House of Commons
Wednesday 10 September 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Queen’s Speech (Answer to Address)
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty, having been attended with its Address of 4th June, was pleased to receive the same very graciously and give the following Answer:
I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the humble Address, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Lord Horam and David Howarth as electoral commissioners for the period ending on 30 September 2018, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of Heywood and Middleton in the room of James Dobbin, deceased.—(Ms Winterton.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Big Society Network
I take this report seriously. I am satisfied that the issues raised concerned adherence to process, and therefore do not feel that there are any implications for the policies of my Department.
First, I welcome the Minister to his place. When it seems pretty clear that the National Audit Office had some pretty damning conclusions regarding the mismanagement of over £2 million of public money to the Big Society Network, and when, in my own constituency, the SWEET project, which got a big society award, ends up having money cut by the Government because it does precisely the innovation work that it got the award for in the first place, what exactly, in this day and age, does the big society mean? While he is at it, will the Minister look into the circumstances surrounding the cuts to the SWEET project?
I shall certainly look into that matter, as the hon. Gentleman has asked. We welcome the NAO’s report and have learned the lessons from this experience. There are no conclusions that the Cabinet Office did anything untoward in this regard. All the report says is that we did not adhere to the guidance we issued for this particular programme on a couple of points.
None of us could let that go. Thanks to the National Audit Office’s report, we now know that the Government’s big society lies in tatters. We have since learned that the charity the Prime Minister personally launched at No. 10 Downing street is not only under investigation by the Charity Commission, but is under investigation for moving Cabinet Office funding to its parent company, which is chaired by a major Conservative party donor who also earned hefty consultancy fees from it. Was the Cabinet Secretary aware that Government funding was being transferred not to the thousands of legitimate charities in this country, but to the bank account of a Conservative party donor?
Political Activity (Charity Commission Guidance)
Charities play an important role in shaping Government policy. Indeed, Departments are working on the development and implementation of many our policies. However, it has long been the case that the law and Charity Commission guidance prohibits charities from party political campaigning and activities. I believe that that is the right position.
Does the Minister nevertheless agree that it would be right to return to the Charity Commission guidance of 2004, which ensured that charities focused on social justice and helping people in need on the front line, not on big marketing budgets and playing party politics?
The Charity Commission’s guidance is clear about what charities can and cannot do and reflects the commission’s view of the underlying law. The guidance was last reviewed in 2009. The Charity Commission has said that it keeps all its guidance under review to ensure that it remains relevant and up to date, but it has no immediate plans to amend its guidance on campaigning and political activity.
Since 1921 the Royal British Legion has undertaken political campaigns for the benefit of military veterans and their families. Will the charities Minister please affirm the right of charities to undertake political campaigning in line with their charitable objectives? If he cannot say that loud and clear, could he please get back to his knitting?
I take the hon. Lady’s point and I was expecting a question along those lines, so I have stitched together a response for her. Charities, with all their expertise, have long been at the forefront of helping to tackle some of the country’s biggest social challenges and have an important role to play in helping shape a Government policy, but they must stay out of party politics, which has been a long-standing requirement by charity law—[Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who is chuntering, saying that her party seeks to change the law?
I am grateful to the Minister for his response and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) for tabling the question. Was it not the Leader of the Opposition who, when in government, commissioned the report that changed the Charity Commission guidelines, which are giving so many people so much concern?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I want to stick to the main point. Charities have enormous expertise and can contribute to shaping Government policy. I want to make it clear that political campaigning by charities is absolutely right, but it is important that they steer clear of party politics.
Over the past few weeks it has been absolutely embarrassing to see a number of Conservative MPs come out of the woodwork and attack some of this country’s best charities. Would it not be better for the Minister and his team to get behind those charities and allow them to comment and campaign on issues relating to their work?
As I have made clear time and again, and as somebody who has spent more than 30 years of his life in the voluntary and charity sector, I say that it is absolutely right that charities have the right to campaign on the issues that they feel strongly about. The only point I have been making is that they should steer clear of party politics. Campaigning is absolutely right and they must continue to do that.
Government Reform (Savings Programme)
On 10 June, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I announced savings through efficiency reform of central Government of £14.3 billion for the last financial year, measured against a 2009-10 baseline. These savings include both recurring and non-recurring items, and include £5.4 billion from procurement and commercial savings, £3.3 billion in project savings and £4.7 billion from work force reform and pension savings.
We have got out of a huge number of properties. We have reduced our office estate by the equivalent of 26 times the size of Buckingham palace, raising £1.4 billion in capital receipts and saving £625 million in running costs. Our One Public Estate programme, which is working very closely with a number of local authorities, is saving even more money and releasing property for the private sector to create jobs and growth by local government, central Government and indeed the wider public sector co-locating, which both saves money and is more convenient for the public.
Cost-effectiveness is of course something that all of us should aim for, but does the Minister agree that in trying to achieve that it would be better if best practice was shared right across the United Kingdom, including Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?
We try to promulgate good practice as best we can. We are, however, localists. We believe that the wider public sector—those who have responsibility and are accountable for the way in which the wider public sector operates—must be responsible for their own decisions. I have had very productive conversations with Ministers in the devolved Northern Ireland Government. There is much that we can learn from each other, and much that we can gain, as in the One Public Estate programme, from working together.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the amount of money spent by the Government on consultants and contingent labour has been cut very dramatically from the grossly swollen levels that we inherited from the Government of whom he was a supporter. [Interruption.] It will sometimes go up a little bit, and it will sometimes come down a bit.
