. I pointed out that there could be quite a difference between Government rhetoric on Europe and the reality. The Bill is interesting because, on this occasion, the rhetoric and the reality are as one. The hon. Member for Stone is correct—I have read the correspondence—to say that the Minister pointed out in the early stages of this measure that the Government were not pleased about what was then a projected percentage increase in the available budget, and that they would seek, through negotiation, to push that sum in the opposite direction. I congratulate the Government on their act of positive engagement at European level, which has achieved exactly that. Those cost reductions are to be welcomed, and the rhetoric of the Government has matched the delivery. That makes it all the more easy for people such as me to support the Government in the Lobby on this issue. We have also supported the Bill in the Lords, as my noble Friend, Baroness Falkner, made clear.
I do not wish to dwell at all on the established practice of the European University Institute being based, located and accessed in Florence and that now being given legal status as a result of this measure. However, I want to say a word or two about the second half of the Bill, which deals with the Europe for Citizens programme, where I wish to make a contribution not on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, but in a personal capacity on behalf of the European Movement, with which I have been associated for a number of years—I have had the privilege and pleasure to be its UK president. As the Minister knows, the European Movement is all-party and, most significantly, as I always say, non-party in its composition. It has been with us, in this country and elsewhere on the continent, since the formation of Europe itself—the political Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. Over the decades it has made a notable and distinguished contribution to the dissemination of knowledge—genuine knowledge, not propaganda—through schools, local voluntary organisations and so on.
The European Movement suffered in the era of the Blair Government through the launch of Britain in Europe. As we all know, Britain in Europe was not so much a case of “Waiting for Godot” as of waiting for Gordon; it was a two-act play in which nothing happened, twice. The Prime Minister assembled his pro-European forces and marched them to the top of the hill on more than one occasion, and absolutely nothing came of it. The group that suffered most during that period of raised expectation followed by zero was the long-standing European Movement, which was rather eclipsed by Britain in Europe and has been clawing its way back ever since.
The European Movement is central to the second part of the Bill, because its entire raison d’être fits ideally with precisely what the Bill talks about. The characteristically excellent Library research paper states that in an explanatory memorandum of 26 January 2012, so just under a year ago,
“the Government approved of the proposed simplifications to the programme’s administration”—
the Europe for Citizens programme—
“and observed that the programme reflected, and could potentially support, the UK Government’s aims and programmes, in particular the Big Society agenda and Positive for Youth. There were also potential benefits to UK civil society organisations, local authorities and organisations, and grassroots sports and culture projects.”
The constitution and raison d’être of the European Movement fit ideally within what the Government have pointed out, but here comes the rub: the European Movement used to enjoy a direct subvention from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That came to an end in Mrs Thatcher’s days, and perhaps that is no great surprise. What is perhaps a wee bit more surprising is that nothing was ever restored in the long years of the Labour Government that occurred later. I raised the issue with both Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Brown but to no avail. It is not a matter for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It has, in the past, been a matter for the FCO, although if DCMS wished to enter and make good the breach, I can assure the Minister that it would be welcome to do so. I hope that he will take this opportunity to point out that there is a bit of an irony that the European Movement is often offered practical support, through the use of facilities, by many European consulates and embassies within the UK yet receives nothing by way of practical support from our own FCO.
When we are passing a Bill such as this, with the very things that the Government are highlighting approvingly and the potential that this Bill can bring, it does seem a bit ironic, if not perverse in the extreme, that the European Movement is getting overlooked in this way. Wearing that hat, I make a plea to the Minister to draw the matter to the attention of his colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to look for a little bit of largesse as we reach the closing stages of this coalition Parliament.
I am listening with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman, not least because, from his perspective, the European Movement does its job. However, is he not over-concerned about this matter? Surely, under these arrangements, he should expect the European Movement to get the moneys, because that is made clear under the Bill. I may not believe that we should pass the Bill, but if it does go through, as seems likely, I believe that the European Movement will benefit. Is he not being a bit over-anxious?
I am less anxious now than I was just before I accepted that intervention. If the European Movement makes an application to such funds, I will be able to quote an opponent of the very measure that gives rise to such access as well as supporters such as the Minister and me. I hope that that might help its prospects as and when it makes an application. For the first time ever in nearly 30 years in a European debate, I can look at the hon. Gentleman, regard him as my hon. Friend and say, “D’accord”. I am most grateful to him.
In conclusion, one thing that always bedevils the European debate is the meaning of vocabulary. The classic is “federalism”, which has a very different meaning the minute we cross the English channel to what it has come to mean not least in the tabloid press in this country. Another example is the term “ever-closer union” on which we have touched. Of course it has its antecedents with the initials ECU, which was used in a slightly different context several decades ago.
As we are seeing in the Scottish debate, and as I think we can see in the European debate—these measures can assist in this process—the words “ever-closer union” could be more appropriately replaced with the words “ever-closer understanding”. The more that the practical implications, particularly for citizens’ rights, in the second part of this Bill create a climate of more accessibility and greater, ever-closer understanding, the better it will be.
