House of Commons
Monday 14 July 2014
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Army continues to implement Army 2020 structures in accordance with the announcement made by the Secretary of State on 5 July 2012. Headquarters Force Troops Command has formed in its new role, and Headquarters 1 UK and 3 UK divisions will commence their new roles this autumn. Units will enter the new annual training cycle from 1 January 2015.
Will the Minister explain why the only target the Government will meet is to shrink the full- time regular Army to 82,500 by 2018, so that the whole professional British Army will fit inside Wembley stadium? What does that say about the coalition’s priorities in terms of national security?
First, the reserve force is professional too, and the combined regular and reserved force will not fit inside Wembley stadium—although the way England has been playing of late, that may be a mercy. I remind the hon. Lady that the new defence approach does not represent our purely breaking new ground, but brings us more into line with our international partners. Reserves currently make up 17% of our armed forces, compared with 55% in the United States, 51% in Canada, and 36% in Australia. Under Future Force 2020, reserves will make up 20% of our armed forces and 26% of our Army.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Army 2020 model is to succeed it will depend on a proper pull-through of new recruits? Will he confirm that the Capita system, which made such a disastrous start, is now improving and achieving a satisfactory flow of new recruits?
I confirm that there have been problems with the computer system, and I have said that in the House previously. I also confirm that that is being improved, and that additional measures have been taken to streamline the process—for instance, by reducing paperwork and medical bureaucracy. The system is improving and the flow is getting better.
23. Last month’s National Audit Office report on Army 2020 showed that Ministers had not done the basic work to ensure the successful delivery of the reforms, particularly of reservist recruitment. Poor planning data had been used and assumptions were not tested. Why did the Minister not challenge those half-baked proposals? (904822)
When I served in the Territorial Army in the 1980s, I served on something called Exercise Lionheart in 1984. In those days, what was the Territorial Army had 75,000 trained men and women under arms, drawn from a smaller population. I have to believe that if we could achieve 75,000 then, we can get 30,000 trained men and women by 2018-19. We can do this, and I believe that we will.
The Defence Reform Act 2014 requires the reserve forces and cadets associations to prepare an annual report on the state of the reserves, and the Secretary of State to publish it. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that report was filed on time? When will he publish it?
We believe that we have properly assessed the right size of the Army to create a mixture of regulars and reserves to defend our country in the future, and I respectfully remind the hon. Gentleman that we mobilised 25,000 reservists for service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom won gallantry awards fighting directly alongside their regular counterparts. We are very proud of our reserves and what they have achieved in the defence of this country in the past, as well as what they will continue to do in defence of this country in the future.
My hon. Friend—who, by the way, is responsible for the amendment that leads to the report mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon)—is familiar with the whole process, and he and I have discussed the matter on a number of occasions. To make the programme work as effectively as possible, we must continue to devolve responsibility for recruiting down to unit level to give commanding officers and their subordinate officers greater responsibility and challenge in meeting the numbers. As I have intimated to the House, that programme is already under way, and I believe that with his support, and support across the House, we can make this programme work.
The NAO report concluded that the Government’s incompetent handling of Army 2020 was leading to serious shortfalls in capability. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) just announced, the only target they were meeting was handing out P45s. The Prime Minister’s announcement today of investment in special forces will ring pretty hollow as they go through a restructuring programme that has seen a reduction in their capability. Is this not yet another example of Ministers giving with one hand, only to take away with the other?
There are significant differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Subject to the conclusion of a status of forces agreement with NATO, the alliance plans to continue to support the Afghan security forces and the Security Ministries as part of the Resolute Support mission. NATO countries reaffirmed the Chicago summit commitments of $4.1 billion a year towards Afghan national security force sustainment, helping to underpin the long-term stability of Afghanistan. We look forward to the status of forces agreement being completed as one of the first acts of the incoming Afghan President.
Two things seem to have caught everyone by surprise in Iraq: the very poor intelligence picture that the west has had on the caliphate forces; and the fact that nobody seems to have understood how weak the response of the official Iraqi armed forces was going to be to the Sunni insurgency. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that those two big failures will not be repeated in Afghanistan?
It is important to note that the failure of the Iraqi security forces was a failure of political coherence, not a failure in combat. Where they engaged in combat, they performed adequately. It was where they failed to engage at all that the problem arose. We expect to have far better situational awareness in Afghanistan, because of the continuing engagement through Operation Resolute Support in that country.
I think I said to the hon. Gentleman the other day that there has been combat in that area of northern Helmand and that the Taliban did take some ground from the Afghan national security forces. However, the ANSF rapidly regrouped, and almost without any support from the international security assistance force retook the towns in question. The ANSF are now in effective control of those towns on the ground. The Taliban attack has been defeated. That is not to say that the ANSF are not prepared for a further assault by the Taliban. This area of Helmand is by far the most kinetic in Afghanistan. It is a very dangerous area still, and it will be for the foreseeable future.
In the difficult circumstances that the Secretary of State outlines, some of those most in danger are the 600 interpreters who served with the British forces on the front line. In June last year, he outlined plans to allow them to resettle in the UK, so will he tell the House why, according to recent reports, only two of them have so far been granted visas?
I recently travelled to the Gulf for discussions with the Governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar to better understand the views of our closest allies in the region on the situation in Iraq. There is a shared view that only a political solution, based on a more inclusive Government in Iraq, can turn the tide against ISIS.
Would this House of Commons not be in a shameful position if, having caused this murderous civil war between Sunni and Shi’a by our wrong-headed invasion of Iraq, we now washed our hands of the situation? Nobody wants to commit ground troops again, but is there not a case to be made for committing advisers and, if necessary, special forces—any means necessary short of ground troops—to show our moral support for the existing Government in Iraq?
We have made it clear that we believe there are two steps. The first is a political solution to the situation in Iraq. Iraq must have an inclusive Government in order to rally the Iraqi security forces and to be able to provide an appropriate defence against the ISIS incursion. Our focus at the moment is on encouraging the formation of such an inclusive Government in Baghdad. Once a Government with broad legitimacy in the country is established, we will be open to considering requests for technical advice and support from that Government to reinforce the Iraqi security forces.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s initial answer. Does he agree with me that it is critical for the UK to remain close to all the regional players, including Jordan and Qatar, so that maximum influence can be brought to bear if any of these individual countries get drawn into Iraq’s internal security challenges in different ways?
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital that we remain engaged with the key countries in the region, and we will do so. It is vital, too, that we are acutely mindful of the pressures that the Governments of Jordan and Lebanon are under as a result of what is going on in Syria and Iraq. These are two very important countries, and we will do everything we can to support them in these difficult times.
In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with his counterparts in the middle east, did they say whether Mr Maliki was the right person to lead Iraq or whether former Prime Minister Allawi, having had excellent relations with Sunnis in Iraq and the wider middle eastern countries, is the right person to take Iraq forward?
Not all the Governments of our key allies in the middle east have such an understanding of the democratic process as we do. It is very clear to us in this country that it is not for us to comment on who should be the Prime Minister of a country following a democratic election. It is clear that the Government of Iraq need to be inclusive, and in direct answer to my hon. Friend it would be fair to say that there is a range of different views among middle east countries about the appropriateness of various individuals to lead such an inclusive Government.
Twenty years ago, John Major’s Government supported the Kurds and quite rightly protected them against Saddam, while Tony Blair’s Government did the same. Is it not now time for the British Government to recognise that the Kurdish region of Iraq, which is democratic, pluralistic and inclusive, needs support to defend itself against al-Qaeda-linked terrorism, and to support the pluralism and democracy that will grow from that region into the rest of Iraq?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Foreign Secretary went to Erbil on his recent visit to Iraq. The British Government’s position is clear: we need to keep Iraq as a unified state. The one thing that I heard in every one of the capitals I visited in the Gulf is that Iraq needs to remain a unified state. We should devote our efforts to trying to achieve that outcome—a unified state with a pluralistic Government.
I want to pursue the answer that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen). Jordan is extremely important, so I think there is a collective responsibility to build up that country’s resilience. Will the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about what precisely we are doing?
The UK has excellent military-to-military relationships with Jordan. We send troops there for training for our own purposes and we provide technical support and assistance to the Jordanian armed forces. Many Jordanian officers come to the UK for training. We will continue to support the Jordanian armed forces and the Jordanian Government in every practical way we can.
It is not for us to get agreement on a broad-based Government; it is for the Iraqi people to seize the moment to ensure the future continuity of Iraq as a unitary state. That is not assured. Clearly, there are three separate regions within Iraq, any one of which could seek autonomy if a broad-based Government in Baghdad is not formed. We have to devote our present energies to seeking to ensure that outcome.
