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Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 3 September 2014

I am sure that the whole House and the whole country will join me in condemning the sickening and brutal murder of another American hostage, and share our shock and anger that it again appears to have been carried out by a British citizen. All our thoughts are with the British hostage and his family: their ordeal is unimaginable. But let me be very clear: this country will never give in to terrorism. Our opposition to ISIL will continue at home and abroad. It is important that we are clear about the nature of the threat we face. It makes no distinction between cultures, countries and religions; there is no way to appease it. The only way to defeat it is to stand firm and to send a very straightforward message: a country like ours will not be cowed by these barbaric killers. If they think that we will weaken in the face of their threats, they are wrong—it will have the opposite effect. We will be more forthright in the defence of the values that we hold dear—liberty under the rule of law, freedom and democracy—and I am sure a united message to that effect will go forward from this House today.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.

I endorse what the Prime Minister has just said about the American hostage.

Some years ago, the Prime Minister said he wanted to stop the Conservatives “banging on about Europe”. What has happened?

A lot of things have changed in Europe, not least the eurozone crisis, which had eased but is beginning to reappear, creating an enormous tension within the European Union—those countries within the eurozone that need further integration, and those countries outside the eurozone that want a more flexible relationship with Europe. It is absolutely right that we debate and discuss these matters in this House, but above all it is right that we include the British people, and under my plans they will have the decisive say before the end of 2017.

Q3. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating all the businesses in Basildon and Thurrock that over the last year have reduced unemployment by 36% in my constituency? Does he agree that this is evidence that our long-term economic plan is working? (905150)

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in that way. Unemployment is coming down right across the country. In the east of England, the number of people in work is up by 400,000 since the election; private sector employment is up; the number of businesses is up; and investment is up. The news today about the GDP figure revisions shows that since 2010 this country has grown faster than France, faster than Germany, and faster than any major economy apart from Canada and the United States of America. There should not be any complacency, because the job is not yet done, but our long-term economic plan is working and it is the way to secure a better future for our country.

I join the Prime Minister in expressing the universal sense of revulsion at the barbaric murder of Stephen Sotloff, and deep concern about the British hostage being held, for whose family this will be a terrible time, and people across the country will be thinking of them. This is a pattern of murderous behaviour by ISIL towards the innocent: Christians; Yazidis; Muslims—anyone who does not agree with their vile ideology. And I agree with the Prime Minister: events like this must strengthen, not weaken, our resolve to defeat them and he can be assured of our full support in standing firm against them.

I thank the Leader of the Opposition for what he has said and the way in which he has said it. I think this House should send a united message. What has happened to the two hostages so far and what may happen again in the future is utterly abhorrent and barbaric. These people need to understand that we will not waver in our aim of defeating terrorism. That is not something that divides this House politically; it is something that everyone, and I suspect the entirety of our country, agrees with.

ISIL’s pattern of killing will shock people not just in Britain but across the world. Does the Prime Minister further agree with me that we and countries in the region have a vital humanitarian and security interest in overcoming ISIL? Can I ask him what progress is being made to mobilise other countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and regional bodies, especially the Arab League, against ISIL?

If I may say so, the way the Leader of the Opposition is approaching this is entirely right. We should see this crisis as one where we are there to help the people on the ground and the countries in the region that want to solve this crisis. We should not see it as somehow a western-led intervention. We have the Kurds that are defending communities, including minority communities, from the horrors of ISIL. We have the Government in Baghdad, which badly needs to get itself together so it can represent all of the country. Then we, with allies and neighbours, can do more to make sure that this appalling organisation, ISIL, feels the full pressure of international, regional and local condemnation. That is what should be done. As he says, we should be using all the assets that we have, focusing first on humanitarian aid and saving people from persecution, hunger and starvation; using our diplomatic and political pressures to make sure there is a Government in Baghdad who can represent all the country; and marshalling, working with others, so that the maximum amount of pressure is put on. If we continue in that way, always asking ourselves, “How can others in the neighbourhood do their work, how can we help them, and how do we best defend our national interest and keep our people safe at home?”, that is the right approach.