There is a huge amount about the European Union that I would like to change. Indeed, all organisations of that type need to be reformed, and there is a huge opportunity coming up. The Prime Minister’s commitment to a referendum in 2017 is predicated on the fact that we will also see substantial changes. I would like to see a lot of changes, particularly the deepening and widening of the single market to include energy. I want to see more emphasis on productivity across Europe, and more capacity for European countries to trade with each other and, above all, strike a bigger punch in the global economy as well. That is all about ensuring that the European Union is fit for purpose. I am, therefore, by no means immune to the idea that the European Union needs to be reformed and changed. However, let me first celebrate the fact that we are today debating this issue, which is down to the coalition Government who passed the European Union Act 2011.
This is a fabulous opportunity for us to demonstrate the value of that Act, because it is through that Act that we are making this decision. It is proof that Parliament—I am talking about this Parliament, but other Parliaments could pass similar legislation—can indeed exercise some authority over the decision making of the European Union. The Government should be congratulated not just on being bold enough to pass that Act but on being so easily able to use it in a situation such as this.
Importantly, this legislation is founded on the treaties to which we have signed up. Those treaties require, in this particular case, unanimity, which gives the decision we are making even more force, which is useful. That does not mean that we should be handing out red cards every time we think about an issue, because we also must ensure that the European Union works. A single market is one example where we need a more considered and conciliatory approach to ensure that it operates not just for our benefit but for that of everybody else in the European Union, particularly when we are negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States.
Such decisions require unanimity in the Council of Ministers, and our Minister will not be able to nod the matter through unless or until we vote accordingly tonight. That is a clear statement that this Parliament has more power than it did before, and that is down to the European Union Act 2011. When we confront either the next general election or the referendum, we will be able to say that we have delivered for Parliament more capacity to influence the situation in the European Union.
Having talked about the Bill in a constitutional context, I now want to move on to the measures it contains. It is a good idea to move all the archives to Florence, particularly to the European University Institute, which I have visited. It is obviously logical to have everything in the same building. None the less, I cannot imagine that many people would want to visit Florence just to look at the archives. If that is the case, they are indeed committed to something that is not as exciting as other things they might like to find. The fact is it is right to have archives for the European Union. Historians will want to know how things unfolded, and will want to be able to access such findings, so I am happy with that measure.
On citizens and, effectively, promoting the European Union through the fund, it is sensible to take into account the Minister’s remarks on twinnings. In my constituency, a large number of towns and villages are twinned. They enjoy the experience and get a huge amount of cultural advantage from it, as they meet many people from different regions. Stroud itself is twinned with Saint-Ismier near Grenoble, and I find the linkage with the people there extraordinarily valuable, but it is neither overtly political nor party political in any sense. The people in the twinning organisation are Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour party supporters—there are some—independents and those who are not interested in politics at all. The linkage is first and foremost cultural.
I will not go into detail about all the things that will be supported by the money, because Members might raise an eyebrow about some of them. In broad terms, however, this is a reasonable amount of money spent in a reasonable way, especially as it has already been allocated through the budget.
My last point is a territorial one. In the explanatory notes, we are reminded that the Bill applies to the whole of the United Kingdom. Scotland might make the foolish decision to leave the UK, in which case it will effectively leave the European Union, and that may well raise an issue for this measure. I remind the House that we should be absolutely emphatic in our view that Scotland should remain a member of the United Kingdom and, therefore, a member of the European Union. These matters should be discussed in 2017 when we have had an opportunity to recalibrate some of our policies and reassess where we stand, and—fundamentally, in my view—we should then ensure that Britain’s membership of the European Union continues through a reformed, modernised and, in many cases, vastly reduced EU, but one in which business can thrive, trade is developed and our punch as a country and as a continent are enhanced.
It is absolutely right that the 2011 Act was passed. The Bill is an example of the value of that Act, and I hope to see more opportunities to show that in the months and years to come.
It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), because I am going to start my speech with a similar point to that with which he finished his. It is interesting to see how we got to the point of having this debate. As the House knows, the legal position is that the UK now holds a veto over these proposals under the EU treaties and section 8 of the European Union Act 2011. The Government are not permitted to support the proposals or abstain unless they are approved by Parliament.
The European Union Act is the much-heralded Act that means that we, as the UK Parliament, are scrutinising some aspects of European business that have never been properly examined before by nation state Parliaments. Our Government should be congratulated on that and I thank them for the opportunity. To provide such parliamentary approval, the Government have introduced this Bill, and hence we have the debate today.
As we have heard, the Bill has already been approved by the House of Lords with minimal debate, but unless the House of Commons approves it the Europe for Citizens programme, for example, will simply fall. The UK will have to block that programme in the Council of Ministers and it will not be able to go ahead. To put it simply, voting against the measure means that Parliament is telling the Government to veto this element of EU spending. It is a welcome development for Parliament to be able to scrutinise such spending in such detail. I was pleased to hear that the Minister has done some of his homework and he has done very well at getting up to speed on the matter.