May I ask my right hon. Friend to return to the issue of Jordan? That country is under grave pressure as a result of the influx of refugees. It is a country that is generally recognised to be both politically and economically fragile. The fact that ISIS has expanded its activities to such an extent that people believe Jordan could be menaced serves only to underline the importance of our assistance to a country that is enormously important to us, not least on account of its being a very long-standing ally. Can we be assured that this Government will understand the urgency of Jordan’s position and do everything feasible to ensure that it does not succumb to the undue influence of ISIS?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Jordan is a key ally in the region. Crown Prince Faisal will be at Farnborough tomorrow, and we look forward to discussing these issues with him. However, what my right hon. and learned Friend has said also emphasises the need for us to look at the impact of ISIS on a cross-regional basis. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan are all affected by its activities, and the threat that those activities represent will also be felt by many states in the Gulf and, indeed, in the west.
NATO Summit (Wales)
Let me begin by paying tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and other shipbuilders on the Clyde for their tremendous achievement in creating HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The Government have three clear priorities for the NATO summit in Wales. First, we will mark NATO’s achievements in Afghanistan, recognise the sacrifices that it has made, and draft the next chapter in our enduring support for the Afghan people. Secondly, we will send Russia the clear message that NATO has the necessary capabilities and intent to provide for the collective security of the alliance by means including the deterrence of further Russian aggression. Thirdly, those capabilities will also contribute to addressing the numerous challenges that emanate from an unstable world in NATO’s neighbourhood and further afield. In particular, we will underscore transatlantic unity through a commitment to defence spending and practical security sector support for NATO’s partners and friends.
I thank the Minister for that extensive answer, and on behalf of the 2,000 workers in my local shipyard and other yards throughout the United Kingdom I thank him for his kind words.
I am a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and, as such, I have meetings with NATO parliamentarians from the United States and Europe. They are of the opinion that Georgia should be given a membership action plan at the Wales summit. What is the United Kingdom’s view?
Let us be clear: this is not an enlargement summit. However, at a recent meeting, NATO Foreign Affairs Ministers determined that Georgia should be encouraged and given every support that it needs in its aspirations. They also considered other aspirants to NATO, and similar programmes have been mapped for them.
Given the importance of the Russia-Crimea issue to the NATO summit, and given the importance of the UK’s showing leadership at the summit, does it not provide a unique opportunity for us to make a statutory commitment to spending no less than 2% of our GDP on defence?
My hon. Friend is tempting me, but, in resisting his proposition, let me suggest to him ever so gently that our intent is to encourage other partner nations to step up to the plate and make their fair contribution. If we are to enjoy the insurance policy, we must pay the premium. Too many of our partners in this endeavour have yet to spend a proper proportion of their GNP on defence, and that must be our priority.
Cyber is certain to be a priority at the NATO summit, as it is a growing threat. Today there was an announcement of increased resources for ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and cyber defence. However, the Secretary of State is seeking to sell off military spectrum capability. What work has been undertaken to establish the possible effects of that on military communications and equipment, given that it is an increasingly critical area?
We are, of course, keeping the spectrum that we need. I am very pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes today’s announcement, which is a result of prudent management of the defence budget early in the current Parliament. Let me also gently point out to her that this country has been independently assessed as being No. 1 in respect of preparedness for a cyber attack. Most of that is due to close co-operation between the Government and the commercial sector, which is vital in preparing this country to face down a possible cyber attack.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty currently specifies that if there is armed aggression against any member, there will be a collective military response, but of course most of the Russian activity in the eastern Ukraine has not been armed; it has been deniable, special forces and asymmetric. If there were similar Russian activities against the three Baltic states, would that constitute an Article 5 moment, and, if not, does article 5 need redefining, or perhaps even adjusting or changing, at the summit?
Article 5 stands. It is very clear, and any potential aggressor needs to fully understand the implications of it. My hon. Friend mentions Ukraine and, of course, we have been clear that the solution to Ukraine is primarily not military, but economic and commercial, and has to do with energy security, and that is where we are putting our efforts.
I have regular discussions with the principal NATO Defence Ministers on issues of current concern, including the middle east. I attended the NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels on 3 and 4 June, I met the US Deputy Secretary of Defence on 3 July in the margins of the naming of HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth, and I will meet my French counterpart for talks at Farnborough tomorrow.
Given the increasing insecurity in the middle east and the crucial role NATO will be playing, what commitment has my right hon. Friend received from our European partners that they will also step up to the plate and commit to spending up to 2% of their GDP on defence?
There is an ongoing discussion among the European NATO partner nations about how to respond to the perfectly fair challenge the United States has set us, by asking the question: why should US taxpayers be prepared to pay for a defence of Europe that European taxpayers appear to be rather reluctant to pay for? I have to say to my hon. Friend that this discussion has been rather more fruitful and productive than I was initially expecting, and I am optimistic that we may reach agreement on a declaration at the NATO summit in Wales this autumn that will set a baseline for moving European NATO spending forward as the European economies recover.
Turkey is a critical ally within NATO. It is also struggling to manage the large numbers of refugees who have come over its borders both from Syria and Iraq. Can we be very clear in sending out a message to other nations also at the Newport summit that we will not stand by and see Turkey attacked before coming to its support?
Turkey is a full member of the NATO alliance and benefits from the article 5 guarantee that the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), referred to a few moments ago, so Turkey can be assured that the alliance will stand behind it both militarily and, perhaps of more immediate importance, in providing assistance to it with the huge humanitarian challenge it is facing from this influx of refugees.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the widespread public concern about the current conflagration in Gaza, and the women and children either dying or threatened with death. I am aware that there is a statement this afternoon, but none the less my constituents will expect me to be telling the Secretary of State that they hope that every arm of Government will be bending every sinew to work towards a ceasefire.
Of course, the Government’s position is that there must be an urgent ceasefire and, although we have been saying this for a very long time, there must be progress towards a two-state solution, however challenging achieving that sometimes appears. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will make a statement shortly. The role of the MOD in this matter is not central and I hope it remains not central; it is a Foreign Office lead and I am sure my right hon. Friend will be happy to answer the hon. Lady’s question more fully.
6. What progress he has made on strengthening the military covenant. (904804)
The armed forces covenant is a symbol of the debt we owe to servicemen and women, veterans, and their families. As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence reports annually to Parliament on progress in implementing the covenant.
Since the last report was published in December 2013, significant achievements include the allocation of £40 million to fund accommodation projects for veterans and the establishment of the £200 million forces Help to Buy Scheme. I am also delighted to say that the vast bulk of local authorities in Great Britain, from borough councils to county councils, have signed a community covenant, a tangible commitment to supporting our armed forces
I welcome today’s announcement of released extra investment in special forces, which will be very welcome in my constituency. The Royal British Legion and SSAFA have set up a new military charities advice service in Hereford and in Ross-on-Wye, supported by Herefordshire council. Will the Minister join me in praising the volunteers who staff that new service, and the council, which has taken a leading role in promoting the community covenant?
I am very happy to praise my hon. Friend’s council and the volunteers who do such vital work for the wider armed forces community, and I am extremely happy to praise those two very good charities, not least as we in the Ministry of Defence have for some while been encouraging charities to work more closely together—what one might in the military community call the principle of combined arms—and to see these two great charities combining forces for the benefit of the wider armed forces family is excellent, and I commend them for their efforts.
The Prime Minister has found rather a large amount of cash down the back of the Secretary of State’s sofa, with which he is now playing catch-up with the UK’s defence capabilities. But did any of the Ministers argue at any point that some of this money should be spent on armed forces housing, which remains a key priority for armed forces families, or in addressing the unfairness in the previous war widows’ pension schemes? I remind the Minister that the noble Lord Astor has estimated the cost of sorting out one of those schemes at £70,000 a year.
I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome for our equipment announcement today. The Government are committed to removing the disadvantage faced by our armed forces, and that is why we enshrined the key principles of the covenant in law. We have committed £105 million during the past four years to upholding the covenant; £30 million for the community covenant; £35 million for the LIBOR fund; and £40 million to fund a range of accommodation projects for veterans. In addition, £10 million per annum will be available in perpetuity to support the commitments for the armed forces covenant from 2015.