Actually, we sometimes need to get the right skills that do not exist in government, and by and large we will make sure that we have the right skills available on the right terms. [Interruption.] I was grateful to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, for the support he expressed for our efficiency and reform programme in a very robust speech earlier this week.
We are committed to supporting social enterprises, and we are leading the world in growing the social investment market to provide social enterprises with access to the finance and advice that they need. I am particularly pleased that we are working with Social Enterprise UK to deliver the first ever Social Saturday this Saturday to encourage more people to buy from social enterprises. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent Sebastian Huempfer, who yesterday won the Prime Minister’s Points of Light award for his work with soap recycling social enterprise CLEAN SL8.
Oxfordshire is a hotbed of social enterprise and tech expertise, as the Minister for Business and Enterprise discovered when he visited the outstanding social enterprise Oxford Launchpad at the Said Business School yesterday. Does the Minister for Civil Society agree that the middle-stage funding gap is acting as a barrier to UK social tech achieving its full potential, and that raising the cap on the social incubator fund is the right response to this problem?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We are working closely with key stakeholders to ensure that social ventures can access the support and finance that they need throughout the different stages of development. Following the support provided through the social incubator fund, there are now a number of opportunities for social ventures to access support.
I see that you are wearing a slightly pinkish tie today, Mr Speaker, but pinkness seems to be absent from the Government Front Bench. Today is “wear it pink” day, which is the national campaign day for breast cancer.
Social enterprise is a very important sector and it is getting more important by the day. Has the Minister seen the wonderful picture of Mrs Thatcher’s face with Che Guevara’s beret, which launches the new manifesto for the social enterprise sector? That is important, because it marks the conjunction of social enterprise, social enterprise investment and crowdfunding. We would be very grateful if he put his weight behind it.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I was coming into Parliament, the image struck me as a cross-party approach to campaigning. We lead the way on social impact bonds. The UK is also leading the charge through the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which contributes to the Government’s ambition to reform public services to ensure that they not only achieve maximum value for money but contribute to their local communities.
SMEs (Government Procurement)
7. What recent steps he has taken to remove barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in government procurement. (905302)
In response to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I think that my tie is at least as pink as yours, Mr Speaker.
The direct spend of central Government with SMEs increased from £3 billion in 2009-10 to £4.5 billion in 2012-13. SMEs benefited from a further £4 billion in indirect spend though the supply chain. We are therefore well on track to deliver our ambition that 25% of Government spend through the supply chain should be with SMEs. However, we are still not satisfied, so we are taking forward a number of the recommendations of Lord Young of Graffham on creating an SME-friendly single market in, among other things, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill.
I thank the Minister for his reply. However, with £36 billion owed to small businesses in late payments, will he ensure that the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill requires companies to demonstrate that they will pay all their suppliers promptly in order to be on the Government’s approved supplier list?
The hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner on this front and I commend her for it. The policy of central Government is to pay undisputed invoices within five days and to pass 30-day payment terms down the supply chain as a condition of contract. The situation is therefore improving. We encourage our prime contractors to pay more quickly than the 30-day commitment on a voluntary basis. We have tasked Departments with managing their contracts in a way that ensures that that happens. We also encourage SMEs that are not being paid by the prime contractor sufficiently quickly to let us know so that we can investigate.
Public Service User Satisfaction Data
I am delighted to be able to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the progress in that incredibly important area has been considerable. The friends and family test, which is our main user feedback mechanism, is used in all hospitals and maternity wards. By March 2015, it will be extended to the rest of the NHS. It is already used in further education, it has been used in the National Citizen Service since August and it will be used in Jobcentre Plus from March next year. The intention is to roll it out right across the public services.
I am heartened. The Government’s Work programme is a good example of a public service where user satisfaction data would be extremely valuable, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has steadfastly resisted their introduction. Will the Minister have another go at persuading the Secretary of State to introduce the use of such data in that service?
I am grateful for that suggestion. I will certainly talk to my right hon. Friend about it. He recently agreed to introduce the data in Jobcentre Plus and we have had to work through the details of that. I will certainly open discussions with him about the Work programme and will have discussions about other programmes across the rest of Government.
My responsibilities are efficiency and reform, civil service issues, the public sector industrial relations strategy, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that statement. Does he agree that, contrary to some suggestions that have been made, the chief executive of the civil service will be best placed to accelerate the pace of reforms in the civil service in this country?
We do believe that the new post will play a vital role in embedding the programme of efficiency reform that we have driven. I appreciate the support of Labour Front Benchers for that approach, so that there will be consistency whatever the result of any election. He—or the new chief executive officer, whether a he or a she—will work closely with the Cabinet Secretary and myself in supporting the performance management of permanent secretaries, but will also line manage the heads of the cross-Government corporate functions. That will increase the focus on driving efficiency.
Last week, the Minister for Civil Society made his first, stunning intervention as the new Minister responsible for charities by saying:
“The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting”.
When so many charities and people who work for them do such a magnificent job in every part of the country, was that not the most condescending, patronising, inept, out-of-touch and just plain wrong thing for the Minister to say? Will he finally now apologise?
As I have made abundantly clear, charities play an important role in shaping a Government policy, and indeed, with their expertise, they should be doing that. What I made absolutely clear was that charities should not get involved in party politics, because that is the law.