As a number of Members have mentioned, the Bill will also approve a pretty uncontroversial proposal, which is also subject to section 8 of the 2011 Act, that will require most European bodies to deposit their historical archives with the European university institute in Florence. I have a “Boring but important” box in which to file things in my office and also a “I don’t give a toss” box; this measure would certainly be flung into the latter. There is no reason to talk or get excited about that measure.
There is good reason, however, to talk about the Europe for Citizens measure. I first came across the measure during my work not as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee of this Parliament but as a Member of the European Parliament for the East Midlands, which I was for 10 years, when I sat on both the Committee on Budgets and the Committee on Budgetary Control. When, as a Member of the European Scrutiny Committee of this Parliament, I saw that the Government were proposing to support a draft EU regulation re-establishing the Europe for Citizens programme for the period from 2014 to 2020 it caused me to raise an eyebrow. I have many concerns about the programme—I have harboured them for a long time—and I want the Government to alter their position so that the UK and other EU countries are not saddled with funding what is likely to be wasteful pro-European propaganda, political in its very nature.
Ages ago, when I was a Member of the European Parliament, I asked questions of the European Commission about what organisations would get funding from the programme. I will talk about some of them, but let me say first that we are not talking about one or two organisations. I have in my hand a list of all the organisations that received funding from that budget—I will not read it out, as it has seven or eight pages of closely typed words. The copy I have brought with me is just for 2007.
I was concerned then about the level of transparency with which those organisations spent their money, with the European Commission’s evaluation of that programme and with how the moneys were spent. I am pleased to hear that the European Commission has decided at least to say that it has decided to up its game in evaluating the programme. Will the Minister tell us whether that is an admission by the European Commission of its failure to do things properly in the course of the previous programme? Lots of money was wasted on a number of projects, some of which I will detail later.
I would like to hear confirmation from the Minister of whether any official or Minister of a UK Government—either this Government or the previous Government—has raised any concerns about how money is prioritised and spent in the Europe for Citizens programme. I doubt that has ever happened.
The preamble to the draft regulations introduces the Europe for Citizens programme with the following words:
“While there is objectively an added value in being a Union citizen with established rights, the Union does not always highlight in an effective way the link between the solution to a broad range of economic and social problems and the Union’s policies.”
If one was Greek, one would probably say that those policies were the cause of the problem, not the solution. The preamble continues:
“Hence, the impressive achievements in terms of peace and stability in Europe, long-term sustainable growth”—
“stable prices, an efficient protection of consumers and the environment and the promotion of fundamental rights, have not always led to a…feeling among citizens of belonging to the Union.”
I apologise for arriving late to the debate. The hon. Gentleman talks about stable prices, but prices have started to fall in Greece and deflation is a much more serious concern for anybody who understands economics than inflation. Greece faces a serious problem and prices are hardly stable.
I understand the statistics that the hon. Gentleman has just relayed. That just goes to prove that what the European Commission believes to be happening and what is happening are two completely different things. Indeed, the Commission is quite Orwellian in its interpretation of what goes on around it.
Surely the evidence that it is not working is there for all to see. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is an expert on such matters, as the Minister recognised, so why are the Government not listening to the experts and looking to act on the evidence?
Fortunately, that is one for the Minister to answer. There are plenty of experts on both sides of this very political argument and one point that I shall continue to make during my speech is that this is a very political matter that should therefore not be funded by taxpayers’ money.
It is interesting to see that the European Commission recognises some of the issues it faces. The preamble continues:
“In order to bring Europe closer to its citizens and to enable them to participate fully in the construction of an ever closer Union, a variety of actions and coordinated efforts through transnational and Union level activities are required.”
In other words, the solution to some of the issues we face today is not less Europe but, according to the European Commission, more Europe, and to ensure that people think that way the Commission will pay for a bunch of projects to try to tell them that that is the case.
Article 1 of the draft regulation states that the general objectives of the programme are
“to contribute to citizens’ understanding of the Union, its history and diversity”
“to foster European citizenship and to improve conditions for civic and democratic participation at Union level.”
I am pretty sure that that is a reference to the European elections, which is slightly concerning. That, together with the preamble, suggests that the programme is aimed at lauding the European Union as a political project with, as I will demonstrate, many a federalist overtone. That is reinforced by the fact that article 6 of the proposal states that the programme is open to
“stakeholders promoting European citizenship and integration”.
In other words, one can apply for money from the programme only if one believes in one side of the political argument.
I heard what the Minister said about the collaboration element of the project. Like everyone else in the House, I support any attempt realistically to encourage the commemoration and remembrance of important events in the history of Europe, volunteering, or participation in the democratic process, where there is genuine enthusiasm for it, but I am greatly concerned about trying to force one particular political viewpoint down peoples’ throats.