Armed Forces (Recognition)
9. What steps he is taking to ensure that the commitment and sacrifice of the armed forces is recognised by the public. (904808)
I am in no doubt whatsoever that the British public are incredibly proud of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. This pride was emphatically displayed at this year’s Armed Forces day, which was a resounding success. The national event in Stirling was attended by more than 35,000 members of the public, and across the rest of the UK more than 200 regional events were organised by local authorities and community groups, including one at Woolwich barracks, which I was delighted to attend. I am told that social media activity around Armed Forces day this year reached more than 3 million people.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating organisations such as ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, for which I recently jumped out of a plane; the Essex Military Support Association, which organised the excellent South Essex Armed Forces day; Basildon council, which has awarded the Royal Anglian Regiment the freedom of the borough; and a group of residents who have recently refurbished the Stanford-le-Hope war memorial? As well as the Government having a role, does he agree that the community has a wider role as well?
In the 1990s, I served on Basildon council, once described as the only local authority in the United Kingdom where at council meetings the council has actively heckled the public gallery. I commend what it has done for the covenant, I commend the Essex Military Support Association, an event that I attended in Armed Forces week, and I particularly commend my hon. Friend for courageously jumping out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane in support of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and the wider armed forces community. He did a brave thing and we commend him for it.
May I also draw the Minister’s attention both to my local regiment, the 1st Battalion the Rifles, which demonstrated commitment and sacrifice on its two tours of Afghanistan when, sadly, it took a number of losses, and to Captain Angus Buchanan VC who won his Victoria Cross in the first world war saving two of his wounded comrades? His Victoria Cross has been bought by the noble Lord Ashcroft and is shortly to go on display in the Imperial War museum.
I pay tribute to all those who have won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour that this country can possibly convey. As we approach 4 August and the commemoration of the first world war, I am sure that Members from all parts of the House are very conscious of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of our freedom. It was Pericles who said:
“Freedom is the sole possession of those who have the courage to defend it.”
They had that courage and we remember them.
I recently had the honour of attending the rededication of a refurbished war memorial in Whitburn village in West Lothian, which had been taken in hand by the local community, aided by local councillor George Paul. Added to the memorial was the name of Sapper Robert Thomson of the 35th Engineers, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, and one of the most poignant moments was when his mother laid flowers beneath his name. What are the Government doing to encourage and assist communities to add the names to war memorials of those members of the armed forces who have died in recent conflicts?
I have been impressed by a number of schemes across the country in which local authorities and schools have taken a greater interest in war memorials. For instance, I have heard about projects where primary schools have been invited to research the names of those who are on war memorials. We all know why that is fundamentally important. I was at the National Memorial Arboretum yesterday to attend the unveiling of a monument to the Essex Regiment, the Second Battalion of which came up the beach on D-day. We say on Remembrance Sunday, “They will never be forgotten.” They never will.
The Government are employers in two respects. Anyone in the civil service who finds themselves in this horrible position can apply for up to five days of paid leave, which can be extended depending on the circumstances. Members of the armed forces who lose a loved one in service are entitled to up to four weeks of paid compassionate leave.
I thank the Minister for her reply. My constituent Bill Stewardson lost his son Alex who served with the Duke of Lancaster’s regiment in Basra in 2007. On his next working day, Bill was told by his manager:
“You can have one day’s carer’s leave for the funeral— and we don’t have to give you that.”
Since then Bill has campaigned tirelessly for statutory bereavement leave for the parents of members of the armed forces lost on active service. Does the Minister agree that that is the least we can do and will she work with colleagues to bring forward such proposals?
I am aware of the case that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I congratulate him and his constituent on their campaign. This is actually a matter between employers and employees, and it is also a policy direction under Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but that does not preclude me, or other Ministers, from having a view. I would not be in favour of putting such a proposal in statute; it would be far too complicated and difficult—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is chuntering as ever, but he obviously has not given the matter much thought. I imagine that there will be many others who will also want to have that sort of bereavement leave. Statute is not the way to do this. The way to do it is for employers to do the right thing by all of those who face such circumstances, just as we must do in Government.
Strategic Defence and Security Review
11. What progress his Department has made on the next strategic defence and security review; and if he will make a statement. (904810)
The Government’s priority remains the delivery of the outcomes of the 2010 SDSR which was launched in May 2010 and published in October that year. The next review will of course be after the general election, and therefore its direction will be a matter for the next Government. The MOD, alongside other Government Departments, is engaged in early preparatory work that will feed this as part of a Cabinet Office-led process.
The Minister will know that civilian contractors already play an important role in responding to the growing cyber-security threat that we face as a country. But what further consideration will he give to reviewing recruitment procedures in order to consider direct recruitment to some of those specialist roles, so that we can meet the cyber-threats of the future.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. Reserve forces were mentioned in response to an earlier question and cyber-capability is one of those niche areas in which reserves will be able to bring something to the piece. This is a difficult and complex area and as we move forward into a different defence environment, we must think carefully about the new niche capabilities that we need.
It would be churlish not to start by wishing everyone well in the forthcoming reshuffle—[Interruption.] I knew that comments would be made; I do not mind.
Given the importance of the question, I am absolutely amazed that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is answering and not the Secretary of State. How does today’s announcement by the Prime Minister relate to decisions taken in the previous strategic defence and security review in 2010 and to preparations for next year’s review? Where has the money been taken from? The Prime Minister has cut hundreds of special forces personnel, but he now says that the special forces are being given additional capability. He said that he had saved money by scrapping Sentinel, but now says that that money might be used to keep it. Is it not the case that today’s announcement has as much to do with PR for an ailing Government as it does with an SDSR for the country’s future?
Today’s announcement comes from proper financial prudence and the proper management of a budget, something which the previous Labour Administration so signally failed to do. If I may say so, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State deserves a great deal of credit for bringing our defence budget back into balance, which is why the Prime Minister is able to announce £1.1 billion of investment. It is a pity that the Labour party does not welcome that a little more fully.
It is the same old song, but this Government’s record does not stand up to scrutiny, which is what we are discussing today. Four years on from the previous SDSR, the Government have given a little with one hand, having spent four years taking far more away with the other. The Secretary of State has gone from denying there was an underspend to saying that it was earmarked for future equipment costs and to saying that it was for contingency. He now announces that it will be spent on things that were cut in the first place. Will he finally admit that he does not have a grip on where the Department is going or what it is doing about the SDSR and that he is just making it up as he goes along?
Oh dear, oh dear. The hon. Gentleman is inhabiting a parallel universe. The Labour party left a £34 billion black hole in 2010, and it has taken some tough decisions to bring us to where we are today. Today saw the announcement of £1.1 billion of spending and a further £160 billion over a 10-year period. Where would we have been had the Labour party still been in power four years on?
As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) knows, I have visited MOD Donnington a couple of times. My most recent visit was on 15 May, when I had the opportunity to meet representatives of both staff and the trade unions. I have received representations from both hon. and right hon. Members of the House, including from my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour.
I am grateful for that reply. While I may not be right honourable, I nevertheless hope that MOD Donnington will feature in the Minister’s thinking over coming weeks as he decides on the successful bidder for the future logistics of Her Majesty’s armed forces.
As my hon. Friend knows, we are currently engaged in introducing private sector management skills into the logistics and defence support group activities carried out at Donnington. Both are at advanced stages of negotiation, so I am unable to give him any more information at this point about the competition. However, as soon as a decision is reached, he will be one of the first to know.
I welcome the commission’s conclusion that while there remains the possibility of a direct nuclear threat to the UK, we should retain our nuclear deterrent. We are clear that for this to be effective we need to retain a continuous at-sea deterrent posture, as we have for the past 46 years.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There have been suggestions that, to save a relatively small sum of money, Britain should abandon continuous at-sea deterrence and opt for a part-time deterrent, with boats tied up alongside or even sent to sea without nuclear weapons on board. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government firmly reject such advice and I can further assure him that a Conservative Government will never take risks with Britain’s strategic security.
In welcoming what the Secretary of State for Defence has said, may I remind him that those on the Labour Front Bench have similarly committed to the retention of Trident and continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence? Does he therefore agree with me that whatever the complexion of the next Government, there can be no possible excuse for failing to renew Trident—whether in coalition, in government or in opposition? Wherever we are, we all ought to be committing to renewal in the next Parliament.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that there is no possible excuse for not doing something that is absolutely necessary to Britain’s long-term strategic protection. However, I note that there are two parties represented in the Chamber this afternoon that do not support that agenda.
Government policy remains as set out in the 2010 strategic defence and security review: we will maintain a continuous submarine-based deterrent and are proceeding with the programme to replace our existing submarines.
There are potential threats from hostile regimes around the world, and I have heard what the Secretary of State has already had to say. Does he agree, however, that any surrender of our deterrent would not only leave us vulnerable but weaken our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, although of course we maintain our strategic deterrent as the ultimate guarantee of our sovereignty and independence of action. It is worth remembering that there are still 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and so long as that is the case, we must be able to protect the British people against them.