I agree with the Prime Minister, and building that partnership is vital in the weeks and months ahead. Work through the United Nations is obviously a key part of building the legitimacy and effectiveness of the alliance against ISIL. In addition to the UN Security Council resolution passed in the last few weeks, can he tell us what plans he has to use the UK’s chair of the Security Council to build the international consensus that he talked about?

So far, as the right hon. Gentleman says, we have used the United Nations to put pressure on ISIL by making it clear that people should not be providing resources or sanctuary to these people; indeed, they should be cut off. That has been the approach so far. But we do have an opportunity, through the UN, to marshal international support and backing for the view that this ISIL so-called Islamic caliphate is unacceptable and needs to be squeezed out of existence. That is what we should do, and we should aim to get the maximum support through the UN for the measures, right across the board, that are being taken.

Turning to the threat we face in Britain, people will have been shocked and disgusted that there were British voices on the video and that British citizens are part of ISIL. On Monday, the Prime Minister announced that he would reintroduce relocation powers for suspected terrorists. He has our full support for this change. Can he confirm that this will go ahead, and can he give an indication of the timetable for bringing these powers forward?

I can confirm that it will go ahead, and it is going to require legislation. The key is, I think, to put the desires and advice of David Anderson, who is the independent reviewer of terrorism, into action. What he has spoken about is some combination of exclusion and relocation, and it is that that needs to be introduced into the terrorism prevention and investigatory measures. I think we should try to do this on a cross-party basis to send the clearest possible message, and urgency is the order of the day.

The best way to deal with terrorists is of course criminal prosecution or, where that is not possible, strict restrictions on their activities and movements. On Monday, the Prime Minister also proposed the possibility of blocking British citizens from returning to the UK. Given that there has been some doubt cast on this, can he say a bit more about whether he believes that it is legally permissible, and, again, whether there are plans to take this forward?

The short answer is that I do believe it is legally permissible, but it is going to take some work, for this reason. We already have the power when people are trying to return to the United Kingdom. If it is a foreign national, we can exclude them, even if they have lived in this country for any number of years. If it is a dual national, we can strip them of their British citizenship and exclude them from the country. If it is a naturalised Briton, we can, under our new laws passed recently through this House, strip them of their British nationality. But I do believe there is a gap where you have someone born and raised as a British citizen, rather like the individual from High Wycombe we discussed on Monday saying he wanted to return in order to do harm to our country. Of course, the best thing to do is to gather evidence, prosecute, convict and imprison, but there may be occasions when we need to exclude, and so therefore we should fill that gap in our armoury, and I believe it is legal and possible to do it.

Of course, we will look at the practicality and legality of any proposals the Prime Minister comes forward with.

Finally, may I ask the Prime Minister to revisit the case for strengthening the Prevent programme in terms both of resources and of community engagement? After all, that is essential to stop people being indoctrinated into this poisonous ideology. We need swift action to build alliances across the world against ISIL and strong and considered action here at home. It is what the world needs; it is what the British people expect; and in pursuing this course the Prime Minister will have our full support.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. On the Prevent programme, what we have done is try to divide up the different elements of it. One part is about community cohesion, which is best led by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the other part is best run by the Home Office through the Prevent programme. That is what we have done.

What we need to be absolutely clear about, however, is that it is not enough to target those who preach violent extremism. We need to go after those who promote the extremist narrative and life view that gives the terrorists and the men of violence support for what they do. It is not unlike the cold war, where we pursued not just those who wanted to do us such harm; we also had to challenge all those who gave them succour. That is what we need to do in this struggle, which, as I have said, I think will last for decades, and we need to show resilience and, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, unity in pursuing it.

In this Parliament, our coalition Government have increased health spending in England by more than £17 billion a year. As a direct consequence of that, the block grant to Scotland, which supports NHS funding in Scotland, has increased by £1.7 billion a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that gives the lie to Alex Salmond’s propaganda about the NHS?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Because of the decisions we took—long-term decisions after a careful assessment—to increase spending on the health service, that has given extra money for Scotland to spend on the NHS. That gives the lie to one of Alex Salmond’s claims. His second claim that, somehow, a Westminster Government could privatise parts of the NHS in Scotland is complete and utter nonsense. The only person who could privatise parts of the NHS in Scotland is Alex Salmond. You can tell someone has lost the argument when they start having ludicrous ideas about what they would do themselves.

