House of Commons
Tuesday 22 July 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
Buckinghamshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords]
Second Readings opposed and deferred until Tuesday 2 September (Standing Order No. 20).
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of a Paper, entitled ‘Report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools arising from the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter’, dated 22 July 2014.—(Anne Milton.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
May I begin by apologising for the Foreign Secretary’s absence? He is in Brussels attending the EU Foreign Affairs Council. In his absence, I am, of course, delighted to be answering 14 of the 25 oral questions today.
As the Prime Minister said in his comprehensive statement yesterday, we are clear that Israel has a right to defend itself against these attacks. No country would stand by as rockets are fired or terrorist tunnels are constructed into their territory. We are equally clear that Israel’s response must be proportionate, taking all necessary steps to minimise civilian casualties in line with international humanitarian law.
I thank the Minister for his response, but we have seen kids being bombed on beaches, tanks attacking hospitals and hundreds of civilians—babies, mothers, patients—being killed. Thousands of Rochdale people and millions of people in the United Kingdom expect their Government to condemn more and understand less. Will the Foreign Secretary and the Minister call Israel to account over its actions in Gaza?
Nobody can fail but be moved by the incredible heart-wrenching scenes we have seen on television. I spoke to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission to the UK yesterday, and I raised concerns about the civilian deaths and casualties with the Israeli ambassador and urged him to ensure that any allegations relating to proportionality be investigated, and he assured me that this would be the case.
We realise that peace is not just about a settlement between Governments, but about people living together. I know that the Foreign Office invests significant resources in single community projects, but in order to build up confidence and break down barriers between the peoples in the region will the Minister look at how we can support cross-community initiatives?
The right hon. Lady is right to point out that there are some wider issues to be dealt with. Our aim is to support and strengthen constituencies for peace through the tri-departmental conflict pool fund. In 2013-14 we funded 17 projects through the conflict pool programme for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with a budget of £4 million.
I welcome the Minister to his post. I support Israel’s right to defend itself and I condemn the actions of Hamas, but may I urge the Minister to redouble the British Government’s efforts not just to achieve a ceasefire but to restart peace talks designed to achieve a lasting peace, so that we can end this recurring spectre of the suffering of thousands of innocent Palestinians?
That is exactly what the Foreign Secretary is trying to achieve in his work in Brussels today, and the Egyptian leadership is making efforts to do the same, bringing parties together in the region. 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 for ending the cycle of violence once and for all.
Last week, four boys, all from the Bakr family, aged seven to 11 years—Zakaria, Ahed and two boys named Mohammad—were playing hide and seek among the fishermen’s huts at the Gaza city harbour when, as they ran along the beach, their bodies were ripped to shreds in an instant by an incoming Israeli shell. What threat did those little boys pose to Israeli security, and will the Minister condemn the murderous behaviour of Israel as completely disproportionate and a crime against humanity?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point implicitly, which is that, sadly, the location of this battlefield is one of the most populous areas on the planet. Hamas and Israeli armed forces are conducting these operations in densely populated areas, not least in the Shujai’iya district. Unfortunately, that is also where the tunnel systems are operating and from where, on average, 147 rockets are hitting Israel every day—but, absolutely, as I said before, there are questions to be raised about the civilians, and I put those to the Israeli ambassador yesterday.
First, may I welcome my hon. Friend to what, although it does not look like it at the moment, is the best junior ministerial job in the Government? Although an urgent ceasefire is essential, the reason Gaza is ablaze again remains the same as ever: the inability of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel to make the necessary concessions to each other to ensure a middle east peace agreement. Will he use his time in office to ensure that the UK does all in its power, together with friends from Washington to all the Arab states, to drive the parties together again for the negotiations that each must have with the other? Will he ensure that they do understand that whatever the justifications for their actions—God knows, we have heard and sympathised with them all for decades—it is no longer worth the loss of life of any more little boys and girls?
First, I pay tribute to the work my right hon. Friend did as Minister with responsibility for the middle east. I am grateful for the support he has already provided me with, and I hope it continues. He rightly says that we must participate, with other nations, in looking for a long-term solution. A cessation of the violence will allow the opportunity to tackle the underlying causes of instability in the Gaza strip, without which the long-term security of both Israel and Gaza will not be secured.
The Israeli defence forces have detected 18 Hamas-built tunnels and found 45 others extending from Gaza into Israel. Many of the tunnels in Gaza originate in civilian areas, beneath homes, greenhouses and mosques. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite understandable that Israel seeks to find these tunnels and destroy them to protect its country and its civilians?
It is worrying that on 8 July a Hamas spokesman called on civilians in the Gaza strip to serve as human shields. We have seen on television the pictures of those tunnels, and I have seen reports that 20% of the concrete that goes into Gaza is put to use in making them. That is a shocking indictment of the priorities of Hamas and it needs to change.
19. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On 15 July, 17 July and 20 July, Israel agreed to accept a ceasefire, but was greeted by Hamas firing more rockets at Israel. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the refusal by Hamas to accept a ceasefire? (905003)
Respectable democracies should not meet unacceptable attacks with unacceptable and disproportionate responses, including the bombing of mosques and hospitals, and the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Is the Secretary of State today raising with other European Governments the EU-Israel association agreement, which is supposed to be based on the shared values of respect for human rights, peace and stability?
Does the Minister agree that the terrible carnage in Gaza means that the prospects for the two-state solution we all want are vanishing? It was still very possible back in 2000; I recall that when I was middle east Minister I had discussions with Prime Minister Barak and Yasser Arafat in Palestine, but that all collapsed and Hamas was elected. Now, Israel’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Hamas, coupled with its merciless assault on Gaza, risks inviting in something even worse and more extreme—ISIS. Surely we should learn from Northern Ireland that to end wars people have to negotiate with their enemies or the terror simply gets worse.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his interest and experience in this area. He is right to point out that we face very difficult challenges. On a positive note, we welcome the announcement of the formation of a new interim technocratic Government for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, reuniting Gaza and the west bank under a Government committed to peace, which is a necessary condition for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last week, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency issued a statement showing that Hamas had left missiles and rocket launchers inside a school in Gaza. Does that not show that Hamas is using its civilians to protect its missiles and that Israel is using its missile defences to protect its civilians from attack?
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I warned Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, that if he did not make peace with Fatah, he would be left with Hamas? He made the effort and was murdered for his pains by another Jew. Will the Minister make it clear that, with the death toll rising to 600, which includes the murder of 25 members of one extended family, he will join John Kerry, who has derided and scorned Israel’s claim of pinpointing its attacks and warned it that not only will it suffer more casualties but that it will be left with Palestinians who will refuse ever to negotiate with it?
The right hon. Gentleman illustrates how complex these matters are. I join him in congratulating John Kerry on the work he has done. The UK Government strongly support the tireless efforts of the US Secretary of State and his team to facilitate a final status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I know he is pursuing that now he has arrived in the region.
My hon. Friend will know the impact that white phosphorus shells can have on civilian populations in particular. Many of us were appalled to see the use of them in a previous Israeli incursion into Gaza. Will he inform the Israeli ambassador, and all parties in this conflict, that the eyes of the world are on them, and that, whatever their reasons for prosecuting this conflict, we will be watching them very carefully to see how they are doing that?
The use of white phosphorus and indeed of cluster munitions was raised in the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday. We have seen no evidence to date that they have been used during recent events in Gaza. However, the defence section in Tel Aviv will approach the Israeli defence forces to inquire whether they are being used in this current campaign.
May I welcome the Minister to his post and say that I fully appreciate the reasons for the new Foreign Secretary being in Brussels today. As we have heard, Operation Protective Edge has already cost more than 580 Palestinian lives, most of whom are civilians and many of whom are innocent children. Last week, I warned that an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would bring more suffering for the Palestinians and would be a strategic error for Israel. The Opposition are clear that we oppose this escalation. Do the Government?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; I hope that I get the same warm welcome at every Foreign Office questions. He is right to remind the House of the heavy death toll that is being endured in the region, with almost 600 dead, 3,600 injured and 83,000 displaced so far. These matters are being raised in Brussels as we speak, and I think the Foreign Secretary intends to put out a statement on his return.