Strategic Defence and Security Review
Public debate on defence matters and Britain’s place in the world is always welcome and the Ministry of Defence encourages this through its frequent engagement with Parliament. We also routinely engage with the service community, academics, think-tanks and other stakeholders in the course of policy formulation and I would expect this to accelerate in advance of the formal Cabinet Office-led cross-Government SDSR.
Given the importance of winning the informed consent of the British people for the payment of the insurance premium that guarantees our freedom and security, will my hon. Friend commit to following the good, if somewhat belated, example of the previous Government and publishing a Green Paper to build consensus ahead of the next SDSR?
The precise questions to be asked and the nature of the asking are a matter for the next Government, since this review will take place after the general election. Of course, both parties, of which one is likely to form the next Government, are represented in the Chamber today and I have no doubt that they are listening to what my hon. Friend has to say.
My first priority remains our operations in Afghanistan and the successful completion of the draw-down of our combat role by the end of this year. Beyond that, my priority is delivering Future Force 2020 by maintaining budgets in balance, building our reserve forces, reinforcing the armed forces covenant and reforming the defence procurement organisation so that our armed forces get the equipment they need at a price the taxpayer can afford.
I recently attended the wonderful and much loved annual RAF Waddington international air show, but the Minister will know that next year’s show has been cancelled by the board of the RAF to accommodate refurbishment work to the runway. Although I am pleased that the work is taking place, the air show generates more than £12 million for the Lincolnshire economy and about £500,000 for forces charities, so can the Minister reassure me and my constituents that the air show will return to the base in “bomber county” north of London in 2016-17, and certainly in time for the 100-year anniversary of the RAF?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the great success of the air show at RAF Waddington, which I believe he attended the other day. He is also right to point out that the runway is in need of routine maintenance—essentially, a new runway needs to be laid, which will take 59 weeks starting in September—and therefore it will not be available next year. The RAF is undertaking a review of all air show commitments for next year, so we will be in a better position to respond on 2016 when that review has been completed.
The Government made a clear decision in the 2010 SDSR to withdraw the important Sentinel capability from service. There is now speculation that it is to be retained, although it is not named in the news release that has gone out—it sort of slipped under the media radar. Does the Secretary of State accept that, like the F-35 U-turn costing millions, this is another example of poor strategic decision making and more back peddling?
No, and I think the hon. Lady will find that the capability was mentioned in the announcement that has been issued. The decision was made to take Sentinel out of service at the end of the campaign in Afghanistan, for reasons of affordability. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, because of careful husbandry of the defence budget, we have now been able to take the decision to extend Sentinel once the Afghan campaign has ended, at least until 2018. That will allow us to look at the capabilities that Sentinel delivers—wide-area surveillance of fast-moving ground targets—in the context of our broader need for wide-area surveillance capability, both maritime and over land.
T2. The F-35 Lightning II should be one of the world’s most advanced combat aircraft, not least thanks to British expertise at companies such as GE Aviation and Ultra Electronics, but it was sadly missed at Gloucestershire’s royal international air tattoo—a very exciting event this weekend. Can Ministers reassure the House that that has no implications for its service for the United Kingdom from 2018? (904839)
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of the F-35 programme to businesses up and down this country, including in Gloucestershire. Last year, the F-35 suffered an engine incident, which is being investigated. It is absolutely right that the safety of aircrew and aircraft are of paramount importance, rather than seeking to attend air shows around the world. Obviously, we would welcome the F-35 once it has been declared safe, and we are still hopeful that it will arrive at Farnborough before the air show finishes.
T7. Although today’s announcement is welcome for companies in my constituency such as MBDA, which is of course at Farnborough this week, does the Secretary of State think that announcing a re-spend on things that he cut in the first place will make up for the hundreds of millions of pounds wasted on botched decision making, bad equipment decisions, IT failure, a recruitment crisis and collapsed procurement reforms on his watch? (904844)
I do not know who writes this stuff, but what has happened is very simple. We have got the defence budget under control. We have set up the armed forces committee, which comprises the chiefs of the individual services, and we have allowed them to set the priorities for requirements in the military equipment programme. As headroom becomes available, we accept their advice on the urgent priorities. They have identified a package of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance measures, which they consider now to be the highest priority for defence expenditure, and that is what we have announced today.
T3. British defence exporters, such as GDT in Newark, can take their stands at Farnborough today with renewed confidence as a growing part of our economy. GDT grew by 10% last year and the sector by 11%. What steps are the Government taking proactively with companies like GDT to ensure that this success continues? (904840)
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the Farnborough air show, which I attended this morning for the Prime Minister’s opening. He was highlighting at Farnborough, not just to the British defence supply chain, but to representatives of the international supply chain who were present and to the international delegations visiting from abroad, just what a high-quality defence industry we have in this country, and as he pointed out, we cannot have a secure economic growth plan without a secure national security plan.
As we know from the recent services inquiry of the Military Aviation Authority, three of my constituents died aboard colliding Tornado jets above the Moray firth in 2012. Among the contributory factors may have been the absence of a collision warning system. When will we see a collision warning system installed in Typhoon aircraft?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, because he called an Adjournment debate on this subject last week, at which he asked that very question and I gave him the answer, at present we are investigating the introduction of a system on Typhoon, and at this point it is not appropriate to give him a timetable or a cost for that introduction.
T4. If Pericles were alive today, I am sure he would have been at the Farnborough air show, looking at all the amazing equipment that is available to defend our freedoms. One piece of equipment is BAE Systems’ Taranis unmanned air vehicle. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that this Government will continue to support that technology to ensure that we have manufacturing and research and development capability for the future, both militarily and commercially? (904841)
I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that I shall be signing with my French counterpart at Farnborough tomorrow the Anglo-French collaboration agreement on unmanned combat air vehicle research, which will support the programme in which BAE Systems is engaged.
How many of the former soldiers sacked by the Secretary of State for Defence in historic acts of vandalism have found permanent employment—not employment on the basis of single-hours contracts or temporary employment, but permanent employment? Will he put the figures in the House of Commons Library?
We find that, among those who leave our armed forces, an incredibly high proportion—some 86%—find employment within six months. That is because they are eminently employable by virtue of the service that they give to our country.
T5. The Red Arrows based at Scampton in my constituency are one of the most popular public faces of the RAF, but unfortunately their Hawk T1 aircraft ends its service in 2018. Can the Secretary of State give me an assurance that RAF Scampton has a future with the Red Arrows and that they will be provided with suitable aircraft? (904842)
Now that the Secretary of State for Defence might be leaving, having cut to the bone the armed forces to the lowest figure ever, many of them to be thrown on the scrapheap, is he looking forward to trying to employ them when he is in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions, or will he enjoy sorting out universal credit?
What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that my Department has an excellent relationship with the DWP, looking at ways in which we can support those who are out of work and seeking to acquire the skills, soft and hard, necessary to get back into work, to get them into the reserve forces and trained in the reserve forces while looking for civilian employment at the same time. [Interruption.]
T8. In view of the uncertainty about the future of Public Health England at Porton Down and the imminent submission of the outline business case to the Treasury, will the Minister confirm that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is ready and willing to work collaboratively on a Porton-based solution for the future of the PHE facility there? (904846)
My hon. Friend is a valiant champion of all that goes on in and around Porton Down, and he is to be congratulated on the work he did in securing the science park funding last week. With regard to the CL4 facility at Porton Down, which is co-shared with Public Health England, the Ministry of Defence will be working with the Department of Health to ensure that the best solution is found for the country as a whole for the future of CL4 facilities.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows—we have corresponded on the matter—discussions with the local authority are ongoing. Our intention is to ensure that the site has a use that accords with our need for disposals, but in a way that the local community will appreciate. I believe that we will end up in that position before very long.
T9. The naming of HMS Queen Elizabeth is extremely welcome, and it will be even more so when we have some planes to fly off her decks. When the First Sea Lord says that“continuous carrier availability… means having two carriers, not one… a modest extra premium to pay for an effective, a credible, an available, insurance policy”,does the Secretary of State agree? (904847)
Whether to bring the second carrier into service is a decision for the SDSR in 2015, as we have always been clear. Equally, I have always been clear that my personal view is that when one spends £6.4 billion of taxpayers’ money building two ships, one had better strain every possible sinew to operate them both.
Before the Secretary of State finalises the agenda for the NATO summit, will he revisit his decision and stance on a statutory basis for spending 2% of GDP on defence? His hand would be infinitely strengthened if he could say to other NATO members that not only do we already spend 2%, but we are committed to continuing to do so on a statutory basis.