Q4. There have been worrying reports over the past week about a rise in malnutrition, the return of rickets and children going back to school hungry after the school holidays. I know the Government are rolling out free school meals, but that alone will not solve food poverty. When I have asked the Prime Minister about this before, I have really felt that he is not taking it seriously. Will he acknowledge that it is a real problem? It is actually a national scandal and it is his job to do something about it. (905151)

First, it is welcome that all infants will have free school meals as they go to school this week. That will be welcome to many families up and down the country. The evidence is that 99% of schools are providing those free school meals, but I have to say that the best way we can help people is to get more people into work—and we are—and make sure that our economy continues to grow and that it delivers for hard-working people.

I know the Labour party wants to get this narrative about inequality up and running, but let me give some statistics to show why it is not true. There are 300,000 fewer children in poverty than when Labour was in office. Inequality in our country has gone down, not up. One of the most serious causes of poverty—long-term youth unemployment—is now lower than when this Government came to office. That is how we are changing people’s lives and their life chances.

Does the Prime Minister agree that our friends in the middle east who share a basic commitment to pluralism, democracy and peaceful change—from the Syrian National Coalition to Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine and the elected Governments of Kurdistan, Libya and, we hope, Iraq—must by now be finding British support inconsistent, fragmented and unstrategic, and is it not time for a more consistent strategy?

I am afraid that I do not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman. This Government have massively increased our engagement with Gulf and middle eastern states. Everybody knows that our view is one in favour of democracy, human rights and the building blocks of democracy. We are not naive interventionists who believe you can drop democracy out of the back of an aeroplane—it needs to be built. They know that is our view. We engage with all of those states in order to maximise not just our influence, but the chance of regional stability in that vital area.

Q6. Does the Prime Minister share public concern that terrible abuse can happen to children—most recently, the 1,400 sexually abused girls in Rotherham—yet directors of social services and other senior officers pay no penalty and often move on to even higher paid jobs? Surely, if the contracts of the people at the top mean they cannot be sacked in such circumstances, the contracts need looking at. (905153)

I agree entirely with what the hon. Lady has said. First, what we have seen in Rotherham is deeply shocking, and as I have said, I think it demonstrates a failure in the local government system there, in the children’s services department and in policing. All those issues need to be addressed, which is why I have asked the Home Secretary to chair a group of Ministers to look at how we learn the lessons even before we get our child abuse inquiry fully under way.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that local authorities, when they employ these people, should look carefully at their contracts and make sure that if people do not do the job properly they can be removed. It is absolutely vital: you cannot police all of this from Whitehall; local government has responsibility for the people it employs and should hold them to account.

Q7. May I concur with the Prime Minister’s earlier comments on this appalling, barbaric behaviour, and say that we all stand right behind him?If net migration into the UK continues at its present level, we can fill a city the size of Leeds every three years. This is not only unsustainable, but potentially destabilising to the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the sooner we adopt a visa-only system for all foreign nationals, including those from the EU—thus allowing a sovereign Parliament to decide who settles here—the better? (905154)

First, I thank my hon. Friend for what he says about the stand we must all take against terror and terrorism, and against ISIL.

On immigration, we have done a huge amount to restrict migration from outside the European Union—the figures are down by almost 30% since this Government came to office; we have closed down 700 bogus colleges; we have introduced an economic limit—but I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more. Of course, freedom of movement is an important principle, but it is not an unqualified right, and it should not be the freedom of movement to claim benefits. We should also make sure that when new member states join the European Union we do not necessarily have transitional controls that simply last for a number of years, but transitional controls that ensure they will not have full access to our markets until their economies are of a radically different size and shape.