That was a troubling answer, even from a colleague whom I welcome to his position on the Front Bench. I welcome the fact that the US Secretary of State John Kerry has travelled to Cairo seeking an urgent ceasefire, but the pattern of rocket attacks, periodic invasion and permanent occupation does not bring security for Israel and brings further humiliation and suffering for the Palestinians. As in the past, this incursion will end with an agreement. The question is how many more children and civilians need to die before such an agreement is reached. Does the Minister accept that the absence of such an agreement will recruit more terrorists at exactly the point at which Hamas had been weakened by events in Tehran, Syria and Egypt?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman misses the point. The work that has been going on is trying to achieve a ceasefire, which is why the Foreign Secretary, who is in Brussels at the moment, will be flying to the region very shortly. John Kerry is there and so is Ban Ki-moon. We also must not forget that Hamas is firing an average of 147 rockets every single day. Were that to stop, the situation in Gaza would change significantly.
Freedom of Religion and Belief
We remain deeply concerned about a disturbing and unwelcome trend of persecution on the basis of religion or belief. Regrettably, this is not confined to a single region nor to a single faith, but we counteract it wherever we can. This has included recent work from Sudan to Nigeria, from Iraq to Burma, and from Pakistan to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but in Egypt Coptic and Orthodox churches are being attacked, in Mosul in Iraq Christians have been driven out by ISIS, Muslims in Burma are facing violence from mobs and Christians in Pakistan face persecution from the state. Is it not time that the international community, led by this UK Government, took more action on this growing crisis?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight these terrible things. Some hon. Members will have seen the reports in The Times this morning about ISIS in Iraq, and they are truly troubling. We continue to work through the United Nations to ensure that states implement Human Rights Council resolution 16/18, which focuses on combating religious intolerance, protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society. The hon. Gentleman will have to agree, however, that ensuring freedom of religion and freedom of speech in some of these countries, which face the most horrific internal disruptions, is extremely difficult.
Ayatollah Tehrani’s gift of illuminated calligraphy to the Baha’i is an act in the spirit of the UN declaration of human rights, which states that everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, which I welcome, what more can Britain do to celebrate such acts and challenge religious intolerance, wherever it occurs in the world?
I think that it would be appropriate for me to pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who has been doing some excellent work in this area, not least by convening a high-level international grouping on the subject during the UN General Assembly ministerial week in New York. She will reconvene that group. We have also set up an advisory group on the freedom of religion or belief in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and we will continue to do what we can through our embassies around the world. It is extremely difficult work at this time, when religions of all types, not just Christians, are facing the most horrific oppression in all four corners of the world.
Will the Government continue to make representations to the Government of Pakistan to reform their blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute and prosecute minority communities, including the Christian community? In particular, will the Government take up the case of Aisha Bibi, a mother of five children and a Christian who has been convicted under these laws and has been imprisoned for four years awaiting an appeal?
We raise these issues consistently at senior ministerial levels in Pakistan. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the then Foreign Secretary lobbied Prime Minister Sharif during his visit in May. We made it clear that Pakistan must guarantee the rights of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity.
Given our historic ties with and moral responsibility for the people of Hong Kong, will the Minister make it clear that our growing friendship with China requires its leaders to keep their promise at the time of the handover to allow free and fair elections in Hong Kong by 2017?
Indeed. I met Martin Lee and Anson Chan when they were over here last week. We stand by our early commitments. We want to see a transition towards universal suffrage, but ultimately that must be decided by the Government in the Hong Kong special administrative region, by the people of Hong Kong and by the Government in Beijing.
The hon. Lady probably knows better than almost anyone in the House that the situation in Burma remains extremely difficult. Given our meetings and exchanges across the Floor of the House, I think that she recognises the extraordinary work and support that we are putting in to ensure a transition from one form of government to a democracy in Burma, with all its religious and ethnic divides. We continue to lobby. I had the Burmese ambassador in recently to raise my concerns about the consensus but also about religious tolerance, with the Rohingya. If the hon. Lady wishes to come and see me, I am always happy to discuss the situation in Burma, as she knows. We are the first Government to have produced a cross-Burma strategy showing all the work that we are doing there.
I think we have got better at ensuring that our aid goes to the right places, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise it. Of course, there is an issue. As we have reached 0.7% of GDP going to our aid budget, and as the GDP of this country increases due to the success of the Government’s long-term economic plan, there is more money around to help alleviate poverty around the world. It is up to us to ensure that that money reaches the right target.
The world will have been shocked by the recent attacks on and violent expulsion of Christians in Mosul, but this is only the latest outrage in a rising tide of religious intolerance around the world, largely but by no means exclusively targeted at Christians. The United Nations declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In this country, we enjoy that right, but too many around the world are persecuted for their faith. What, if any, substantial initiatives has the FCO taken to advance and protect those rights?
If I might say so, I think that the right hon. Gentleman might have written his question before I answered the first question, because I addressed the issue that he raises. I talked about the work being done by my noble Friend Baroness Warsi in convening high-level groupings at the UN General Assembly in ministerial week in New York, which she will be doing again. I have talked about the FCO’s new advisory group on freedom of religious belief. I have talked about our work with ambassadors and journalists around the world to encourage religious tolerance, which we will continue to do. We continue to take this issue, which is one of the FCO’s six human rights priorities, extraordinarily seriously. In a way, the issue is being addressed today in the girl summit, which follows the preventing sexual violence initiative summit. The Government cannot be accused of not doing our best.
In Sri Lanka, mosques and churches are subject to attacks by radical Buddhists. Will my right hon. Friend take the matter up with the Sri Lankan Government so that religious minorities are protected in this traditional land in Sri Lanka?
We remain concerned by the significant surge in attacks on minority groups in Sri Lanka—not least the recent anti-Muslim violence. I met representatives of the Sri Lankan Muslim community to listen to their concerns, which we have raised with the Sri Lankan Government. The March UN Human Rights Council resolution, which was driven by the UK, urges the Sri Lankan Government to investigate all alleged attacks on members of religious minority groups and temples, mosques and churches.
The hon. Lady will know that I went to the UNHRC to speak in favour of a resolution, which has brought about the inquiry. We still say that the Sri Lankan Government should listen to what is being suggested and should abide by the UN ruling. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, “Will they?” Well, that remains to be seen. The answer is that they should. The UN has spoken. It wants an international inquiry, and Sri Lanka should respond.
Given the rise of religious intolerance, the violence in the middle east region and the ghastly widespread human suffering in Gaza, does my right hon. Friend agree that one notable exception to religious intolerance is the role of Christians and Christianity in Gaza?
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant poses a threat to Iraq, the region and beyond. I welcome the appointment of a new Parliamentary Speaker last week in Iraq, and hope a new and inclusive Government will be formed quickly. The UK has announced £5 million of humanitarian support for the people of Iraq.
I was for seven years the special envoy on human rights to Iraq, and the Minister accompanied me on one occasion, so he should be better informed of that than most. Has he seen the report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights? She says:
“Every day we receive accounts of a terrible litany of human rights violations being committed in Iraq against ordinary Iraqi children, women and men, who have been deprived of their security, their livelihoods,”
their education, their homes—and many of them, of course, have fled. What exactly are the British Government doing to help Iraqis at this time? The amount of money the Minister mentioned is totally insufficient.
If I may, I shall first pay tribute to the work that the right hon. Lady has done. It was a pleasure to travel with her and she is hugely experienced in this area. Unfortunately, the chaos that we are currently witnessing in Iraq is allowing many humanitarian problems to exist and allowing human rights violations to take place. We are working with the Iraqi leaders, and the urgent priority is the formation of an inclusive Government that can command the support of all the Iraqi leaders in the communities, and jointly combat the threat of ISIL. We welcome the fact that Iraq’s new Parliament met on 15 June to appoint a Speaker. The right hon. Lady will know that now the Speaker is in place, a President and a Prime Minister can be appointed. Those are positive steps in moving forward.
Unfortunately, the Foreign Secretary is not here, but in his last appearance as Defence Secretary, he told me three times that the British Government were in favour of a unified state in Iraq. Is the reality not that a state of Iraq will continue only if there is the loosest possible confederation? Given the facts on the ground, we should be doing far more to support the Kurdistan region, which is democratic and pluralistic, at this time.
I was in northern Iraq last month and I was there when President Barzani made the statement of intent to move towards independence. We have heard no more details on that and we will not react to that until something more is forthcoming. However, Iraq needs to be united in tackling the challenges it faces, including the serious threats that are posed not only in Iraq but in the wider region. To achieve that, a new and inclusive Iraqi Government must be formed as quickly as possible, which includes the Kurds. The hon. Gentleman will know from his visits to the country that the Kurds have been distanced from what is going on in Baghdad, as have the Sunnis. Moderate Sunnis have indeed been pushed into ISIL. We are looking for a more inclusive Baghdad Government, which will unify Iraq.