It is for NATO as an organisation to set the agenda for the summit, not the UK; we merely host it and pick up the bill for doing so. We have been in the lead in seeking to agree across the member states a statement about the future financing of NATO, a statement that will answer the challenge—I referred to it earlier—that the United States has been persistently and quite legitimately raising over the past couple of years. I am confident that we will have a positive statement to make at the NATO summit.
Given that Britain is an island state that is very dependent on our trade routes, has my right hon. Friend yet decided how many Type 26s we will need and where they might be base-ported?
As Ministers cannot sign early-day motions, may I exceptionally ask the Secretary of State for a comment on EDM 252, which commemorates the sacrifice of 7,000 British soldiers in the Normandy battle for Hill 112? It was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). What it does not say is that his father was one of those 7,000: Captain Paul Cash won the Military Cross a few days before he was killed 70 years ago yesterday.
I was aware of the role our hon. Friend’s father played in that decisive engagement, and I am sure that the whole House will join the sentiment expressed in the EDM. It is one of a number of EDMs that Government Front Benchers regularly regret being unable, by convention, to sign, but I am very happy to have this opportunity to indicate my strong support for it.
When the Minister is taking a decision on the retirement age for defence, police and fire personnel, will she take into account the fact that the strenuous activity demanded by this job is more in line with the other uniformed services than with the majority of civil servants, and that I believe that a retirement age of 60 is appropriate?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Gaza.
The House is aware that despite intense efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry, talks between Israelis and the Palestinians broke down at the end of April and are currently paused. Since then, there have been several horrific incidents, including the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the burning alive of a Palestinian teenager. We utterly condemn these barbaric crimes. There can never be any justification for the deliberate murder of innocent civilians.
These rising tensions have been followed by sustained barrages of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Between 14 June and 7 July, 270 rockets were fired by militants into Israel, to which Israel responded with air strikes. Rockets are fired indiscriminately against the civilian population, including against major Israeli cities. Israel then launched Operation Protective Edge on 7 July. Israeli defence forces have struck over 1,470 targets in Gaza, and over 970 more rockets have been fired towards Israel. Two hundred and forty Israelis have been injured. In Gaza, as of today, at least 173 Palestinians have been killed and 1,230 injured. The UN estimates that 80% of those killed have been civilians, of whom a third are children.
We have acted swiftly to ensure the safe departure of British nationals wanting to leave Gaza. Late last night, we successfully assisted the departure of 27 British nationals and their Palestinian dependants from Gaza, through Israel to Jordan for onward travel. I am grateful to the UN, to Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff from London, Gaza, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Amman, and to the Israeli and Jordanian authorities for their work to ensure the success of this operation.
The whole House will share our deep concern at these events. This is the third major military operation in Gaza in six years. It underlines the terrible human cost, to both sides, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it comes at a time when the security situation in the middle east is the worst it has been in decades. The people of Israel have the right to live without constant fear for their security, and the people of Gaza also have the fundamental right to live in peace and security. There are hundreds of thousands of extremely vulnerable civilians in Gaza who bear no responsibility for the rocket fire and are suffering acutely from this crisis; and the Israeli defence forces estimate that 5 million Israeli civilians live within range of rockets fired from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks, but it is vital that Gaza’s civilian population is protected. International humanitarian law requires both sides to distinguish between military and civilian targets and enable unhindered humanitarian access.
The UK has three objectives: to secure a ceasefire, to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and to keep alive the prospects for peace negotiations which are the only hope of breaking this cycle of violence and devastation once and for all. I will briefly take each of these in turn. First, there is an urgent need for a ceasefire agreed by both sides that ends both the rocket fire and the Israeli operations against Gaza, based on the ceasefire agreement that ended the conflict in November 2012. Reinstating that agreement will require a concerted effort between Israelis, Palestinians and others, such as the authorities in Egypt, with the support of the international community. All those with influence over Hamas must use it to get Hamas to agree to end rocket fire.
We are in close contact with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and our partners and allies. The Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu on 9 July, and in the past few days I have spoken to President Abbas, to Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman and Strategic Affairs Minister Steinitz, and to Egyptian Foreign Minister Shukri. As Arab Foreign Ministers meet tonight, I have just discussed the situation with the Foreign Ministers of Jordan and Qatar.
On 10 July the UN Secretary-General told the Security Council that there was a risk of an all-out escalation in Israel and Gaza and appealed for maximum restraint. He had been in contact with leaders on both sides and other international leaders, underlining his concern about the plight of civilians and calling for bold thinking and creative ideas.
On Saturday we joined the rest of the UN Security Council in calling for the de-escalation of the crisis, the restoration of calm and the reinstatement of the November 2012 ceasefire. We are ready to consider further action in the Security Council if that can help to secure the urgent ceasefire that we all want to see. Yesterday, I held discussions in the margins of the Iran Vienna talks with Secretary Kerry and my French and German counterparts to consider how to bring about that objective.
Once a ceasefire is agreed, it will be vital that its terms are implemented in full by both sides, including a permanent end to rocket attacks and all other forms of violence. Implementation of that agreement must only be part of a wider effort to improve conditions in Gaza. Without that, we are likely to see further such cycles of violence. This should include the restoration of Palestinian Authority control in Gaza, the opening up of legitimate movement and access, and a permanent end to the unacceptable threat of rocket attacks and other forms of violence against Israel.
Secondly, we will do all we can to help alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza. At least 17,000 Gazans are seeking shelter with the UN. Hundreds of thousands are suffering shortages of water, sanitation and electricity, and stocks of fuel and medical supplies are running dangerously low. More than half the population was already living without adequate access to food before the crisis, the large majority reliant on aid and with many unemployed. The UK is providing £349 million for humanitarian relief, state-building and economic development for Palestinians up to 2015, and providing about £30 million a year to help the people of Gaza.
We are the third biggest donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency general fund. Our support has enabled it to respond to the crisis by continuing to provide health services to 70% of the population, sheltering 17,000 displaced people, and distributing almost 30,000 litres of fuel to ensure that emergency water and sewerage infrastructure can operate. The Department for International Development is helping to fund the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN access co-ordination unit. With our support, these organisations are providing food to insecure people, helping to repair damaged infrastructure, getting essential supplies into Gaza, getting medical cases out and delivering emergency medical care. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, has spoken to Prime Minister Hamdallah, and DFID stands ready to do more as necessary.
Thirdly, a negotiated two-state solution remains the only way to resolve the conflict once and for all and to achieve a sustainable peace so that Israeli and Palestinian families can live without fear of violence. No other option exists which guarantees peace and security for both peoples.
I once again pay tribute to Secretary Kerry’s tireless efforts to secure a permanent peace. Of course, the prospect for negotiations looks bleak in the middle of another crisis in which civilians are paying the heaviest price, but it has never been more important for leaders on both sides to take the bold steps necessary for peace. For Israel, that should mean a commitment to return to dialogue and to avoid all actions which undermine the prospects for peace, including settlement activity which does so much to undermine confidence in negotiations. For Hamas, it faces a fundamental decision about whether it is prepared to accept Quartet principles and join efforts for peace, or whether it will continue to use violence and terror with all the terrible consequences for the people of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority should show leadership, recommitting itself to dialogue with Israel and making progress on governance and security for Palestinians in Gaza as well as the west bank.
In all these areas, the United Kingdom will play its role, working closely with US and European colleagues, encouraging both sides back to dialogue, supporting the Palestinian Authority, keeping pressure on Hamas and other extremists, and alleviating the humanitarian consequences of conflict. There can be no substitute, though, for leadership and political will from the parties concerned. The world looks on in horror once again as Israel suffers from rocket attacks and Palestinian civilians die. Only a real peace, with a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, can end this cycle of violence. And it is only the parties themselves, with our support, who can make that peace.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and, indeed, for giving me advance sight of it this afternoon.
Today, a spiral of violence has again engulfed Gaza, southern Israel and the west bank, bringing untold suffering to innocent people in its wake. Of course, I unequivocally condemn the firing of rockets into Israel by Gaza-based militants. No Government on earth would tolerate such attacks on its citizens, and we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself.
As the Foreign Secretary set out, in recent days hundreds of rockets have been fired from Gaza at Israel, and at least three Israelis have been seriously injured. However, he was also right to acknowledge that, since the start of the Israeli military operation in Gaza just seven days ago, more than 170 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more have been injured. The UN has reported that more than 80% of those killed were civilians, and that a third of those killed were children. Although this conflict cannot and must not be reduced simply to a ledger of casualties, the scale of the suffering in Gaza today must be fully and frankly acknowledged, because the life of a Palestinian child is worth no less than the life of an Israeli child.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly condemned the horrific kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the burning alive of a teenage Palestinian, but although these repellent crimes seem to be the proximate cause of the latest spiral of violence, does he accept that the underlying cause of this latest crisis is the failure over decades to achieve a two-state solution for two peoples?