The most recent UK ambassador to NATO, Dame Mariot Leslie, has today said that an independent Scotland would be welcome in NATO, and that she is voting yes in the referendum, just like so many other undecided voters who want a better Scotland. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister gave a commitment on Scottish Television to take part in a programme with undecided voters before the referendum. Will he be doing that or running away, just as he ran away from a debate with the First Minister?

On the television programme on Scottish Television, I offered them a date and, indeed, a format, but they seemed to run away themselves, which is a great pity.

On NATO, I prefer to listen to Lord Robertson, the former Secretary-General of NATO, who is absolutely clear that Scotland will be better off inside the United Kingdom and that the United Kingdom will be better off with Scotland. The problem with the hon. Gentleman is that when it comes to all of the big questions—what currency would a separate Scotland use, what would be its position in NATO, what would be its position in the European Union?—they have not been able to provide a single, credible answer.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister agree that although it is acceptable to hold opposing opinions, it is not acceptable to promote boycotts of goods produced in Israel or kosher goods as this conflates the policies of the Israeli Government with Judaism and in turn leads to a rise in anti-Semitism? What reassurance can the Prime Minister give my constituents that this Government will address both boycotts and anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom? (905155)

We have been very clear that we do not support boycotts and we do not support measures that are intended to delegitimise the state of Israel, which has a right to exist and which we argue has a right to peace within its proper borders. My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that we should be absolutely clear that you can criticise Israel and the Israeli Government for their actions without being anti-Semitic, but in recent weeks we have seen a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in our country, and as I said on Monday, that is completely unacceptable.

Q9. I refer the Prime Minister to events in Rotherham. Does he agree that a common thread between the awful picture from Rotherham, which was referred to earlier, and the dreadful plight this week of Ashya King is that the relevant authorities are all too often driven by considerations other than the best interests of the child? To reflect that sad lesson for all of us, will he agree to amend the Modern Slavery Bill to provide for independent child guardians who are charged with reflecting the best interests of the child to all the relevant authorities and services? (905156)

I am very proud that the Government are introducing the Modern Slavery Bill. It is a Bill that I strongly support and I will look carefully at the specific suggestion that the hon. Gentleman makes. Let me make a brief comment on his other points. To be fair to the authorities involved in the case of Ashya King, they all want to do the best thing for the child—that is what they are thinking of—but decisions have been taken that were not correct and that did not chime with common sense. Fortunately, that has been put right. All of us in public life and public offices have to examine what the legal requirements are, but we also have to make judgments, and those judgments can sometimes be all important.

If even the respected Hampshire police can use the European arrest warrant to create an injustice, can my right hon. Friend have any confidence that other member states with less well developed legal systems will not use the arrest warrant for worse purposes?

I respect my hon. Friend’s arguments, but the police have to make judgments and, as I have just said, they do not always get those judgments right. Those of us in this House have to think about a potential situation in which a terrorist has attacked our country and is on the run through Europe to other countries, and about how quickly we want to be able to get that person back in front of our courts to face British justice. That is not an imaginary set of circumstances; it is exactly what happened in 2005 after the dreadful London bombings, so we need to think about it. I am all for making sure that powers flow from Brussels to London, and they have done in the case of justice and home affairs, where we have repatriated more than 100 measures. However, I also want to be a Prime Minister who can look the British people in the eye and say, “We will keep you safe from serious crime and terrorism, and we will get people back in front of British courts as soon as possible.”

That was a good laugh. We know that in the event of separation, we would no longer have a formal currency union with the rest of the UK. In response, the First Minister has said that an independent Scotland would default on its share of the national debt. Prime Minister, what would be the consequences of such a reckless approach for the people of Scotland?

I think one of the most chilling things that has been said in the referendum campaign is that a separate Scotland would consider defaulting on its debts. We all know what happens if you do not pay your debts—no one will lend you any money unless you pay a punitive interest rate. We all know what that means for home owners—much, much higher mortgage rates. For businesses, it means crippling interest rates. Those are the consequences of what the separatists are proposing. We need to get that message out loud and clear in the coming days.