May I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position? It is a well deserved promotion. The Kurdistan Regional Government now have a 1,000 km border with ISIS. Their budget has not been paid since March by the central Government. Would the Minister’s Department look at what help we can offer the Kurdistan Regional Government? As John Kerry said, these people share our values. It is important that we support them in their struggle against ISIS.
It is not just the payment for the peshmerga; funds from Baghdad have been withheld in other areas, too. The UK will not take sides in that dispute, but we have offered on a number of occasions to mediate if that would be helpful and the offer remains on the table. We believe there is potential for a win-win solution to be found that can benefit both the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq, and indeed Turkey and Britain, as they promote exports of oil.
Like Boko Haram and the Taliban, when ISIS rape and enslave women, it is strategic—they are terrorising whole communities—but when our outstanding former Foreign Secretary led an international campaign against such violence, it was labelled “trivial” by many in our press. Will the new Minister please reject that fundamental misunderstanding of how communities are terrorised in such conflicts, and will he commit himself to fighting violence against women and girls as a security as well as a humanitarian priority?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work and commitment in this field. I would be grateful for the opportunity to meet her, to discuss it in more detail. She will be aware that a girl summit is taking place at Lancaster house today, and it will be focusing on those very issues.
May I raise again the issue of Christians in Iraq? I do not think the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), answered the previous question in any detail. What are the Government doing in the international community and the UN and with the Iraqi Government to bring attention to the plight of Christians in Iraq, given the terrible threats made against them?
There are threats to Christians, for example in the Mosul area, where they are experiencing intolerance and indeed brutality because of ISIL. That is a particular tragedy for Mosul, given that it has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. We will work with the new Government in Baghdad to raise these matters further.
My hon. Friend asks an important question. Because of the disparity in the way Iraq is currently operating—I have encouraged a more inclusive approach—there is a disjointed capability. The Americans have moved in with their advisers and are working very hard indeed to upgrade the authorised military capability, so that we do not need to lean on the militias, such as the Shi’ite militias, to tackle ISIL.
Property Mis-selling: Cyprus
6. If he will take steps to support UK citizens who have been victims of property mis-selling in Cyprus. (904988)
Following our lobbying, the Cypriot Government have now formed a ministerial committee to address property issues, including foreign currency mortgages and title deeds. We continue to work with that committee and with the Cypriot Government generally to try to resolve property problems, which undoubtedly cause great anguish to those British citizens caught up in them.
The Minister is aware that thousands of British citizens, including a number of my constituents, have lost large sums of money—sometimes their life savings—as a result of a particular property mis-selling scam, and now some of them are being pursued in the British courts by some of the banks involved in the scandal. The decision by the Cypriot Government to set up a committee is therefore welcome, but can the Minister take a more active role in trying to ensure that those who have suffered from the scam do not suffer even more?
This certainly remains a high priority for us in our meetings with Cypriot Ministers; it is a matter which our high commissioner takes up regularly with Cypriot officials and Ministers and which I have raised on many occasions with successive Foreign Ministers of Cyprus. Clearly, when a matter is before United Kingdom courts, there are limits to what Ministers can do to intervene, but I will always be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman if there are particular constituency cases he would like to discuss.
8. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on that country’s nuclear programme. (904990)
Negotiations with Iran on a comprehensive agreement have been tough but productive. It was not possible to reach a deal by 20 July, but both sides are committed to building on the progress that has been made. We have therefore agreed with Iran to extend the Geneva interim agreement until 24 November to give us the time to bridge the differences, in particular on the core issue of enrichment.
I am grateful for that welcome. The right hon. Gentleman and I have spent much time in this place discussing some of the very issues that we are talking about now. He is right to raise concerns about the deal. Rather than making a bad deal, we believe it is important to delay it to make sure that we have an appropriate deal. Talks have been productive. Both sides have worked hard on a draft text but more time is needed to bridge the differences that remain, in particular on enrichment, and to agree the details of how the agreement will be implemented.
21. The joint plan of action abandons the demands made by the six United Nations Security Council resolutions that Iran must halt all enrichment, so what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the message that this would send to the Iranian regime about how serious we are about sticking to our guns where Iran’s nuclear capabilities are concerned? (905005)
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns and pay tribute to him for his interest in this area. We are looking for the appropriate deal to be struck. It has not been on the table up to this point. It was decided to delay matters until November and I hope to be able to report back to the House very soon on what progress has been made.
Murder Trials: British Nationals Abroad
We provide a high level of support to families whose loved ones are murdered or on trial abroad, alongside UK police and specialist non-governmental organisations which we part-fund. Support can include providing additional information about local lawyers, accompanying families to meetings and attending trials at key points. We are currently reviewing what additional support is possible and consulting widely on the matter.
Will the Minister look again at what financial assistance the Government can provide to parents of those murdered abroad, specifically including interest-free loans so that families of victims can attend trials on foreign soil and see for themselves that justice is done?
I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman has a particularly sensitive case in his constituency, but I can assure him that we look at the individual circumstances of every case and an assessment is made of vulnerability. We use NGOs such as Missing Abroad, which can help secure free or cheap flights. Also, we use NGOs to provide video conferencing facilities to enable loved ones to watch the proceedings that take place. I hope he has been contacted about the consultation. We are looking at what more we can do to help the families.
Bilateral EU Free Trade Agreements
Earlier this month the European Union held the latest negotiating rounds on two major free trade agreements with the United States and Japan respectively. We are aiming to agree these deals next year. Between them they could add £15 billion to the United Kingdom’s economy each year.
I am grateful for that answer, although I think it is unfortunate that because of our membership of the European Union, we cannot enter into bilateral agreements ourselves. Nevertheless, does my right hon. Friend agree that the transatlantic trade and investment partnership will provide a useful boost to Jaguar Land Rover and other motoring companies in the west midlands and elsewhere?
A successful TTIP deal would indeed provide great opportunities for the United Kingdom’s very successful automotive industry, which has hit records in both production and exports during the lifetime of this Government. It would also benefit other areas of this country, most notably Scotland.
The Minister is trying to catch me out by mentioning Scotland, but he knows that there are major concerns in three areas about the TTIP between the EU and the US. One is food safety, with the use of hormones in the US, which may be forced into Europe. Secondly, there is the problem with the threat to public services and privatisation of the service. The third area of concern is dispute settlement in other agreements, which allows tobacco companies to take countries such as Australia to court for introducing packaging which shows people the damage caused by smoking tobacco. Will the Minister give me an assurance that we will not sign up to these three items without bringing them before the House for agreement?
As regards food safety, clearly we should be guided at all times by rigorous scientific analysis of what the risks amount to. On investor-state dispute settlements, the United Kingdom is already party to more than 90 of these, and the TTIP would provide explicit protection for the right to regulate, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s fears would be realised.
23. It is estimated that EU-US free trade will save the average family £400 a year through cheaper prices and increased competition. With such huge potential benefits, will my right hon. Friend push to ensure that the TTIP negotiations are completed as quickly as possible? (905007)
We believe that it is in the interests of every family in the United Kingdom that this successful trade deal is concluded as soon as possible. Priority areas for us include the automotive industry, financial services, procurement, agriculture, and food and drink. There are tremendous opportunities for British business through a successful TTIP negotiation.
Would it not be sensible for the Minister to ensure that his boss is properly briefed on the benefits to Britain of a successful EU-US trade deal, perhaps before the Foreign Secretary is next tempted to go on the airwaves and talk up the possibility of a British exit from the European Union?
The entire Government, since we came into office in May 2010, have made it a priority to increase the prosperity of the whole of Europe, including the United Kingdom, through a commitment to free trade—a priority that was sadly neglected under the Government in whom the hon. Gentleman served.
We welcome the efforts to secure a ceasefire, which remains the best means of ending the current cycle of violence. I call upon Hamas, as I have already said, and all militant factions in Gaza to cease hostilities so that the bloodshed on both sides can stop.
We have increased our funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the main UN organisation operating in Gaza, by £5 million. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been communicating with the parties involved in Gaza, and indeed in Israel, to encourage them to listen to what Egypt is saying and to agree a ceasefire.
Securing a ceasefire is urgently needed to stop this terrible loss of life. Will discussions on a ceasefire include considering the future of the terror tunnels, from which Mumbai-type atrocities are being planned against Israeli civilians?
The immediate priority is to have a ceasefire in place, and then, as John Kerry has stated, we can move towards a longer term solution, which must include all aspects, including—dare I say it?—the territories. These must be considered following on from the ceasefire itself.
Arms Sales: Russia
The United Kingdom has already suspended all such export licences to Russia where exports could be used against Ukraine. We have discussed the possibility of an EU-wide arms and defence exports embargo with the French Government, both bilaterally and at European Council and Council of Ministers meetings.