T2. As part of our long-term economic plan, the Government have disposed of more than 1,250 properties since 2010. What is the Minister for the Cabinet Office doing to release more Government properties so that we can reduce costs and become more efficient? (905270)
As I said earlier, we have already reduced our office estate by the huge amount of 2 million square metres since 2010, the equivalent of 26 times the size of Buckingham palace. The strategic land and property review being led by my officials in the Government Property Unit will enable sites worth at least £5 billion, and potentially much more, to be released over the next five or six years.
T3. Small businesses in my constituency have long since given up trying to jump through the hoops that they face in even bidding for Government contracts. They certainly do not recognise the description that the Minister gave of the opportunities for Government procurement. Is not the truth that despite all his talk, it is almost impossible for small businesses to get Government contracts? (905271)
In that case, it is remarkable that the amount of Government business being given to small and medium-sized businesses has risen to nearly 20% and is on course to rise even higher. Under the arrangements left in place by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported, a lot of small businesses were simply frozen out because the process was so bureaucratic and clunking that they could not even get into the starting gate, let alone have a chance of winning the race. Now they can, and increasingly they do.
T5. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Cheshire Community Development Trust on the work it does to help the people of Weaver Vale to get into work? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of social action that should be used as a template to unite communities across the country? (905273)
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has highlighted the important work that Cheshire Community Development Trust does to support people in Weaver Vale. Through our social action work, we are supporting communities across the country to take a more active role in shaping their neighbourhoods and working together for the good of others.
T4. On user satisfaction data, does the Minister accept that the Public Accounts Committee was right to say that the position is currently far short of the ambitions in the White Paper? How long will it be before user satisfaction data are published for all services and all providers? (905272)
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and so was the Public Accounts Committee, to say that we need to go much further. The ambition is to cover all public services. I am currently conducting a review of the complaints procedures across Government to see how we can mine them for user satisfaction data. I hope that that, combined with the expansion of the friends and family test, will lead to increasing fulfilment of our ambition, but the House should be in no doubt that it will take some time to fulfil it completely.
At the time of the last general election there was no monitoring whatsoever of the volume of taxpayer-funded trade union facility time in the civil service. We now have controls in place that saved £23 million last year, and we have already reduced the number of full-time taxpayer-funded union officials from 200 in May 2010 to fewer than 10 this summer.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 September. (905278)
I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in Scotland today to listen and talk to voters about the huge choice they face. Their message to the Scottish people is simple: from the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we want you to stay in the United Kingdom.
I join the Prime Minister in the tribute he paid on Monday to Jim Dobbin who died at the weekend. He was a proud Scot, and a hard-working and principled parliamentarian who was respected on both sides of the House. He will be very sadly missed, and I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with his family and friends.
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 join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to our very good friend Jim Dobbin. He was a kind and thoroughly decent man and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Pat and their family.
The bedroom tax is discriminatory, damaging, and it is not even working. Last Friday the House was very clear. Will the Government now listen? Will they scrap that wretched policy, because if they will not, we will?
This is a basic issue of fairness. For someone who lived in private rented accommodation and received housing benefit, these rules applied throughout the whole of the last Labour Government, and we had a situation in which neighbouring households could be treated unequally. The hon. Lady asked about the private Member’s Bill. The proposals in that Bill could cost the country up to £1 billion. Because we have introduced a cap on overall spending, making those changes would mean finding savings elsewhere. I have not heard any suggestions on that from the Labour party.
Well, there are many of us. Having represented Yorkshire for 25 years, I can claim to speak for England from time to time—Yorkshiremen are always keen to speak for a far bigger area than they represent. All these debates are to be had once the referendum is concluded.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words about our good friend and colleague Jim Dobbin, and add my tribute to him after his sudden and tragic death at the weekend. He was, as has been said, a thoroughly decent man who always stuck to his principles. At a time when it is fashionable to say that politicians are in it for themselves and out of touch, he was the absolute opposite of that. Our deepest sympathies are with Pat and their children, and we will miss him greatly.
“Historic” is a much overused word in politics, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in just eight days’ time the people of Scotland will make a truly historic decision? This is their vote, but I want the message from the Labour Benches to be heard loud and clear: we want Scotland to stay.
I agree with the right hon. and learned Lady. That is a clear message from the Opposition and, despite our differing political perspectives, from the Government parties as well. I hope, therefore, that the message the people of Scotland will hear from the House, where Scottish parliamentarians have made an immense contribution for generations, is that we want to stay together and cannot imagine life on these isles without them. She is a London MP and speaks for millions in what she just said; I am a Yorkshire MP who has served as Secretary of State for Wales, and we are all proud to be British, combining those identities. There is no doubt we would all be diminished if Scotland was separated from the people of the rest of the UK.
The roots of our party run deep in Scotland. We delivered devolution and the Scottish Parliament, but we need to go further. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be further devolution and that a Scotland Bill setting out new powers will be published in January?
As the right hon. and learned Lady knows, the three main party leaders have come together to agree to develop a programme for change. The right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) has set out a process for how that change could be delivered to a tight timetable, and all three main parties have endorsed that timetable. It means immediate action the day after the referendum to start the legislative process; it means a Command Paper, including proposals, at the end of October, with a full draft Scotland Bill published by the end of January; and it means the introduction of a Bill after the general election, regardless of who forms the Government. That is a clear timetable and it shows that Scots can have change without irreversible separation and without such risks to jobs and their future.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the clarity of that answer. As we set about devolving further powers to Scotland, does he agree that the time has also come to devolve further power to Wales and, crucially, to the great cities and regions of England too?