For all the reasons that have been given, if we were to lose the Union, it would be not only a disaster for Scotland, but a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions. I say gently to the three party leaders that perhaps we have been a bit complacent up to now. I urge them, over the next two weeks, to drop everything else and stand shoulder to shoulder to fight for the Union that we love and believe in. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr MacNeil, you are a thoroughly decent chap, but you are a very over-excitable individual. You should calm down. You aspire to be a statesman; try behaving like one.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the referendum. The leaders of the parties in this House have all put aside their differences and said that, in spite of the political differences we have, we all agree about one thing: not only is Scotland better off inside the United Kingdom, but the United Kingdom is better off with Scotland inside it. As well as being leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, I am the Member of Parliament for an English seat and I say on behalf of everyone in England and, I believe, in Wales and Northern Ireland, “We want Scotland to stay.”

Q11. We are all aware of the Prime Minister’s interest in the middle east and particularly Iraq, and of what has happened since the last Prime Minister’s questions, particularly in the past 24 hours. In Mosul and the plains of Nineveh in Iraq, Christians have been displaced, threatened with beheading, and told “Convert or die.” Is it time to consider further supportive action for Christians, and additional sanctions against ISIL? (905158)

We should do everything we can to protect persecuted minorities—including not only Christians but also the Yazidi communities—and that is where we have been using our resources. Up to now, we have mostly been giving humanitarian aid, which we have been delivering through our military assets and RAF planes, and working with others to ensure people are protected. We should also, as part of that strategy, work with the Kurds and others so that ISIL can be beaten back and Christians and others are not persecuted.

Increasing numbers of British families are leaving the UK, like the Ashya King family, because they believe they will get a fairer trial in family courts abroad than in the UK. Does the Prime Minister agree that Parliament should look at the reasons for that?

We regularly debate family law in this House, and the Government have made some amendments to family law, after long debates within Government and in this House. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that there should be further such debates, there are Backbench Business days and other parliamentary opportunities to raise such issues.

Q12. Given the birthday present given to the Prime Minister by the former Member for Clacton, how many more birthday surprises is he expecting from his Tory Back Benchers? (905159)

I am sure I will be getting all sorts of pleasant surprises on my birthday. Please do not spoil it by letting me know what they are.

Q13. Scotland is important to many businesses in Fylde, and many are rightly concerned that Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign have failed to provide a plan B for the currency should Scotland become independent. Does the Prime Minister agree that the voters of Scotland need to know what plan B is before they vote, and if they cannot get a clear answer, they should say “No thanks” to separation on 18 September? (905160)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those of us who believe in the United Kingdom can answer all of those questions. We can answer on what the United Kingdom will look like in the future, but those arguing for separation have not answered those questions. Their most recent effort to say that somehow Scotland would go on using sterling but not be part of a monetary union got a rebuff yesterday from the European Commissioner, who said that on that basis they would not be able to be members of the European Union. Yet again, another piece of the puzzle completely falls away.

Is not the truth that ISIL will not be beaten without air strikes in Syria as well, and that means engaging with the Assad regime and Iran—however unpalatable—as well as with the Saudis? Perhaps that is also a route to resolving the bitter and dangerous Shi’a-Sunni conflicts in the region, because ultimately ISIS poses a bigger threat to nations in the region than it does to us.

I will make two points to the right hon. Gentleman, whose views on this matter I respect. First, I would argue that Assad’s brutality has been one of the things that has helped generate the appalling regime that ISIS represents. Secondly, what we want to see—we are consistent across the piece on this—is democratic Governments that are pluralistic and represent all their people. We want to see that in Iraq, which is why we support Prime Minister al-Abadi in his attempts to build an inclusive Government, and we should support attempts in Syria to have a democratic transition to a regime that can represent everyone in Syria.