The Prime Minister made the British Government’s position clear yesterday during his response to questions on his statement. It is obviously for the French Government to take that decision, which at the moment they plan to take in October this year, and to defend whatever decision they take.
The Foreign Secretary is very clear about the use of sanctions against Russia and about their potential efficacy. Why, therefore, has the Foreign Office consistently said in relation to Sri Lanka that it does not believe in applying sanctions there or in other parts of the world?
Our priority in dealing with the Government of Sri Lanka has been to secure an independent investigation into the serious reports of human rights abuses in the north of that country. The Prime Minister has championed that priority and we achieved considerable success in that regard at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
It was a good question; it was just the wrong one. I am afraid that my efforts have failed. Even the Clerks, in all their distinction, cannot remotely fathom the pertinence of the inquiry by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) to question No. 22, and I rather doubt whether the hon. Member for Torbay can either. But there we go—it is the last day, and there will be some latitude.
In addition to the crisis in Gaza, our focus is very much on Ukraine. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, our approach is that, first, we need to see the repatriation of the victims’ bodies and the beginning of an independent investigation of what happened to flight MH17. Secondly, we believe that Russia must stop providing supplies and training to the separatists. Thirdly, we need to reassess this country’s and the European Union’s long-term relationships with Russia. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is in Brussels today discussing exactly those matters with his European counterparts.
Does the Minister agree that the horrendous destruction of flight MH17 was a direct consequence of a regional crisis fomented by President Putin? Does he also agree that we must now move to tier 3 sanctions on defence, energy and banking? And, further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), surely those Russian sailors in Saint-Nazaire should now return home immediately.
We are certainly among those countries that have been pressing for some time at European meetings for a tougher and more rigorous sanctions policy to be adopted by the European Union. Sadly, the crisis in Donetsk and Luhansk appears to have been fomented quite deliberately by the Russian authorities, to whom the separatists look for matériel, for arms and for moral encouragement. It is in the interests of all of Europe that Russia desists from that policy and seeks reconciliation.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday on flight MH17. I also welcome whatever further steps can be agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council. In the light of recent developments, however, may I urge the Government urgently to seek an emergency meeting of the European Heads of Government? Does the Minister accept that, in reality, only the European Council is capable of taking the scale of diplomatic response that is increasingly obviously required?
We certainly do not rule out the necessity for that to happen, perhaps within a matter of days. I think it would be wise to assess the outcome of today’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting first, but the Prime Minister is alive to the possibility of such a meeting.
T4. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the stalled election process in Afghanistan is undermining the democratic institutions that so many of our brave men and women fought so hard for and sacrificed so much to deliver? (904976)
My hon. Friend is right to raise concerns about the election process in Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah received 45% of the vote in the first round, and that figure remained the same in the second. Ashraf Ghani went from 31% in the first round to 56% in the second, with an extra million people voting. He threatened to form a breakaway Government, and we are grateful for the work of the United States, and of John Kerry in particular, on reconciling that matter. The votes are now being recounted and we look forward to the result.
T2. The BBC seems to have missed it, but 100,000 people marched through London on Saturday to protest against the terrible suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. Smaller demonstrations are taking place every day, many will march in Newcastle on Saturday, and I have received hundreds of e-mails and letters on the subject. Will the Minister ensure that his counterparts in Israel understand the mounting sense of outrage among the British people? (904974)
The increased diplomatic pressure that is being placed on the situation, including by John Kerry going to the region and, indeed by our own Foreign Secretary and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, shows that there is a huge amount of growing international pressure to seek a solution. The Foreign Secretary has done his best to communicate with his counterparts in Israel, Egypt and, indeed, the Palestinian authorities. We hope for, and will work towards, a ceasefire as soon as possible.
T5. Will the Minister congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) on organising a trip to Bosnia next week, in which I will be taking part, to refurbish a centre for women affected by sexual violence in conflict, which is something in which the previous Foreign Secretary took a great interest? (904977)
I am very happy to congratulate both my hon. Friends on their commitment to that project, and my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) in particular on her tireless work to highlight the continued importance of this country’s relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Minister played a very important role at the recent summit to help prevent the use of sexual violence as an instrument of war. We need to learn the lessons of that experience.
T6. The NATO summit at the Celtic Manor in Newport is a real chance to put Wales’s leading cutting-edge businesses in the world’s shop window. However, concerns have been raised with me that not enough is being done to promote those Welsh businesses. In the run-up to the vital NATO summit, what are the Government going to do to ensure that Welsh business is promoted to the hilt before, during and after it? (904978)
I certainly believe that the NATO summit in Wales will provide an unparalleled opportunity to highlight not only Welsh business but the attractiveness of Wales as a destination for inward investment and for tourism. We saw how Northern Ireland benefited from the Enniskillen summit last year. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my colleagues at the Wales Office have the issue very much on their list of key priorities at the moment.
The Russian response to the downing of the aircraft has been a mixture of disingenuousness and paranoia, and they have abandoned realism. It has already been argued that steps should be taken to make them take a more realistic approach, but is there not a real challenge for the north Atlantic alliance, both with the European Union and with NATO, to ensure that we act in such a united and unified way that the Russians are in no doubt about the seriousness with which we take their conduct?
I completely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. It is important that the Atlantic alliance generally—this applies whether we are talking about NATO or the European Union—remains united, resolute and determined, because we face a very grave challenge. It is certainly the case that the NATO summit will need to give a high priority to a reassertion of article 5 of the doctrine of collective defence.
What actions are the Foreign Office team taking to ensure consular access to Andargachew Tsege? He is an Ethiopian-born British citizen who was seized at Sanaa airport by Ethiopian officials on 23 June, sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Ethiopia and held at an undisclosed location in Ethiopia. Despite the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and me, he still has not had consular or legal access. Could the Foreign Office urgently contact the Ethiopian Government and ensure that access is obtained?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this concerning case. I reassure him that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the gentleman concerned gets consular access. I spoke to the Ethiopian Foreign Minister last Friday night, and my colleagues at the Department for International Development spoke to the Ethiopian Prime Minister. We continue to press the Ethiopian Government to get access. I have approved a letter to be sent to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who are particularly interested in this case, to set out what continued action we intend to deliver.
T8. The Minister said earlier that Israel has the right to defend itself against missile attack, and I entirely agree, but he went on to say that the response must be proportionate. Is it not transparently obvious that the response is not proportionate, but grossly disproportionate and outwith international law? On that basis, will he not look again at the preferential trade arrangements that Israel enjoys at the moment? (904982)
We spoke about this outside the Chamber, and I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and views. The Prime Minister has spoken about the issues of proportionality, and I have mentioned my discussions with the Israeli ambassador. I see no need at the moment to look at any of the EU negotiations.
Yesterday I asked the Prime Minister about the Litvinenko case, and I am delighted to say that the Home Secretary has today announced a public inquiry, so let me press home the advantage. I also asked him yesterday about the Magnitsky case. Considering that the Americans have already done it and that other countries in Europe have done it, why on earth have we not introduced what the House demanded more than two years ago, which is a clear statement that those who were involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and in the corruption that he unveiled are not welcome in this country? That is now the eighth time I have asked.
Given the appalling events in eastern Ukraine and the fact that our EU neighbours seem reluctant to adopt a robust line against the bully in the playground, has the time not come for the UK to lead by example and to close our financial services to Russia?
I think that it will be important to make sure that whatever sanctions are imposed on Russian interests are effective and do not just lead to Russian money migrating somewhere else, and to make sure that they have a sound legal basis. That is what we are working to achieve. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we regard financial services as very much on the table in such discussions.
Human rights abuses and the persecution of Christians in Iran are at their worst levels for decades—second only to North Korea. Some 700 executions have taken place, with many of those people killed for their religious beliefs. What discussions has the Minister had with the Iranian Government about protecting Christians in Iran?
I mentioned earlier that our embassy in Iran is shortly to open; some technical issues still need to be resolved. Once it is open, there will be more and more opportunity to raise those very issues. Three concerns jump out immediately—freedom of expression, freedom of religion and rights for women—and I will pursue those issues when I have an opportunity, I hope, to visit Iran in the forthcoming period.
Given the massive potential economic benefits from concluding a successful transatlantic free trade agreement and the fact that Britain is one of the leading international trading nations of the EU, would it not make sense for the UK to be granted the trade portfolio within the Commission?