As we all know, the decision next week is a matter for the people of Scotland, but the implications will be felt by all the people of the United Kingdom. We are already steadily devolving increased powers to parts of England and Wales. Under this Government, Wales has received more primary law-making powers and we are moving towards devolving tax and borrowing powers. We want to see devolution in Northern Ireland succeed. In England, the Localism Act 2011 devolved power over business rates to local authorities, and city deals have given local areas more of a say over their governance. One of the greatest strengths of the United Kingdom is that it is not a rigid union; it is a living, flexible Union.
For Labour Members, a fundamental principle of our politics is solidarity. We want the UK to stick together in the cause of social justice. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong to set the different countries of the UK against each other, whether on workers’ rights or corporation tax?
The right hon. and learned Lady makes a powerful point about solidarity in the UK. For 300 years, we and our predecessors have sat in the House with Scottish parliamentarians and their predecessors. Since the 18th century, they have sat together to implement a great range of progressive causes, from the abolition of the slave trade to our pursuit of human rights and sound development across the world today. We have often led the way at times of world crisis and been an inspiration to democratic peoples elsewhere. The next 300 years could easily be as turbulent and dangerous as the last 300 years, so to tear apart a union so proven, so precious and so valuable would be a tragic mistake for all our peoples.
People in Scotland can now be certain that with a no vote, there would be change and more powers for Scotland. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that posed against that certainty is the uncertainty that a yes vote would bring on so many issues, including jobs, pensions, mortgages and the currency?
The uncertainty it would bring is impossible to list in answer to one question, but a letter signed last week by more than 120 job creators from across a range of Scottish business concluded that the business case for independence had not been made. It said:
“Uncertainty surrounds a number of vital issues including currency, regulation, tax, pensions, EU membership and support for our exports around the world; and uncertainty is bad for business.”
The Governor of the Bank of England said yesterday that sovereignty and a currency union were “incompatible”, and he is right—many of us have pointed that out for many years in relation to another currency. Be certain of this: this is not an opinion poll where you can change your mind the next day; it is not an election where you can reverse the result four or five years later; it is a permanent decision that will affect generations. Therefore, the votes cast next Thursday will probably be the most important votes that can be cast in any country at any time, and the voters must weigh that vote heavily.
While jobs, pensions and taxes are important, next week’s decision, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, is about much, much more than that. For sure, there must be change. We must have that, and we will, but not by tearing this country apart. We must stay as family, not become foreigners to each other.
The right hon. and learned Lady puts it extremely well. We all want the best for Scotland, just as we all want the best for our own constituents, from all parts of the UK, in this House. The people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland believe that Scotland is better off in the UK and the UK is better off with Scotland in it. This referendum is the most important choice the people of Scotland will ever make: a choice between the opportunity and security of staying in the UK, and leaving for ever, without the pound and without the UK’s influence in the world. With Scotland as part of the UK, we have the best possible situation and a great future together in the United Kingdom.
Since 2012, my right hon. Friend and I have been supporting the policy of the Government not to offer so-called devo-max as a consolation prize in the event of a no vote in the Scottish referendum. If this is no longer the policy of the Government, when and why did it change, and what opportunity has there been for this House to express its view?
It has been the policy of the Government for some time to be open to further devolution—I gave examples of what we have done in Wales, for instance, during the lifetime of this Government. The statements by the party leaders made on this in the last few days are statements by party leaders in a campaign—not a statement of Government policy today, but a statement of commitment from the three main political parties, akin to statements by party leaders in a general election campaign of what they intend to do afterwards. It is on that basis that they have made those statements.
Q2. In 2012, the Chancellor set himself a target to double exports to £1 trillion by 2020. I wonder whether the Leader of the House would confirm that his Government are on course to miss that target by a massive £330 billion. (905279)
Of course, nobody can claim to know what the figure will be in 2020, since we are only in 2014. A great deal of work has to be done, but we have greatly intensified the promotion of British exports. That is why I, in my time as Foreign Secretary, opened nearly 20 new embassies and consulates, including many that the Labour party closed when it was in power, and why we have revamped UK Trade & Investment. We have huge increases in exports to countries such as China, India and Brazil. Everybody, of all parties and businesses, must join in making a success of that by 2020.
Q3. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are rightly campaigning today for the future of our Union. With Gatwick in my constituency, I see on a daily basis the strong family and business links between my local airport and Scottish airports. Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree with me that our great kingdom is better together as a united Britain? I say that as somebody with proud Scottish ancestry. (905280)
Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. What he can see at Gatwick airport and what we all experience around other parts of England and Wales is a very good example of his point. In fact, two thirds of Scottish exports are exported to the rest of the United Kingdom—twice as much as to the rest of the world put together. Why would anyone choose to place an international border where those exports are going, and to do so unnecessarily? My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point.
The Leader of the House is, of course, right: next Thursday, the Scots go the polls to make what is undoubtedly the most historic, important and momentous decision we have ever had the privilege to consider. It is a process that has galvanised and energised every community in Scotland. Will the Leader of the House join me—I know we want different things from the outcome—in congratulating the Scottish people on the way they have gone around conducting this incredible debate?