Q14. Jihadi crimes committed in the name of the Islamic State are completely incompatible with the British way of life, so I welcome the plans announced by my right hon. Friend to seize British passports from dual nationals, and to remove rights of residency in the UK from foreign nationals known to have been fighting with ISIL in Iraq and Syria, in order to keep such people from committing terrorist atrocities in the UK. What progress have the Government made concerning jihadis with only British citizenship, whom my constituents believe have forfeited their right to return to the UK, even though they may be rendered stateless if deprived of citizenship? (905161)

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his great work representing the people of Dudley South for the past four years and all the work he has done. He is absolutely right that people in Dudley South—indeed, people across our country—take the basic view that if someone leaves this country, travels to the heart of Iraq, declares they are in favour of some so-called Islamic state, and that is the country they want to be part of, they should effectively forfeit their right to come back and live in Britain. That is what people feel, and they feel it deeply, which is why it is right to consider how we can have legal powers not just to strip dual nationals of their British citizenship or to exclude foreign nationals, but to prevent British citizens who make those statements from coming back to our country.

My constituent Kristian Nicholson is trapped in northern Iraq unable to travel home. In the light of the threat from ISIL, will the Prime Minister look at his case and see what more can be done to expedite his return home as soon as possible, including by issuing new travel documents, if necessary?

I am very happy to look at the hon. Lady’s case, and I am sure the Foreign Secretary was listening. Let me take this opportunity to commend the work that Foreign Office officials do, often unthanked, supporting those who get stuck in different countries and families whose loved ones have been taken hostage. Obviously we are focused on Iraq today, but since I have been Prime Minister, hostages have been taken in countries such as Nigeria and Somalia. We often do not hear about that work because it is better to keep people’s names and identities from the public, but it is important that people know that when this happens, meetings of Cobra are held—I take a personal interest in each and every one of these cases—to work out what we can do to help their families, to help bring people home and to resolve these dreadful, complex situations.

We have seen chaos in Iraq and Syria, appalling events that have just passed in Gaza, Libya in some disturbance, and the appalling, illegal annexation of Crimea by President Putin, yet this House has had no proper opportunity to discuss these matters. Is it not time that the Prime Minister allowed us a full and substantive, preferably two-day debate, and certainly before the House rises for the party conference recess, to discuss these matters?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We live in a very troubled and difficult world, with huge changes taking place, some of which he mentioned. In consultation with the Leader of the House, there will be a full day’s debate as soon as next Wednesday, I think, which will give hon. Members the chance to speak about these issues, and I am sure there will be subsequent opportunities perhaps to consider some of the individual questions he raises.

The horrific, vile and disgusting abuse suffered by children in my constituency should never have been allowed to happen. The victims still have not got the support they deserve and the criminals are still on the street. Child sexual exploitation is not only a Rotherham issue, but a national issue, so when will the Prime Minister appoint the chair to his inquiry into child abuse so that no child will be let down by statutory agencies again?

First, may I commend the hon. Lady? She is absolutely right to speak as she does. This has affected not just Rotherham; of course, there were the dreadful cases in Oxford, near to my constituency, of a very similar nature, with similar failings in the systems. As I have announced, the Home Secretary will be leading a committee of Ministers to draw together the Government’s response, and the announcement of the person to lead the broader child abuse inquiry will be made in the coming days. These are all vital issues. We have to ask ourselves a series of questions about how these individual services failed. Yes, of course there is the issue about whether these problems were ignored because of concerns about racism and political correctness. But there is also a big concern that sometimes the police and other agencies ignored these people because they felt they were beyond the pale, which offends all our senses of human decency. None of these children and young people should be ignored or left behind by our society.

May I take my right hon. Friend back to the issue of hostages? He will be aware that often when these cases arise, there is a suggestion that ransoms should be paid. Should those who advance that case take account of the fact that the money achieved by ransom is not distributed, for example, among the impoverished citizens of Gaza, but used to purchase weapons, to finance the training and maintenance of those willing to use them and otherwise to advance the malevolent objectives of terrorism?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely, 100% right. There is no doubt in my mind that the many tens of millions of dollars that ISIL has raised from ransom payments is going into promoting terrorism, including terrorism affecting our own country. At the G8, I launched an initiative to try to get other countries to sign up to a very clear doctrine that in the case of terrorist kidnap, no ransom should be paid. Britain continues with this policy; America continues with this policy; but we need to redouble the efforts to make sure that other countries are good to their word.