The spiral of violence of recent days is grimly familiar to anyone who remembers Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012. The same bloodstained pattern is repeating itself. In the first operation, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire. In the second operation, the Egyptians brokered one. Both times, it was clear that the conflict between Israel and Hamas could not be solved through force of arms alone. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore recognise that there can be no military solution to this conflict? Does he further accept that the scale of the suffering in Gaza, compounding the effects of the continuing blockade, serves to fuel hatred and, indeed, to embolden Israel’s enemies?
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if the operating logic of Hamas is terror and the operating logic of Israel is deterrence, then pleas by the international community for restraint alone will be insufficient? Today, the risk of an all-out escalation in the conflict and the threat of a full ground invasion are still palpable—and preventable, if Hamas stops firing rockets.
As the Opposition, we are clear not only on the need for an immediate ceasefire, but that a full-scale ground invasion would be a disaster for the peoples of both Gaza and Israel, and a strategic error for Israel. Does the Foreign Secretary agree, and will he now make that position clear to the Israeli Government in the crucial hours and days ahead?
The Foreign Secretary spoke of the statements made by the UN Security Council on Saturday calling for a ceasefire, which I of course welcome. Alongside the Arab League at its meeting today, the UN must be forthright in its role of seeking to bring the recent violence to an end. Will he therefore support calls for the UN Secretary-General to travel to the region to act as a mediator between the two sides?
We know from bitter experience that a spiral of violence that reinforces the insecurity of the Israelis and the humiliation of the Palestinians leads only to further suffering. For Israel, permanent occupation, blockade and repeated military action in occupied land will make peace—and, ultimately, security—harder, not easier, to achieve. Alas, it is not a strategy for peace; it is a recipe for continued conflict.
The Foreign Secretary rightly and generously paid tribute to US Secretary of State Kerry’s considerable personal efforts to advance the middle east peace process, but, in truth, today there is no peace and there is also no process; instead there are continued rocket attacks and continued settlement expansion, growing fear and anxiety, and ongoing occupation.
I of course welcome the humanitarian efforts by both DFID and UNRWA that the Government have set out, but we all know that a humanitarian response, while vital, is not itself sufficient to end the suffering. In the past few days, Israel’s overwhelming military might has been obvious. Hamas, weakened today by Sisi’s rise in Egypt and differences with Iran over Syria, can avert the risk of an imminent ground invasion by stopping the rocket attacks, but Israel needs a strategy for building peace, not just tactics for winning the next round of war. This is a time and this is a crisis that demand not revenge, but statesmanship motivated by justice. Only politics, and a negotiated solution, offers a way forward to peace.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, which show that we share the same analysis of the situation and offer a similar response. He said that he was clear that no Government on earth could tolerate such attacks, and that Israel had the right to defend itself. I also made that clear in my statement. We also share the analysis that, while what he called the proximate cause was the horrific murders that have taken place in recent weeks, the underlying cause is the failure to make progress in the middle east peace process. That is something to which we must continue to give our attention.
The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the work of Secretary Kerry. I discussed these matters with Secretary Kerry yesterday afternoon in Vienna, and I can tell the House that he remains determined about the peace process despite everything that has happened, which is a great credit to him. He is determined that the United States will still play a leading role in pushing forward the process, and that this is a pause and not the end of the efforts to push it forward. We will continue to encourage him in that, and to help to deliver the support of the European Union.
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is no military solution to this, and that calls for restraint are important but not sufficient. We are very clear in our calls for restraint to all sides, including in the conversations I had with Israeli Ministers over the weekend, when I made it clear that we wanted to see restraint, proportionate response, de-escalation and the avoidance of civilian casualties. I think that the implications of such statements are very clear. We will support whatever role the UN Secretary-General can take in this.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the fact that Egypt played an important role in the November 2012 ceasefire. That is why I have been having discussions with the Egyptian Foreign Minister in recent days. On this occasion, other Arab states are also active in trying to bring about an agreed ceasefire. That is why I have been discussing this with other Arab Foreign Ministers before their meeting tonight, and we will continue to encourage them to do that. I believe that there is a common analysis, and a common appeal for a renewal of the peace process instead of a continuation of the violence, right across the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not just a war about rockets from both sides, and that it is a war about illegal settlements and stolen lands? What is the next big political move? I have sat here these last 30 years and heard the same statement every year; for 30 years, nothing has happened.
And I very much join in those congratulations, Mr Speaker.
I am conscious of the point that my right hon. Friend makes about how long we have been hearing these statements. Indeed, I have delivered quite a few of them myself, both in opposition and in government. To be speaking for the third time in six years about an almost identical conflict is deeply exasperating for all of us who deal with international relations. He asked what the next milestone would be. It will be a continuation of the United States’ effort. I believe that, in the end, only the United States can help to deliver Israel into a peace agreement and a two-state agreement. We in Europe have an important role in supporting that, and we have offered unprecedented economic co-operation and partnership with the Israelis and the Palestinians if a peace process can be concluded. Let us hope that both sides can grasp that vision.
Does the Foreign Secretary recall that all Israeli settlers and soldiers left Gaza in 2005? Does he agree that Hamas has carried out a double war crime by targeting Israeli citizens with more than 900 rockets in the past month and launching those rockets from bases in the middle of the Gazan population?
We make the point strongly to Israel about avoiding civilian casualties and observing international humanitarian law, and the hon. Lady is right to say that when those rockets are launched against Israel, their only purpose is to cause civilian casualties there. There is not even a pretence of observing international humanitarian law. As the shadow Foreign Secretary has said, no nation on earth could tolerate that, but it is important that the response should be proportionate and that it should observe international humanitarian law. The hon. Lady is also right to say that what has happened in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal is taken in Israel as a lesson in not withdrawing in the future, and that is a tragedy for all concerned.
I have not been here quite as long as the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), but I certainly share his frustration, and I suspect that it is shared in all parts of the House. It is wholly unacceptable that the people of Israel should be subject to random and indiscriminate rocket attacks, but it is equally unacceptable that the response of the Israeli Government should be disproportionate, contrary to international law and at the expense of civilians, particularly children.
It is. The frustration from all quarters of the House is very clear, and I absolutely share it. The Government have to focus on what we can do to help to bring an end to what is unacceptable for both populations. I think that that is to work diplomatically to bring about an agreed ceasefire, to do our utmost to provide humanitarian relief and to work to ensure that the peace process can be revived.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that among the 173 innocent civilians slaughtered by the Israelis in Gaza was the inhabitant of a disabled people’s home that was hit by Israel, and that a hospital was also hit? Whatever one says in deploring the role of Hamas— I have told the Hamas Prime Minister to his face that I deplore what it does—if this goes on, we shall have yet another cycle, which will be the third so far, and a fourth, and it will go on. Unless the Israelis are willing to make peace, the day will come when the Palestinians explode in anger and despair.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks passionately and sincerely. I can imagine him saying what he said to the face of Hamas. He is right that if the cycles of violence go on, the prospect of peace in the middle east will get further away. That is after an immense effort has been made in recent years to bring the sides closer together and to work on a final status agreement. His warnings should be well heeded by all in the middle east, and they show that our work on the peace process has to go on.
While I condemn the violence on both sides of the border, the Foreign Secretary will be aware that, despite the deteriorating situation, the Israelis are still facilitating the much needed delivery of aid. I understand that a large amount of food and fuel went into Gaza last week. What assurances has he had that the flow of aid will continue and will not be stopped by Israel?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that aid is delivered into Gaza. Our message to Israel is that it is important to go further in easing the restrictions on Gaza, including on the movement of commercial goods and persons to and from the Gaza strip. We have not had any assurances about future aid. She raises a very important point. We encourage Israel to do more, rather than less, to ensure that aid is received and that other normal legitimate movements can take place.
The whole House condemns the killing of the three Israelis and the burning of the Palestinian, and none of us has any truck with Hamas. However, for all the vacuous words of the Israeli Government and the Israel defence forces spokesman, is it not clear that they have no regard for international humanitarian law; that they place a completely different and much lower value on Palestinian life than Israeli life; and that the cycle will go on as long as the international community, in an effort to be even-handed, fails to say to the Israelis that the actions that they are taking are completely outwith the United Nations charter and any idea of how a civilised nation ought to behave?