The hon. Gentleman is right: it was a gentle understatement that we want different things from this process, but of course we applaud the people of Scotland for taking such an immense interest on all sides, and it is very important that there is a high turnout in any such referendum. I absolutely congratulate the people of Scotland, but I do not congratulate those such as the hon. Gentleman’s own party who have failed to be straight with the people of Scotland; who have never explained what money Scotland will use and what its value will be; who have never explained how long it would take to rejoin the European Union and on what terms; who have never explained how they would fund schools and hospitals when there would be a £6 billion black hole in their finances; and who have not explained that their threat not to pay debts would be disastrous for Scotland’s long-term future. They are passionate about Scotland and passionate about separation, but they are not passionate about telling the truth to the people of Scotland.
Q4. Embracing three centuries, the garrison town of Colchester has welcomed thousands of Scottish soldiers, many with their families. We wish that to continue. Does the Leader of the House agree with the Defence Select Committee that if Scotland ceased to be part of the UK—and we have the best armed forces in Europe—this would pose serious security and defence risks for a separate Scotland without the capacity to defend itself? (905281)
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. He sees the participation, work and sacrifices of members of the armed forces from Scotland when they are deployed in Colchester, and I see that in Catterick garrison in my own constituency. He makes an important point about the security of us all, which is of course important for Scotland’s security as well. We have to bear it in mind that, for instance, Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde is the largest employment site in the whole of Scotland, and it is going to get bigger with the deployment of all our submarines there. Those things are put at risk by a campaign for separation, which also puts at risk the security of all of us.
Q5. Last Thursday, I attended a public meeting at Beighton in my constituency, at which the doctors in the Beighton and Sothall practice were consulting their patients on how to deal with a budgetary cut of 22% to 24% by 2018. They have been officially notified of that cut by NHS England. Will the Leader of the House confirm that, if the Conservatives are in power after the general election, these are the cuts that my constituents can expect? (905282)
I can confirm that this Government have raised the NHS budget in line with inflation, which the hon. Gentleman’s party was not committed to doing at the last general election. I know that the Secretary of State for Health will want to discuss with the hon. Gentleman the details of the local situation, but I hope he explained to those at the meeting that overall, since the last election, the number of nurses is up 3,700; the number of doctors is up 6,500; the number of people who say they are treated with dignity and respect is up 10%; and that we have now been ranked, according to the Commonwealth Fund, as the top health system in the world, moving from seventh in the world four years ago.
Absolutely. This is an extremely important continuation of the developing, immense and proud sporting history that we have in this country. We are now established again as one of the great sporting nations of the world, and we are also a country that thinks deeply about the welfare of service veterans. His Royal Highness Prince Harry has been one of the great champions of that, and we wish him, and everyone involved in the games, very well.
Q6. In 2012, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to see economic growth that would mean rising living standards for all. Can the Leader of the House tell us, then, why Britain has seen one of the largest falls in real wages among the European Union countries, beaten only by Cyprus, Portugal and Greece? (905283)
The hon. Gentleman may remember that there was a debt-fuelled, deep recession, which came about under the last Government. That, of course, has to be paid for, but now, after four years of the disciplined policies of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, we have the fastest growth among the G7 economies, we have employment nearing a record high, and we have nearly 2 million new apprenticeships which have been started during this time. That is a remarkable economic turnaround from the catastrophic situation that we were left.
Q7. Does the Leader of the House agree that Scottish independence is not about getting one over on Westminster, not about embarrassing the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition and not about defeating the “auld enemy”, but it is about Scotland turning its back on 300 years of successful union, and rejecting so much that this country has done to make us all so proud of being part of Great Britain? (905284)
My hon. Friend is right. It is not about any individual or party or election; it is a far more long-term decision than that. In my experience all over the world, other nations regard the United Kingdom with admiration, and sometimes even with envy. If Scotland voted yes, people all over the world who share our values and count on our contribution to peace, stability and human rights would be disappointed, while those who do not share those priorities and beliefs would be quietly satisfied. That is another thing that we must all bear in mind.
At the end of last month, my constituent Mr Krishna Upadhyaya was “disappeared” in Qatar. He had been arrested by the secret service there because he was investigating the human rights abuses of workers who were building the infrastructure for the 2022 World cup. I thank the Foreign Office for its help in securing his release, but what action will the right hon. Gentleman take to speak to the Qatar ambassador about the disgrace of his having been arrested in the first place, and about the treatment of those who are preparing those facilities?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important case. He is right to say that the Foreign Office has pursued it and has achieved some success in doing so, as we will do in any parallel cases in the future. I know that the embassy and the Foreign Office will want to follow up these matters, but that is for my successor as Foreign Secretary to determine, so I will draw his attention to the hon. Gentleman’s question, and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman about it.
Q8. Given mounting evidence of an innovative, vibrant and growing real economy, especially in manufacturing and engineering, does the First Secretary of State agree that Scotland should remain with us, first to share in the fruits of that success and secondly to give us a bigger footprint in global trade? (905285)
Yes, I do. That is another very good point. The economic turnaround that has been brought about in the United Kingdom means that employment in Scotland is now at a record high. There have been seven consecutive quarters of economic growth in Scotland, and there are a quarter of a million more private sector jobs in Scotland than there were four years ago. That is a reminder of the potential if we continue to work together, and that is the message that I again repeat to the people of Scotland today.