What assessment has the Minister made of the double war crime perpetrated by Hamas with regard to not only hiding themselves and their weaponry among the civilian population, but deliberately targeting and desiring the murder of innocent Israelis?
I mentioned earlier the important role that Hamas can play in organising and agreeing to a ceasefire. Unfortunately, it is the case that it has used some of its weapon systems in civilian areas, which has led to too many deaths. As we have said again and again, I hope that all parties can now come to an agreement on a ceasefire, led by the Egyptians.
What is the difference between a Russian Government who deserve sanctions for their involvement in bringing down MH17 and an Israeli Government who refuse to apologise for bombing hospitals and killing children who were playing football on the beach?
We have to look at each case on its merits. With regard to Russia, the Prime Minister made our position very clear in the House yesterday. The hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that the desperate need in Gaza is for a ceasefire and a cessation of the appalling violence and loss of life among men, women and children on both sides. The sooner that happens, the better. Our diplomatic efforts are designed to help bring that about.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools arising from the so-called Trojan horse letter. The report by Peter Clarke was laid before the House this morning.
The abiding principle of the Government’s education policy is that schools should prepare children for life in modern Britain and, indeed, the modern world. Schools should open doors for children, not close them. That is what parents want and expect. We should be clear that that is as true for the overwhelming majority of British Muslims as for anyone else.
As a Government, we strongly support the right of Muslim parents to be involved in their children’s schools and their commitment to take leading roles in public life. What has been so upsetting about the history in this small handful of schools is that the success of efforts to encourage more British Muslims to take up governing roles has been damaged by the actions of a few. I sincerely hope that parents will continue to come forward to serve as governors and to take leadership roles in schools.
However, what Peter Clarke found is disturbing. His report sets out compelling evidence of a determined effort by people with a shared ideology to gain control of the governing bodies of a small number of schools in Birmingham. Teachers have said that they fear that children are learning to be intolerant of difference and diversity. Instead of enjoying a broadening and enriching experience in school, young people are having their horizons narrowed and are being denied the opportunity to flourish in a modern, multicultural Britain.
There has been no evidence of direct radicalisation or violent extremism, but there is a clear account in the report of people in positions of influence in these schools, who have a restricted and narrow interpretation of their faith, not promoting fundamental British values and failing to challenge the extremist views of others. Individuals associated with the Park View Educational Trust, in particular, have destabilised head teachers, sometimes leading to their resignation or removal. Particularly shocking is the evidence of the social media discussion of the Park View Brotherhood group, whose actions
“betray a collective mind-set that can fairly be described as an intolerant Islamist approach which denies the validity of alternative beliefs.”
Evidence collected by Peter Clarke shows that Birmingham city council was aware of the practices that were subsequently outlined in the Trojan horse letter long before it surfaced. On Friday, the council published its report into the problems by Ian Kershaw. He concluded that in some cases the council was a vehicle for promoting some of these problems, with head teachers being eased out through the profligate use of compromise agreements, rather than being supported. The council’s inability to address the problems had been exacerbated, the report found, by a culture of not wanting to address difficult problems where there was a risk of accusations of racism or Islamophobia.
We are all in the debt of Peter Clarke for the rigour that he brought to his investigation and for the forensic clarity of his findings. We are also in the debt of my predecessor, who is now the Chief Whip, for his determination in the face of criticism to invite Mr Clarke to take on this task. No Government and no Home Secretary have done more to tackle extremism than this Government and this Home Secretary. In the conclusions of the Government’s extremism taskforce last year, the Prime Minister made it clear that we need to deal with the dangers posed by extremism well before it becomes violent. Peter Clarke’s report offers us important recommendations on how to address that challenge in schools.
Our first priority after Ofsted reported its findings last month was to take action on the schools in special measures. The members of the Park View Educational Trust have resigned, enabling outstanding head teachers from the wider Birmingham community to take on the governance of the trust and ensure a strong future for its three academies. My noble Friend Lord Nash has today written to the Oldknow Academy Trust to notify it that I will terminate its funding agreement in the light of its manifest breaches. A new interim executive board has replaced the failing governing body of Saltley school. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) for their work with those schools.
The second priority is the progress that must be made by Birmingham city council. I have spoken to Sir Albert Bore, and we have agreed that I will appoint a new education commissioner within the council to oversee its actions to address the fundamental criticisms in the Kershaw and Clarke reports, while building resilience in the system as a whole. The commissioner will report jointly to Birmingham’s chief executive and to me. If we are unable to make rapid progress with those new arrangements, I will not hesitate to use my powers to intervene further.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has also spoken to Sir Albert Bore about the need to address the wider weaknesses that these events have highlighted in the governance culture of the council. They have agreed that Sir Bob Kerslake will lead a review of governance in the city council, reporting with recommendations for both the short and medium term by the end of 2014.
I want also to ensure that our system of standards and accountability for all schools should better withstand the threats of extremism of all kinds. The National College for Teaching and Leadership will take the extensive evidence provided by Peter Clarke so that its misconduct panel can consider whether any teachers involved should be barred from the profession. Advice to the panel already provides that actions that undermine fundamental British values should be viewed as misconduct. I will strengthen that advice to make clear that exposing pupils to extremist speakers should be regarded as a failure to protect pupils and promote British values. I will also strengthen the advice to make it clear that prohibition from teaching should be imposed while such cases are investigated, and a prohibition without review made where misconduct is proved.
We have already published a consultation on strengthening independent school standards, which apply also to academies and free schools, including a requirement to actively promote British values. Ofsted will inspect how well all schools are actively promoting fundamental British values through their curriculum. We will provide further guidance on how to improve the social, moral, spiritual and cultural development of pupils, which is also inspected by Ofsted. We will strengthen our regulations to bar unsuitable persons from running independent schools, including academies and free schools. Anyone barred in that way will also be prohibited from being governor in any maintained school.
Peter Clarke recommends that Ofsted should be more sensitive to the signs of emerging problems. I believe that key evidence can be hidden from inspectors and the inspection regime needs to be strengthened further. My predecessor asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, to look at the feasibility and practicalities of introducing no-notice inspections for schools. I am pleased that the chief inspector has already decided, and notified schools earlier this month, that next term he would be broadening the criteria Ofsted uses to judge whether unannounced inspection is required for a particular school. HMCI believes there are advantages to extending no-notice inspection to all schools, and will use his consultation in the autumn on changes to the 2015 inspection regime to consult on whether universal no notice, or a different change to the no-notice regime, should be made.
Her Majesty’s chief inspector has also highlighted the need to ensure that all state-funded schools meet the requirement to teach a broad and balanced curriculum. He is clear that this is an area where inspectors will pay more attention, and the autumn consultation will seek views on whether Ofsted needs to do more to ensure that all schools meet their requirements to teach a broad and balanced curriculum.
My predecessor commissioned a review by the permanent secretary on whether the Department missed historical warnings in Birmingham, and he will report to me later in the summer. The Department has already ensured increased scrutiny of new academy sponsors and of the governance arrangements for schools seeking to convert to academy status. We have appointed regional schools commissioners backed by boards of local outstanding head teachers who will bring local intelligence to decision making on academies. I will now improve the Department’s due diligence and counter-extremism division’s capacity, as Peter Clarke recommends. I will ensure that the Department works in partnership with the Home Office, Department for Communities and Local Government and other agencies to improve the intelligence available to us on whether other parts of the country are similarly vulnerable to the threats that have been exposed in Birmingham.
The report also raises questions and makes specific recommendations about other important areas, including the role of the Association of Muslim Schools UK, further action on improving school governance, how to communicate better the role of local authorities with all schools—maintained, academies and independent—on safeguarding and extremism, and how we can be sure that all schools are meeting their statutory duties. I want to reflect further on those issues, as well as on all specific recommendations in the report published today, and return to the House in the autumn on steps to be taken on those matters.
Peter Clarke’s report confirms the pattern of serious failing found by Ofsted’s inspection reports, and identifies how the actions of a small number of individuals in some schools represented a serious risk to the safeguarding of children and the quality of education being provided. We are taking action to put things right, and I will not hesitate to act in any schools where serious concerns come to light in future.
I want to be clear, however, that those who seek to use this case to undermine the Government’s reform agenda will be disappointed. Today there are more than 4,000 academies and free schools serving pupils and parents up and down the country. They are helping thousands of young people, regardless of their background, to unlock their potential and become valuable and rounded members of society. The expansion of the academy programme has been one of the great success stories of this Government, and the actions of a small number of individuals will not divert us from that path. The programme of reform goes on, and I commend this statement to the House.
I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the work of Peter Clarke.