That is why it is important for us to stress the need to observe international humanitarian law, be proportionate and avoid civilian casualties, and work hard on bringing about an agreed ceasefire. I add to what the right hon. Gentleman has said, however. Those who launch waves of rockets from within one of the most densely populated civilian populations in the middle east also bear a heavy responsibility, because they know that any retaliation will severely affect the civilian population. We must bear that in mind as well.
Israel has an absolute right to defend itself against terror, but with every civilian killed and every child hurt, the method by which Israel seeks to protect its citizens is more questionable, as are the tactics of those who deliberately place children in harm’s way. Will my right hon. Friend commend the excellent article in Haaretz recently by His Highness Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia, which called attention to the need to re-engage the peace process, and praise it not only for who said it but for where it was published? Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to ensure that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders know that the only policy and course of action that has the wholehearted support of this House is urgent and bold steps to recommence the peace process, so that this wretched cycle of pointless violence can come to an end?
As ever, my right hon. Friend goes straight to the point on this important issue. The article he mentions by His Highness Prince Turki helps to demonstrate that in many nations across the middle east—including powerful nations—there is a real appetite for that peace process, and for bringing the cycle of violence that hon. Members across the House are deploring to an end. That should be heard clearly by leaders in Israel and among Palestinians as they make decisions over the coming weeks.
It is generally accepted that there can be no military solution to this or any other conflict, and I believe it is accepted by Hamas and Israel that there can be no military solution. The Secretary of State referred my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) to the role played by Egypt in the past conflict. What pressure is being brought on the new Egyptian Government—if indeed both sides are prepared to listen to what they have to say and will sit around a table with them to end this utterly pointless and scandalous destruction of human life, particularly women and children?
The hon. Lady is right to say that both Hamas and Israel know there is no military solution, and right to point to the important role that Egypt can play. I would not express it as “pressure” on Egypt—Egypt is a sovereign state that will make its own decisions in its own national interest and hopefully the interests of the wider region, but I have discussed this matter with the Foreign Minister of Egypt. The Egyptian Government at the time of the last ceasefire had much closer links with Hamas than the Egyptian Government do today, so the situation is a little different in that regard—[Interruption.] Those on the Opposition Front Bench say that that may be an understatement, and it is a deliberate understatement on my part. It is a different situation, and that is why the role of other Arab states becomes even more important, and that is why we are talking to many of them about the role they can play in bringing about an agreed ceasefire.
With nearly 1,000 rockets fired at Israel in the last week, no one can deny Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens. Unlike in the past, however, Hamas looks increasingly isolated in the Arab world, with even Iran failing to declare its support openly. The obvious broker in this is Egypt, but interestingly the Secretary of State just said that he has discussed with other Foreign Ministers the possibility of peace negotiations. Will he say more about those talks and which countries he is talking to?
In my statement I gave something of a list of Foreign Ministers with whom I have discussed this matter over recent hours, including, for instance, those of Jordan and Qatar. I do not want to say more, but I can tell my right hon. Friend that real efforts are going on among Arab states to make progress. However, I do not think it would be helpful for me to set it all out on the Floor of the House.
The health system in Gaza is under real pressure given the large number of men, women and children who have been injured, and higher-level more complicated medical support is especially difficult. How is the international community able to help supply those services in Gaza, and will the Foreign Secretary update the House on offers that have been made from outside the middle east—such as that from the Scottish Government—to help provide specialist medical provision from outside the region?
I mentioned in my statement how the funding provided by DFID for several international programmes does help with medical supplies and in taking urgent medical cases out of Gaza. It is very difficult to deliver increased assistance under these circumstances, but every effort will be made to do so if circumstances deteriorate further. Other offers of assistance from all quarters, including of course from Scotland, are greatly appreciated.
My right hon. Friend referred to the fragile situation in the middle east, saying that it is one of the most fragile for many a decade. The United States has key influence with many of the key players, including Israel and Egypt. Will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts with Secretary Kerry to see what influence we, combined with the US, can have to stop the cycle of violence? This very weak situation could spiral way out of control.
Of course we have to maintain those efforts. I would hesitate to say to Secretary Kerry that he should redouble his efforts, because I cannot imagine how anybody could make a greater effort. He has conducted literally dozens of meetings himself with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the past 18 months. I know he is determined to continue that work and it is very important that other nations support it. In the European Union in December, we agreed to make an unprecedented package of economic partnership and support available to Israelis and Palestinians if the peace process succeeds. We will continue with that important offer as all efforts to revive the peace process go on.
Given that Secretary Kerry and his own middle east Minister have clearly said that it was the Netanyahu regime’s relentless expansion of illegal settlements that bore prime responsibility for the collapse of the Kerry talks, when, instead of this routine language of condemnation of the settlements, can we instead have some real and meaningful action?
We have said that a heavy part of the responsibility lies—not only this; there have been failures on both sides to take full advantage of the opportunities of the peace process—with the illegal settlements on occupied land. We make our condemnation of that, but we have also taken certain actions, including supporting the recent EU statement of guidelines on doing business with settlements. The right hon. Gentleman will be conscious that our prime effort here is to revive and succeed in the peace process. We therefore use language and adjust our pressure to try to do that, and that remains our best hope.
The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to call for a permanent end to these intolerable rocket attacks on Israel, but right too that too many Palestinian civilians and children are dying. Will he consider whether the favourable economic and political relationship between Israel and the EU should now be reconsidered in the light of the Israeli Government’s disproportionate response to these attacks?
As I said to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), we have an important difference on settlements. However, our differences throughout the middle east have not led us to economic sanctions or boycotts on any of the parties to the middle east peace process. I do not judge that that would be the best way to advance the peace process now, or in the immediate future. I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but our effort has to be focused on reviving the peace process.
The Foreign Secretary is of course correct that the latest escalation of tit-for-tat rockets and military strikes brings peace no closer; it just brings death and destruction. He may be aware that I, with other hon. Members, was in Gaza just weeks after the 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead. We saw for ourselves that UN humanitarian centres had been hit by Israeli strikes. As he said, 17,000 Palestinian civilians are now sheltering in UN centres, and the UN reports that 49 of those shelters have already been damaged. As a high contracting party to the Geneva convention, what can Britain do about this, and will he confirm that hitting humanitarian centres is a war crime?
What we do about this is to stress to all involved, as I said, that the response must be in line with international humanitarian law and be proportionate and should not target civilians. I say again that the responsibility for civilians being caught up in this is a wide one, including those who decide to launch waves of rockets from heavily populated civilian areas. Of course, that does not absolve Israel of its responsibilities, and we will continue to remind it of its responsibilities.
I ask my right hon. Friend to remember that Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza and has faced not just 950 missiles in recent months, but 11,000 missiles since the withdrawal. We know, too, that Hamas uses civilians to protect its missiles, whereas Israel uses its missiles to defend its citizens. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to resolve this terrible situation is to take out Hamas from Gaza in the same way as we would deal with other extreme Islamist groups and stop the funding of Hamas by Iran and the supply of long-range missiles from Iran to Hamas?
Many of those things would help greatly, although they are not things that are within our gift to supply. Part of our message to Iran is to stop the funding of extremist, terrorist or sectarian groups throughout the middle east. We hope there will be a change in Iranian foreign policy; we hope that the authority of the Palestinian Authority will be restored in Gaza; and we hope that Hamas will accept the Quartet principles. We are certainly in favour of all those things, but they are, of course, quite difficult to bring about in practice.
In 2010, our Prime Minister described Gaza as being like an “open-air prison”, with its people
“living under constant attacks and pressure”.
The latest escalation of the violence and killing has made matters unbearable. When will our Government, working with the international community, actually apply pressure on the Israeli Government to adhere to international law and humanitarian requirements, because this is just completely unacceptable?
As we have all lamented over the last half hour, the situation is unacceptable, but it is important to bear in mind the wider responsibility for that situation. It is very important for us all to give a clear message to Israel about humanitarian law, but it is also important for those launching rockets from Gaza to stop such unacceptable attacks on Israel—that is very important, too, and it is an indispensable component of trying to deal with the situation. Our effort must be directed at the three objectives I set out in my statement: to bring about an urgent and agreed ceasefire, to provide humanitarian relief and to support a revival of the peace process. There is not a better path than that.
I unreservedly condemn the rocket attacks on Israel and strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s call for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. What assessment has he made of the possibility of establishing that state, given the settlements that have taken place on occupied territories?
It is still possible to establish such a state. That has been the objective of the work done by the United States, which we have supported and which I mentioned several times, to bring the middle east peace process to success, but the opportunity for that is diminishing as the years and months go by, partly because of the pace of settlement activity on occupied land. Largely because of that, the opportunity is diminishing, and if it is not already, it will soon be the last chance to bring about a two-state solution. That shows the urgency of the situation for Israelis and Palestinians, which adds to the urgency to stop this cycle of violence.