Q9. I welcome suggestions that the Prime Minister will attend the crucial climate summit at the end of this month. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister will go, and will he tell us what bold new initiatives the Prime Minister will be taking with him, because that is what my constituents in Brighton say they want? They want to protect what they love—[Interruption.] They want urgent action on climate change. (905286)
Order. Can I just say for future reference that it is disorderly to display images in that way, and I say with all courtesy to the hon. Lady, whose principles and commitment I respect, that if everybody did that on every cause it would make a mockery of this place? I ask the hon. Lady to take a view much wider than her own immediate preoccupation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister will attend the UN General Assembly later in September. We have not yet issued, or finally decided, his precise schedule, but of course we are looking at attendance at the meeting the hon. Lady refers to, and Britain will continue to play a leading role in the world in bringing about legally binding agreement on climate change. The next 15 months is a very important period, leading up to the meeting in Paris at the end of next year. We are one of the most active countries in the world in climate change diplomacy, and the Prime Minister and other Ministers in New York will be fully conveying that, whoever attends the meeting.
Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House why, with the possibility of a yes vote, finance is leaving Scotland and many businesses are thinking of leaving Scotland? Surely if the economic arguments were so good for the yes campaign, the reverse would be happening?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. The anxieties of businesses are very clear to see. While we can understand people doubting the word of politicians about economic events, it is very important to listen to what businesses say they will do with their jobs, with their headquarters and with their investments, because a country that has separated itself from the fastest growing economy of the G7, that has put itself outside the European Union without thinking about the implications of doing that, and that has ended up with no central bank and unsure which currency to use, would of course find it difficult to attract new business to its shores.
Q10. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership leaves the health service vulnerable to some of the worst possible outcomes of this Government’s privatisation programme. Private investors will be able to haul the Government and devolved Administrations through the investor-state dispute settlement tribunal. In that respect, how can the Leader of the House guarantee that the health service, including the health services in the devolved Administrations, will be exempt from the TTIP? (905287)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has been dealing with these matters and has held a briefing about them, so I have no doubt we can furnish the hon. Lady with more details on these issues, but it is very important to maintain a commitment to free trade, which has been a characteristic of the United Kingdom over many centuries, and which has invariably brought greater prosperity to the people of the UK, as well as to people all over the rest of the world. The TTIP is another major opportunity to boost free trade across the world.
Q11. A vote next week in favour of an independent Scotland will have major, damaging implications for Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my fellow Welsh citizens who care about the future of our Welsh nation should be hoping and praying for rejection of the break-up of the United Kingdom? (905288)
Yes, absolutely, and I think they are. I regularly consult at least one Welsh citizen, and on the evidence of that the Welsh are very much hoping and praying that the UK will not be broken up. My hon. Friend, I know, speaks very well for his constituents in mid-Wales. All of us in the United Kingdom would be diminished by the break-up of the United Kingdom. We are something greater than the sum of our parts, and that is well understood across the UK. The impact on Wales would be unmistakable.
The Patients Association has found that six in 10 people cannot get a GP appointment within two days of needing one. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why his party will not support Labour’s proposal to guarantee a GP appointment within 48 hours?
Professionals in the health system have said that going back to that kind of target would be counter-productive. The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the number of people treated by GPs has increased by many millions over the past four years, and that trend is continuing. Of course we are always trying to seek further improvements, but reintroducing the old, failed targets of the last Government is not the way forward.
Q12. When I travel abroad and I am asked where I come from, I am proud to say that I am British. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we can be proud to be British but still have our own identity of being English, Scottish, Welsh or from Northern Ireland, and that we should all remain together and continue as Great Britons? (905289)
I do not think anyone could have put it better. My hon. Friend definitely has his own identity, in so many different ways, and he has expressed it beautifully, including his identity with the United Kingdom. That is how so many of us think in Britain, and let us hope that it will be possible to continue to do so.
May I support the visit of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to speak directly to the people of Scotland? My right hon. and hon. Friends and I, speaking on behalf of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, want the United Kingdom to stay together, and it is my hope that some of those who are crowing today might be disappointed after the referendum.
That is certainly my hope as well. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has been able to make that point, because it means that in this short Question Time we have heard the very clear message from Members from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to the people of Scotland that we want them to stay.
Q13. My parents will soon celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. My mother was born in Aberdeen, and my father in Cambridge. Is my right hon. Friend reassured that there will be no need for any senior politicians to come to their anniversary event, because my parents know in their heads and in their hearts that in their union, as in the other Union, they are happier and better together? (905290)
I extend the congratulations of Her Majesty’s Government, and indeed of the whole House of Commons and all the political parties—even, perhaps, the Scottish National party on this occasion—to my hon. Friend’s parents. They are an example to us all, particularly after 60 years, and I hope that it is an example that will continue to be heeded and respected all over the UK.
Contrary to what has been said by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), this campaign has been fraught by fear and intimidation. It is somewhat ironic that the majority of the Scottish separatists have turned out for today’s Question Time, given that fewer than half of them turned out for our debate on an important element of welfare reform last Friday. That demonstrates that their priority is to come here to whinge rather than to debate.
Q14. My Scottish pro-Union friends have reminded me that the middle east peace envoy and GQ philanthropist of the year award winner has reportedly said that he welcomes the publication of the Chilcot report. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when we can expect that report to be published? (905291)
I can tell my hon. Friend that the work continues, and that Sir John Chilcot has said that he intends to publish the report as soon as possible. I do not have a fixed date that I can give to my hon. Friend. I can only observe that, had that inquiry been set up when I and others first called for it and voted for it, back in 2006, it would have reported long ago. It was set up late, and it is therefore reporting late, but we look forward to it.