At the heart of the report is a devastating indictment of the Government’s schools policy, and the Government’s response is a structural admission of failure. Today, the Secretary of State has announced a new schools commissioner for Birmingham and endorsed Labour party policy. The free market model of schooling, pioneered by her predecessor, has been sunk by the events in Birmingham. Why not have a schools commissioner or a director of schools standards for Liverpool, for Manchester or for London?
Peter Clarke’s report reveals that coalition education policy is bust and has fomented the crisis in Birmingham. Clarke states:
“In theory, academies are accountable to the secretary of state, but in practice the accountability can almost amount to benign neglect where educational and financial performance seems to indicate everything is fine.”
However, we now know that everything was not fine. The truth of the matter is this: the chaotic, deregulated and fractured education policy the Government have pursued has increased the risks of radicalisation in English schools. Let us be clear: in 2010, the Department for Education was told by a senior Birmingham head teacher what was going on in Birmingham schools, and for four years it failed to act. I call that malign neglect.
First, will the Secretary of State tell us more about how the Department for Education inquiry into ministerial failings is proceeding? What evidence has it taken? Has Lord Hill given evidence? Sir Albert Bore has apologised on behalf of Birmingham city council, so will the Secretary of State apologise for her predecessor’s oversights?
Peter Clarke’s report heavily criticises the Government’s policy
“by which single schools are able to convert to academy status”.
Therefore, secondly, the Secretary of State’s predecessor thought that the security bar should be lowered for those seeking to convert schools to academy status, as in the case of Park View and Golden Hillock, compared with the bar for those seeking to establish free schools. Does she share that view?
Crucially, Peter Clarke finds that there was no
“suitable system for holding the new academies accountable for financial and management issues”.
He urges a clearer system for
“detecting changes in governance to make academies more effective in responding to warning signs”.
The commissioner is a right step, but will the Secretary of State admit that she cannot run tens of thousands of schools from behind a desk in Whitehall, which her predecessor failed to realise? Thirdly, therefore, will she now drop the dogma and agree to the Labour party plans for directors of schools standards—not the old local authority model, but a system of local oversight and accountability to give parents, teachers and governors a strong voice to support all schools and challenge low standards?
One disturbing element of Clarke’s report is his account of the introduction of an “intolerant and aggressive” Islamist ethos in Birmingham schools. Allegations of radical extremism and terrorism have proven to be unfounded, but there should be no place in an English school for segregation and the inculcation of a politicised version of Islam. It is right that schools in high-poverty and minority ethnic communities focus on achieving excellent academic results, but they must also provide the kind of rounded education that will ensure the success of their pupils in modern, multicultural Britain.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s support for changes for a “broad and balanced curriculum” in criteria for judgments by Ofsted. I am happy to support her framework discussions for no-notice inspections, and the misconduct reforms. However, one of the most pressing reforms we need to look at is our system of school governors—Clarke’s recommendation 10.
Beginning with the Labour party’s academies schools programme, successive Governments have sought to increase school autonomy. That has placed more onerous responsibilities on governing bodies without necessarily providing the relevant training and support. We do not want to overburden governors—we need to attract applicants for the job, particularly from minority ethnic communities—but we need to ensure a more professional, non-executive function in these roles. If the Secretary of State wishes to pursue a reform policy in that direction, she will have our support.
The story of Birmingham is the story of systemic failings in school oversight and accountability. The chickens have come home to roost on the Government’s free-for-all education policy. In our great second city, it is parents and pupils who have suffered the consequences.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for some parts of his response to my statement. It is a great irony that in the middle he talked about dropping the dogma, given that he started by talking about a “devastating indictment” of schools policy. I refute that utterly, as do all Government Members.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman welcomed the move to have a broad and balanced curriculum, and for his support for no-notice inspections, on which we will consult, and on teachers’ misconduct. However, I think he misses the overall point. This is not a matter on which to be partisan. I think we can agree that there is absolutely no place for extremism in our schools, which is what he said. But in relation to governance, he will perhaps recall the point that Sir Peter Clarke made on page 90 of the report:
“I have seen no evidence to suggest that there is a problem with governance generally”—[Interruption.]
I suggest the hon. Gentleman reads page 90 again. Sir Peter Clarke went on:
“However, there appears to be a problem with certain governors in some Birmingham schools.”
What the hon. Gentleman failed to appreciate, in the tone of his remarks, was that this was a determined effort by a small number of people with a shared ideology to gain control of a small number of schools, irrespective of the interests of the local community. He is absolutely right to say that at the heart of this is the education of children and support for teachers and parents. We should start with children, not with faith.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the permanent secretary’s review in the Department. I am not going to pre-empt that review. I have said that I will come back to the House and discuss it when the permanent secretary reports. The hon. Gentleman talked about the schools commissioner, and I am glad he welcomes that appointment. Sir Albert Bore has agreed that we will work together on the appointment, who the commissioner will report to and the plan that will be put into place.
This is not a matter on which to be partisan. We must recognise the extremism that a small number of people thought they could perpetuate in our schools, much to the upset of members of the Muslim communities in Birmingham. The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise the work that the Government, the Home Secretary and all Ministers on the Government Benches have done to tackle anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia. I am sorry that the tone of his remarks does not reflect the seriousness of the situation.
May I, too, congratulate Peter Clarke and thank him for his work? We must ensure that we have a proportionate response. The Education Committee will be taking evidence from Peter Clarke, Ian Kershaw, head teachers and others in our inquiry. We will produce a report and make recommendations in the autumn. Will the Secretary of State delay her formal response to the recommendations in Peter Clarke’s report until the Select Committee has produced its report, which I hope will be as early in the autumn as we can manage?
I thank my hon. Friend for his support and for his recognition of this extremely serious matter. I welcome the Select Committee’s investigations. I will have to reflect on the time line, but clearly the Committee’s evidence and recommendations will be very important in coming to a full conclusion and response to the recommendations made in this report.
I did not have the opportunity yesterday, so may I welcome the Secretary of State to the most rewarding job in Government? I wish her well.
Three weeks ago, the Education Committee moved towards a consensus that oversight between the Secretary of State and schools needed to be strengthened, with certainly more than eight commissioners and by not relying purely on the inspectorate. Does she accept that many trusts and governing bodies are self-selecting and self-perpetuating? Would it therefore be appropriate to work with head teachers and the National Governors Association to find better ways to ensure that the selection of governors, and the accountability to which they are bound, is delivered in a way that provides the kind of trust that she and I, and this House, want in the future?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much indeed for his warm welcome, which is very much appreciated. He is absolutely right that this is the most exciting job in Government. It is about protecting our children’s futures, and that is what is at the heart of the report into the failings that have been identified.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we recognise and value the dedication of the hundreds of thousands of governors up and down the country who give up their free time. We thank them for that. This issue relates to a small group of governors with a particular ideology that they wanted to push, and who wanted to destabilise the heads and the teachers. We welcome all efforts to strengthen governing bodies. Ofsted will be looking at governance arrangements much more closely in its inspections.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and warmly congratulate her on joining the Cabinet.
Is it not clear, as my right hon. Friend says, that there is no evidence of radicalisation or violent extremism, and that it is important to say that clearly for the vast majority of Birmingham’s Muslim community who make such a brilliant contribution to life in our second city? Should not all involved now focus on the key remedy for the future, which lies in clear lines of governance accountability and responsibility, both for the Department for Education and Birmingham city council?
I thank my right hon. Friend very much indeed. He is absolutely right: it is worth reiterating again that, as Peter Clarke says, there has been no evidence of direct radicalisation or violent extremism. I know from working with the Muslim community in my own constituency that it is safe to say that this is not what the vast majority of parents wanted to happen to the schools in question, or for the education of their children. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to remember that.
My right hon. Friend is also right that, as a result of the two reports, there are a number of lessons to be learned by various bodies, including, obviously, my own Department, Birmingham city council and Ofsted. There are wider lessons to be learned in relation to the governance of schools.
I welcome the Kershaw and the Clarke reports, and the appointment of the commissioner for Birmingham, which is necessary not just in Birmingham but across the country. I would like to use parliamentary privilege if I may, Mr Speaker, to name a few individuals about whom I think further investigation needs to be made: David Hughes, a former council official; Les Lawrence, a former cabinet member in Birmingham; Jackie Hughes and Kyra Butwell; and all local authority officers who colluded with this huge tragedy of keeping these schools in a position they should not have been in, and who by not listening to the parents, governors and teachers who demanded action were not prepared to act on their behalf.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I appreciated the conversation I had with him this morning. The Department will of course take on board the information he outlines. As part of the new commissioner’s appointment, we will pursue those names, and there may be others involved in what has happened. He makes an important point, which is that what happened was the destabilisation of the teaching staff in those schools. When one reads the reports and realises what has been going on against the wishes of the vast majority of teachers, one sees that when the teachers, and head teachers in particular, turned to the council, they did not get the support they should have received. That is something we all have to reflect on.