The greatest threat to Hamas, and the greatest hope for peace, is a sustainable future for Gaza and the eradication of poverty. Does the Secretary of State agree that while the Israeli blockade continues, peace cannot be achieved?
I agree that it is important to ease restrictions on Gaza. The Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods and people do tremendous damage to the economy and the living standards of the people of Gaza, and, in our view, that serves to strengthen, not weaken, Hamas in the long term. An improved economy is essential for the people of Gaza, including the children of Gaza, but it is also ultimately firmly in the security interests of Israel.
The tragedy of the loss of life in the whole region surely stems ultimately from the occupation of the west bank, the settlement policy, and the current siege of Gaza. What practical steps has the Foreign Secretary taken to criticise Israel for its collective punishment of the people of Gaza, the destruction of water supplies and sewage plants, and the killings of large numbers of civilians, and what sanctions does he now propose to take against Israel for acting against international law in punishing a civilian population?
I go a little further back in my analysis of the root causes, or, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, the ultimate causes, in terms of Israel’s policy. The ultimate cause is the failure to bring about a two-state solution, and there are failings on both sides in that regard. There is the failure to take opportunities in negotiations, and there is the failure by Hamas to adopt peaceful principles that would allow the world to welcome it into negotiations. Those failures exist on both sides, and therefore, for us, it is not a question of sanctions on one side or the other; it is a question of our effort to bring about a viable peace process, and that is where we must continue to place our emphasis.
My right hon. Friend has rightly said that the only foundation for lasting peace and a safe and secure Israel must be a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. Does he agree that there can be no peace until there is an end to the blockade of Gaza in respect of even the most basic economic materials, such as building materials, and withdrawal from the illegal settlements, which prevent any possibility of a contiguous state on the west bank?
Our views on settlements are well known. My hon. Friend is aware of them, and I have reiterated them today As I said in response to earlier questions, we urge Israel to ease its restrictions on Gaza, including restrictions on the movement of commercial goods and persons from the Gaza strip, which only serve to undermine Gaza’s legitimate economy and strengthen Hamas, and we will continue to make that case.
Following the question from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood)—and while condemning the violence on both sides—I must say to the Foreign Secretary that the right to trade surely comes with the responsibility to uphold basic humanitarian principles. May I urge him to investigate the possibility of a consensus on economic sanctions within the European Union as an effective means of non-violent intervention, delivering Israel to the negotiating table for the desperately needed two-state solution?
I can say honestly to the hon. Lady that there would not be a consensus in the European Union on that. There is a consensus on the statement of guidelines on dealing with settlements that the EU adopted on 26 June, and there is, I am pleased to say, a consensus on the offering of what I described earlier as an unprecedented partnership with Palestinians and Israelis for the European Union—on the offering of that major incentive for the future. On all those things, the European Union is united, but there would not be a consensus on what the hon. Lady has just called for.
When the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), answered the urgent question two weeks ago following the dreadful murder of the three Israeli teenagers, the Palestinian children death toll due to the conflict had reached 1,406. On Saturday it reached 1,430, including the killing of four toddlers in the course of the last week. Will the Foreign Secretary now say what he has implied: that the Israeli action is disproportionate?
Having been through several of these conflicts, I know there is always pressure in the House, or from others, to adopt totemic words of one sort or another, but I feel our diplomatic effort has to be directed at the things I have described—bringing about an urgent and agreed ceasefire, giving humanitarian relief, supporting the revival of the peace process—while calling for proportionate actions all round, and that is what we will continue to do.
The Foreign Secretary has referred to the role of Egypt on a number of occasions. It is reported today that Hamas has said it does not wish to have the Egyptian Government as a mediator, and at the same time seven civilians and one military person were killed in Sinai from fire that was apparently coming from Gaza, or near to it. What does he think can be done to improve the relationships in that part of this area, so the Egyptians can play a positive role in this process to get a solution?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to those difficult relations, and I made the point earlier—I do not know whether that was during his unnoticed absence—that Hamas’s relations with this Egyptian Government are nothing like as warm, to put it mildly, as with the previous Egyptian Government at the time of the last Gaza conflict. That means there is a less natural role for Egypt in bringing about a ceasefire, as its influence on Hamas is less. Nevertheless it is important to find ways of working with Gaza, including easing humanitarian access through the Rafah crossing, and I hope that Egypt, which is the major Arab nation in the region, will use its full weight to try to bring about a ceasefire agreed on all sides.
Can the Foreign Secretary give us a bit more insight into the thinking of his Israeli counterparts? While we all accept the need for Israel to defend and deter, when he talks to the Israeli Foreign Minister does he get any sense that it must be more difficult for Israel to defend and deter if it is holding an entire people in the largest prison camp in the world in appalling conditions? Does he get any impression that common humanity calls out for peace and justice for the Palestinian people?
Israeli Ministers stress their need to defend themselves against rocket attacks and say any nation in the world facing a barrage of rockets on its major cities would mount a military response. It is, of course, always important to look beyond that, as we are in all our comments across the House today, and to ask how we can break this cycle of violence in the long term, and that means a two-state solution and a viable sovereign state for Palestinians, which is why we have to continue to work for that.
We should not equate the occupied with the occupier. We should not equate a refugee population of 1.7 million imprisoned in a tiny strip of land with the prison guards. We should not equate terrorists firing rockets with a supposedly civilised state systematically killing women and children and elderly and disabled people. Will the Secretary of State accept that if his and other western Governments fail to discriminate between the actions of Hamas and Israel, hundreds of Palestinian civilians will continue to die and the annexation of Palestine by Israel will continue?
I do not see it as a matter of discrimination or failure to discriminate. I think we all agree across the House that there is in the end only one solution to this—not the military solution, but a successful peace process as the shadow Foreign Secretary and others have said. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the responsibilities of occupiers; the responsibilities of all civilised and democratic states. But we do have to point also to the responsibilities, as I did earlier, of anyone who chooses to launch hundreds of rockets from a densely populated area. They have responsibilities, too.
There is a good argument for that, and one of our hon. Friends who has now left the Chamber gave an alleged instance of this earlier. The Israeli Government argue that Hamas in effect uses civilians as shields—that one of the reasons for civilian casualties is that rockets are launched deliberately from within heavily populated areas, Gaza itself being a very densely populated area. It is in the nature of the conflict that that happens and that civilians are therefore in the front line, and Hamas bears responsibility for that.
No Member of the House can fail to be horrified by the escalation of violence on both sides and by what appears to be the disproportionate response of Israel. More than 200 of my constituents have written to me to ask me to ask the Foreign Secretary what action he has taken to help to secure a ceasefire and, to echo the words of the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), what action he will take to help end illegal settlement and to help to continue the economic development in Palestine.
I will not repeat everything I said in my earlier statement, but I hope that the hon. Lady will send to her constituents what I said about everything that the UK has done in recent days to promote a ceasefire—the work we have been doing at the UN Security Council and in the discussions I have had with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and many Arab nations to help bring about an agreed ceasefire. I also gave examples in my statement of what we are doing to help the economic development and state-building of Palestinians. The UK is one of the largest donors in the world to that, and we will continue that effort.
The Secretary of State is right to say that one of the only ways to break the cycle of violence is to improve conditions in Gaza, where many of the people whom I represent feel that civilians—women and children—are being collectively punished, and certainly are bearing the heaviest price of the terrorist acts committed by Hamas. What more can we do to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza and improve the general condition of people living there?
This is likely to require a more peaceful situation and a much better atmosphere than the one that prevails now. But in any such atmosphere, we will continue to advocate that Israel should ease restrictions on Gaza, including on the movement of commercial goods. I listed what we have done in terms of humanitarian relief and said that the Department for International Development stands ready to do more. The UK will remain in the forefront of providing humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people.
If I wholly and unreservedly condemn attacks by Hamas, will the right hon. Gentleman wholly and unreservedly condemn the excessive force used by the Israeli Government in targeting residential areas in Gaza, resulting in the indiscriminate killing of civilians—women, men and young children—which is clearly a grave breach of the Geneva convention, while we wait for the middle east process to kick off?
It is important for all of us, on all sides of the argument—I think there is a strong consensus here on the need for a peace process and to break this cycle of violence—to deplore violence and the murder of innocent civilians on all sides. That is what I have done in my statement. That is the clear sentiment, of course, across the House. We want to see a situation where Israel is not subject to rocket attacks from Gaza and Palestinians in Gaza are not subject to Israeli airstrikes in retaliation. That is what we are trying to bring about.