To put that into perspective, I think the latest figure is that 98.5% of schools are now providing a hot meal to infants as they were intended to do, and it is going up all the time. There are, of course, Government funds to help schools that need new facilities to do that, so I think it would be right to welcome the entirety of the picture, rather than try to find fault with one small aspect of it.
Mobile Phones and Other Devices Capable of Connection to the Internet (Distribution of Sexually Explicit Images and Manufacturers’ Anti-Pornography Default Setting) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Geraint Davies, supported by Jessica Morden, Mrs Siân C. James, Chris Evans, Mr Mark Williams and Nia Griffith, presented a Bill to prohibit the distribution of sexually explicit images via the internet and text message without the consent of the subjects of the images; to provide that mobile phones and other devices capable of connection to the internet be set by manufacturers as a default to deny access to pornography; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 7 November, and to be printed (Bill 92).
House of Commons Members’ Fund Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Peter Lilley, supported by Mr Clive Betts, Mr Brian H. Donohoe, David Mowat and John Thurso, presented a Bill to consolidate and amend provisions about the House of Commons Members’ Fund.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed (Bill 91).
Specialist Printing Equipment and Materials (Offences)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for an offence in respect of specialist printing equipment and related materials; and for connected purposes.
This Bill is an important step in tackling identity crime. Such crime enables criminals at all levels, from opportunistic criminals to those involved in immigration offences, serious organised crime and terrorism, to hide their tracks and evade detection.
Everybody knows someone who has been a victim of identity crime in one form or another, and we are all at risk of becoming victims. Indeed, figures published by the National Fraud Authority last year show that almost a third of UK adults have been a victim of such crime at some point. Of the 4.3 million people who were victims in 2012, 2.7 million actually lost money, with an average of £1,200 lost by each person. For the most vulnerable members of our society the damage caused goes much further than the loss of money. The NFA also estimates that 27% of UK adults have been a victim of such fraud. None of us is immune from this crime; Jeremy Clarkson, Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg have all reportedly been victims.
As criminals seek to stay ahead of the game by obtaining the latest specialist technology to make false documents, they rely on members of the specialist printing industry to supply it to them. They obtain it either by tricking suppliers into thinking they will use the equipment for a legitimate purpose or by looking for someone to collude with them. The industry is aware of elements within it that knowingly supply equipment or materials to these criminals, for criminal purposes, believing that they are beyond the reach of the law. The Bill sends the message that they are as bad as the criminals themselves. It closes a very sad gap in the law and will support our police in their work. By supplying this equipment to persons who will use it to commit crime, these elements enable some of the most serious crimes that affect our country and the safety of our people to happen.
The police have numerous recent examples of illegal document factories being uncovered. The documents found include passports, driving licences, birth certificates, immigration documents, European Union identity cards and national insurance number cards—the list goes on. In none of these cases has the police been able to prosecute anyone who has supplied the specialist equipment to the criminals, even when there was evidence that they knew what the equipment would be used for. That is why the Bill is urgently needed. The industry and the Metropolitan Police Service set up Project Genesis in 2007 and identified the need for this new criminal offence. Wider consultation on the proposal with the industry shows that there continues to be strong support for it. The vast majority of the industry is made up of decent, hard-working people who believe that those who knowingly supply equipment to criminals are bringing their industry into disrepute.
The industry mainly consists of small micro-businesses, which can suffer significant losses themselves when they are targeted by fraudsters. Criminals who make false documents often try to dupe businesses into supplying this specialist equipment to them and often pay with stolen credit cards resulting in a loss to the supplier. One company reported losing £10,000 worth of equipment because fraudsters conned it by using what appeared to be genuine credentials. By implementing the measures in the code of conduct agreed by Project Genesis, that business was able to protect itself from becoming the victim of payment fraud again as it was better able to spot suspicious behaviour. The measures include simple indicators such as checking that the delivery address is the same as the address on a company’s website, so that a fraudster is identified if they pretend to represent a legitimate company.
The Bill covers the manufacture of documents that can be used for identity purposes, including passports and immigration documents; travel documents, including driving licences and blue badges; security passes; national insurance number cards; currency; credit cards; and birth, death and marriage certificates. Those are documents that provide the holder with access to various services and benefits across both the public and private sectors. In the wrong hands, false versions of those documents can cause untold damage, including enabling illegal immigrants to merge into our society and fraudulently access public services to which they are not entitled. Crime committed through the use of false documents can have a serious impact on businesses, particularly small businesses, which can seriously impact on the economy. The Bill provides a simple and targeted measure to deal with this serious problem.
The geographical extent of the Bill will be for England and Wales. The Home Office is working with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland and the Crown dependencies on these measures and has committed to keep them informed of progress. False document factories are a cross-border problem, so the Bill will apply to supply for the purpose of criminal activity occurring in any jurisdiction. If a supplier in England and Wales sells equipment to an identity fraudster knowing that they will use it to manufacture false documents, they will be prosecuted, whether the manufacture itself happens in England, Scotland, France, or even Australia.
The Metropolitan Police Service has examples of raids on false document factories where documents relating to thousands of false identities have been found. But in none of those raids have they been able to prosecute those at the beginning of the chain who supplied the goods to the fraudsters, even though the suppliers knew that those would be used to make false documents.