I support equal marriage, but a number of my constituents, both Muslim and non-Muslim, do not. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is very important to make a distinction between people with socially conservative views, and those who have extremist or divisive views? We must not be seen to be attacking people with socially conservative views.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is an agreed Government definition of extremism, and that is the one Peter Clarke used in his report. However, I return to my original point: from all my conversations with the Birmingham community, it is clear that the vast majority were in no way involved with, or supportive of, anything that happened in these schools; it was a small group of people pushing a particular ideology, and it should always be remembered that the wider community deserves our greatest support.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, but it is important that nobody shirks their responsibilities. Park View trust was an academy for almost two years, and chapter nine of the report paints a sorry picture of the Department’s oversight. I hope she thinks it appropriate to apologise for those failures today and that she asks Les Lawrence to do the same.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of an education commissioner for the city, as I suggested to her on Friday. The commissioner’s first task is to ensure that teachers and officials who should not be in their jobs either resign or are removed, but the bigger task is to come together, with the city of Birmingham and the parents and pupils of Park View school, to rebuild trust and the pride of pupils and to ensure that the school’s reputation is turned around. Its best years lie ahead.
Let me begin where the right hon. Gentleman ended: absolutely, we need to look forward. Of course, the Department, Birmingham city council, Ofsted and others involved need to learn the lessons, but he is right: we are talking about children’s education, and we need to look to the future—to rebuild the schools and give parents confidence, particularly when families return to school in September, that lessons have been learned and that the teaching staff involved have been dealt with.
I am pleased that the new members of the Park View education trust are taking swift action to ensure that the behaviours reported by Peter Clarke have no place in schools. Obviously, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I am assured that the trust will be instigating disciplinary proceedings where appropriate. Also, the National College for Teaching and Leadership will take extensive evidence from Peter Clarke so that its misconduct panel can consider whether any teachers involved should be barred from the profession.
When the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and I gave evidence to the Prime Minister’s extremism taskforce, we emphasised the need for permanent cross-departmental co-operation. While I am pleased that the Secretary of State says she will work closely on this matter with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, will she try to persuade her Cabinet colleagues that it would be sensible to set up some sort of permanent machinery so that we can head off these sorts of episodes, rather than merely reacting to them?
I thank my hon. Friend for the intentions behind his question. He is right that I have mentioned the close working between my Department, the Home Office and DCLG, which will, of course, continue, and it is right to pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, who set up the division in the Department looking at extremism. However, I say this to my hon. Friend: let us wait and see; let me reflect on everything that has come out of the two reports and work out the best way for the Government to tackle these problems.
Ofsted inspects local authorities separately from local authority schools. The organisations that run academy chains perform similar functions to local authorities, but Ofsted is only allowed to inspect the schools, not the chains that run them. Given the concerns about what happened in Birmingham and, as the Minister for Schools acknowledged yesterday, elsewhere, will the Secretary of State now accept the need for the inspection of academy chains as well as the schools within them?
Will the Secretary of State consider the merits of a minimum curriculum entitlement for all state-funded schools, so that communities, parents and governors are in no doubt about what is meant by a “broad and balanced curriculum”, which every child should be entitled to?
I mentioned the phrase “broad and balanced curriculum” in my statement, and Ofsted’s new framework will contain more guidance on that. The Clarke report identified a narrowing of the curriculum, which I discussed with Sir Michael Wilshaw when I met him yesterday. We also discussed how to task inspectors with investigating undue narrowing and, in particular, when they go into schools, with ensuring that schools have not changed things in readiness for the inspection.
The Clarke and Kershaw reviews showed serious failings by Birmingham city council going back many years and not confined to one administration. Although it is right that the city council has apologised and said it will co-operate with the findings of both reviews, in the light of concerns raised in both reviews about the Department, why is the Secretary of State so relaxed that her own investigations will not report until late summer? In advance of their reporting, how can she have confidence to say “full speed ahead” with her education reforms, particularly when fragmentation between government, local authorities and others is a recurring theme in both reports?
The hon. Gentleman should not conclude that I am relaxed about this in any way, shape or form, but I think it is right to give the permanent secretary time to conduct and conclude the review. Since my appointment, I have seen no evidence of fragmentation; there is close working at all levels between schools, councils and organisations such as Ofsted, and that will continue under this reform process.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the tolerant should never be obliged to tolerate the intolerant; that the values of tolerance, freedom, democracy and the rule of law are the attributes of this country that make it so welcoming for many immigrant communities; and that robustly teaching those values will enhance and strengthen community values and relations, not weaken or undermine them?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. In defining fundamental British values, as he said, we talk about democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. From my work with the Muslim community in my constituency, I know how important mutual respect and tolerance are and how much of it there is already. Returning to my earlier point, that is the tragedy of what happened in Birmingham: this was a small group of people pushing a particular ideology. The wider Muslim community, and the community generally in Birmingham, would not have recognised what this group was trying to do.
All the reports into the Trojan horse letter find no evidence that children in our city have been turned into extremists or radicalised, which is welcome, but they highlight shocking and appalling governance failures of the most serious nature that we must all work together to fix. Is the Secretary of State aware that the way in which the whole affair has been handled and reported, with the leaks and the priority given by key figures to getting their message out first, has led to children at these schools being stigmatised, bullied and terrified that they will not get places at college or university or jobs because they have one of these schools on their CVs? What will she do to put this right and send a clear signal that she will be putting Birmingham school kids first?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s work on this process and the reports. She is absolutely right that we need to learn the lessons from the reports and that issues need to be addressed by all of us in the education system, locally, within the Department and by organisations such as Ofsted. I return to the question raised by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne): how do we move forward and help the schools to move forward? Getting the right teaching staff in place, appointing the commissioner to work with Birmingham city council and getting in leading head teachers, particularly to the trust where the members have resigned, will be a very good start. This will require many months, if not years, of working, but I am convinced that we can turn this around.
I also welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position and hope she treads a similar path to her outstanding predecessor. In that light, what approach does she favour in attempting to combat extremism—simply beating back the crocodiles that come too close to the boat, or draining the swamp?
I believe in looking forward and learning lessons; appreciating the work that I and many Members across the House do with our Muslim communities; recognising that the vast majority did not want or support what was happening in their schools; and looking to my Department and Birmingham city council to sort this out in order to provide the best possible education for children, which, we must not forget, is at the heart of this.
May I first disassociate myself from the shameful remarks of the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson)?
What happened in a handful of Birmingham schools was absolutely wrong, but the Secretary of State is absolutely right not to tar the entire Muslim community with the same brush. Does she accept that the problems in Birmingham are deep seated, long standing, and have involved all three political parties in successive administrations? Given that the council was right to say sorry, does she recognise, in the spirit of moving forward, that the Government should also express their regret? Will she now work with Birmingham to learn the lessons of what went wrong, to put things right in both Whitehall and the town hall, and to ensure that the interests of schoolchildren in Birmingham are put first?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I think that I have made it very clear that the interests of schoolchildren and their families must be at the heart of this. That is what our education system is all about. It is about preparing our young people for modern Britain and the modern world. The tragedy is that that has not happened to some of our children in Birmingham.
I also think that I have been very clear about failings at various levels and in various organisations. I will certainly be working with Birmingham city council, in particular through the new commissioner. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is issuing a written ministerial statement on wider working and wider lessons for the council at about this time. It has been discussed with Sir Albert Bore, and I believe that it is welcomed by him and his team.
I thank the excellent new Secretary of State for coming to the House and updating us. She referred in her statement to fundamental British values. Is there a definition of those somewhere in Government documents that we can look at?
There certainly is. Fundamental British values are defined as
“democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
I have taken that definition from the Ofsted inspection handbook, but I suspect that it is in many other publications as well, and so it should be.
Because the problems in Birmingham were so long standing, I think that the solutions will not be straightforward. I was struck by the Secretary of State’s observation that Ofsted should be more sensitive to the signs of emerging problems, but, as problems emerge, who do governors and head teachers turn to? The difficulty in Birmingham was that they did not have anyone to turn to, and I am not sure that making Ofsted the organisation to turn to is the answer either. Will the Secretary of State flesh this out a little more? Where does she think the remedies for those emerging problems can be identified promptly, rather than at the late stage at which they would be identified by Ofsted?
I agree with the hon. Lady. As I said earlier, I think that one of the tragedies was the fact that many very good head teachers, teaching at outstanding schools, were somehow removed from the system by the governors involved. They did not have anyone to turn to, and when they did turn to someone, they were not taken seriously.
The Government recently announced the creation of eight regional school commissioners. Below them will be elected head teacher boards, which will consist of outstanding head teachers. I suggest that they will be the best people for teachers to turn to in the first instance, but I shall be happy to consider the hon. Lady’s comments further.
I welcome the recognition of what the Secretary of State has described as British values, which I would describe as liberal values. In the context of protecting people from extremist views, I am still concerned about the use of the word “extremism”. If what was taking place in the schools was not an example of extremism—and that has been stated—what example of extremism were these schoolchildren vulnerable to in their homes and their local communities? May I also ask how much of what was taking place would have been okay if it had taken place in faith schools?
I admire the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to grab fundamental British values for the Liberal party, but I do not think he will blame me if I try to resist it.
The definition of extremism is in the Prevent strategy, and, actually, what Peter Clarke’s report says is that there was extremism, but no radicalism or extremism leading to violence. Extremism is defined as being
“vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas.”
The hon. Gentleman may not have had a chance to read the whole report yet, but I suspect that when he does, and when he sees some of the comments that have been swapped on the WhatsApp social media site, he—like many other Members—will be very shocked.
The Secretary of State may not remember, but I took the Education Committee, when I was chairing it, to Birmingham for a whole week. At that time, under Tim Brighouse, Birmingham was the most improved education authority in the country. What I learnt—what we all learnt—was that the Muslim population in Birmingham, like the Muslim population everywhere else, want good education for their children, and they want it for boys and for girls.
I have not had time to study the report yet, but I can say that we need to detect the minority of Muslim opinion that is coming from, who knows, Saudi Arabia or somewhere. This is not just a Birmingham question. We must be aware of it, and alert to it. I have visited many faith schools of this type, and I know that we must be careful to ensure that girls are treated on a fundamentally equal basis to boys. They should never be disadvantaged in respect of their education in this country.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is absolutely no place for segregation of boys and girls in British schools, and girls must be given every possible opportunity to do as well and achieve as much as, if not more than, boys. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are especially welcome on a day on which the Prime Minister is holding a girl summit, which is focusing particularly on early forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
I do not think that I was in the House when the hon. Gentleman was Chairman of the Education Committee, but I am glad to hear that his visit to Birmingham went well. One of the issues is that although some of the schools there were outstanding, the problems still occurred. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we cannot let up in trying to identify the problems. That is why I welcome the preventing extremism unit that has been set up in the Department, and why I will be expanding it.
The truth is that, in some areas of our country, it is difficult to recruit people of quality to participate in governing bodies, which makes such bodies vulnerable to a takeover by a narrow interest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on all of us who have leadership roles in our communities, including all Members of the House of Commons, to inspire and enthuse people who are interested in becoming school governors?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Being a school governor is an important role. What we do not want to do is make that role so burdensome that we put off really good people who would bring with them the skills that our schools need. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that those of us who are in positions in public life, such as Members of Parliament and councillors, should do all that we can to talent-spot and recommend good people to be school governors, because our schools need them.
I will touch on that with Sir Michael Wilshaw, but we should be clear about the fact that when something is on a list of things that Ofsted or anyone else must inspect, the organisation concerned must genuinely understand and inspect it, and not just tick the box.
There is a very complex mix here. For me, it includes some of the failed multicultural policies of the 1980s, political correctness gone mad, local party politics, and sheer religious ignorance. It will take some sensitivity and time to sort all that out. In the short term, however, may I ask the new Secretary of State not to take on a new bureaucracy—as promised by the Opposition—but to look to the professionalism of individual teachers, and consider some possible means of enabling them to report any individual concerns directly to the Department?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is a very complex mix of issues at work, many of which have been present for a long, long time. He is also right to draw attention to the importance of the professionalism of teachers all over the country, some of whom, obviously, identified some of the problems. Those teachers should know that there are mechanisms allowing them to report their concerns, which include the ability to come directly to the Department, where those concerns will be taken seriously.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend, like me, listened to the excellent head teacher of Anderton Park primary school in Birmingham on the radio this morning. I thought that she was outstanding, and exemplified the professionalism and expertise of heads and other teachers in Birmingham and elsewhere.
In stressing the role of local head teachers on regional boards, the Secretary of State appears to recognise the need for local oversight of schools, but the position is still confused. Dividing the country into eight hardly achieves that localism. Will she clarify the role that the new schools commissioner for Birmingham will have in relation to the regional commissioner for the west midlands? Who will be in charge in that area?
I have a feeling that it was a Minister in the last Government, John Prescott, who really liked regional government, and regional government can work. The point is that this commissioner will be working in relation to Birmingham, and will work with the west midlands regional school commissioner. They will be working together—everyone is pulling in the same direction—to secure the best possible education for our children in schools.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new appointment. Does this matter not remind us of the central importance of the role of governors in our schools? Does it not also remind us, therefore, of the need to focus on the skills of those governors, rather than stakeholder representation and so forth? First and foremost, the need is to make sure governors can speak to their communities and run their schools with confidence and with power.
My hon. Friend is entirely right that we want governing bodies to have all the necessary skills. We have recently changed the rules on the appointment of governors, who must now be appointed solely on the basis of the skills that they bring to contribute to the success of the school. That is absolutely critical.
Peter Clarke now recommends that the Department for Education review the process by which schools are able to convert to academy status and become multi-agency trusts, and calls for greater transparency in the system. Will the Secretary of State now lift the veil of secrecy that her predecessor threw over the whole process of academisation and creation of free schools, because this report clearly identifies that that has contributed to these problems?
I am not sure about a veil of secrecy, but we will look again at our processes in these areas. We have taken action to strengthen checks on academy conversion, including by extending due diligence checks on those running academies and those schools converting to academy status. In the light of the report’s findings, we will want to keep those processes under review.
What Peter Clarke found was shocking, and I am pleased to see the swift action from the Government. While everyone will agree that we need to root out and stamp out extremism in our schools, many parents I spoke to over the weekend who wish their children to have a faith-based education were concerned that this could be used as an excuse for the Government to U-turn on their long-standing commitment to our faith-based schools. Can I have my right hon. Friend’s assurance that that will not be the case?
As well as the counter-extremism unit, my right hon. Friend’s predecessor put in place a whole set of measures for looking at barring teachers, making funding more difficult to exclude poor schools, and having no-notice inspections. Is it not vital that we reassure parents through the action that this Government have already taken?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. My predecessor certainly put in place a number of robust strategies to deal with this issue, and Ofsted has increased its use of no-notice inspections, particularly where it is concerned about behaviour or deteriorating results.
The problems in Birmingham schools are serious and undoubtedly need to be dealt with, as do all cases of poor governance, mismanagement and misconduct. In London people are concerned about the £2 million fraud within the Haberdashers’ Aske’s academy chain. How many more schools will need to be found wanting before this Government accept that their systems of accountability and oversight are not up to the job?
I utterly disagree with the hon. Lady. Schools have more accountability and are inspected more rigorously under this Government than they ever have been before, and the minute the Department is aware of any problems in schools, it will take swift action, as we have seen in relation to the schools in Birmingham.
In diverse places such as High Wycombe dedicated people have worked hard for many years to identify shared values and build harmonious communities, which often centre on our schools. [Interruption.] Will the Government take steps to ensure that a realistic concern is not allowed to tip into a panic which undermines the positive practices and outcomes which have been won after so much effort?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I heard sniggers from the Opposition Benches about the words he used about his constituency. If Opposition Members have no idea about the diversity of the community in High Wycombe, frankly they should visit it. [Interruption.]
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in relation to the communities in High Wycombe and he is absolutely right. We want a steady and firm but fair response to the findings of the Peter Clarke report. There are some important findings and I go back to my initial point: this is a small group of people in a small number of schools, community relations are critical, and this Government have done more than any other to tackle anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia.
Four years ago, with great assistance from the Secretary of State’s predecessor and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb)—it is good to see him back—the new Gloucester academy was established and a multi-faith chaplaincy created, where an Anglican and a Muslim, Chris Blockley and Rafiq Patel, successfully served the pastoral and faith needs of the school. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a positive way to foster integrated schools and communities, with a focus on broadening, not narrowing, minds, building bridges, not barriers, and avoiding the dangers identified in Peter Clarke’s report, so that all children grow up knowing that what they have in common is much greater than any cultural or faith differences?