The Bill will empower the police to deal effectively with those who seek to profit from criminal activity without regard to the consequences of identity crime. I commend the measure to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr David Amess, Mr Brian Binley, Fiona Bruce, Rosie Cooper, Mr Roger Godsiff, Sir Edward Leigh, Dr Julian Lewis, Mr David Nuttall, Sir Bob Russell, Dame Angela Watkinson, Mike Weatherley and Mr Mark Williams present the Bill.
Mr David Amess accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 September, and to be printed (Bill 93).
Ukraine, Middle East, North Africa and Security
[Relevant documents: Eleventh Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Ukraine and Russia: EU restrictive measures, HC 219-xi; Third Report from the Defence Committee, Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two–NATO, HC 358; Fourteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2013-14, Intervention: Why, When and How?, HC 952, together with the Government response, Fourth Special Report, Session 2014-15, HC 581; Seventh Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2013-14, HC 86-I, The UK’s response to extremism and instability in North and West Africa, and the Government response, Cm 8861; Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 3 September 2014, Russia and Ukraine, HC 628; and Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 9 September 2014, Developments in UK foreign policy, HC 606.]
Before I ask the Foreign Secretary to open the debate, I simply point out to the House that more than 50 right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak from the Back Benches. In determining a time limit for Back-Bench contributions, I shall obviously be guided by the length of the Front-Bench speeches, which I feel sure the speakers, with their usual tact and discretion, will tailor in order to take account of the interests of their Back-Bench colleagues.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Ukraine, Middle East, North Africa and security.
This summer has seen a range and scale of threats to international, and particularly European, stability. If they are not unprecedented, they certainly represent a highly unwelcome escalation from the post-cold war norm. Alongside them, there has been a sharp escalation in the level of homeland security threat. The Prime Minister has made two statements in the past nine days covering those, but the Government believe it is right and proper that Parliament has a fuller opportunity to debate those events, and that the Government have the opportunity to take the pulse of parliamentary opinion on Britain’s response to the challenges we face.
In Syria and Iraq, the advance of the barbaric Islamist terrorist organisation Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant represents not only a severe threat to the stability of the middle east but, through the presence of foreign fighters, some of them British, and the threat of a terror attack against the west, a threat to British national security. In the wider middle east, the recent eruption of violence in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, and the tragic loss of many hundreds of civilian lives, has underlined the need for a lasting settlement to that decades-long source of conflict and human suffering. In eastern Ukraine, the instability and violence fuelled initially by covert Russian sponsorship of illegal armed separatists, and more recently by the active operation of formed military units of the Russian armed forces on sovereign Ukraine territory, have underlined Russia’s rejection of the rules-based international order. In Libya, there has been a sharp deterioration of the security situation. Those multiple challenges reflect an arc of instability, extending from north Africa, through the middle east and along Europe’s eastern border to the Arctic.
Perhaps the most alarming of those developments, because of the clear and immediate risk it poses to UK homeland security, is the rise of the Islamist terror organisation ISIL in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Assad’s brutal war against his own people has created the conditions for a Sunni extremist group to flourish, and in Iraq, the systematic sectarianism of the previous Government has created a permissive environment in the Sunni heartlands for ISIL to expand. In both countries, ISIL has seized the opportunity to impose its twisted ideology.
I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a qualitative difference between any proposition of air strikes in Syria and such an activity in Iraq. The legal, technical and military differences make the proposition of air strikes an order of magnitude more complicated in Syria.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. On the specifics of air strikes, the House will rise this week and not return until 13 October. If there were to be another atrocity in Iraq, is he comfortable with authorising, with the Prime Minister, air strikes if the House has not had a vote?
Will the Foreign Secretary elaborate on the military differences, as he said that there were quantitative differences between Syria and Iraq? We are talking about a process. What are the air strikes meant to achieve? Would they achieve something different in Iraq from in Syria, or are we taking this the wrong way round?
When I talked about a military difference between Iraq and Syria, I was referring to the different air defence systems that protect the territory in those two countries. In Iraq, the skies are open over ISIL-controlled territory, whereas in Syria a sophisticated integrated air defence system protects the whole of the country’s airspace and would make air strikes complex and difficult to deliver.
In view of Mr Speaker’s strictures, I must make some progress. I will allow the hon. Lady to intervene later.
Having established a heartland in Syria and advanced into northern Iraq, ISIL is seeking to extend its reach with the openly stated objective of building a so-called caliphate embracing all the Muslim populations of the region in a single fundamentalist state that would subject its population to a brutal and barbaric regime while waging perpetual war against the infidel beyond the caliphate’s boundaries. This is a dangerous force that if left unchecked could transform swathes of the middle east into a haven for international terrorism.
ISIL’s barbaric acts in the areas it controls have included targeted killings, forced religious conversions, abductions, trafficking, slavery and systematic sexual abuse on the basis of ethnicity and religion. It has forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis of all communities—Shi’a, Sunni, Christian, Yazidi—to flee their homes in fear as its forces abuse, brutalise and kill anyone who stands in the way of their advance. Their actions and poisonous ideology are not only abhorrent to our values and principles and, indeed, to the values and principles of all decent people, including the overwhelming majority of Muslims, but represent a direct threat to Britain’s national security.
There are rumours that the Turks are buying oil from ISIS. Is it not important that members of NATO speak with one voice and is it not an absolute priority for the international community to try to interdict the financial support that ISIS is gaining through illegal oil sales?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his confirmation that we are using the United Nations to point out the importance of cutting off financial support to ISIL. Is he talking to Governments around the world and ensuring that the Treasury is equally engaged in ensuring that messages go out to banking systems and individuals that it is not a good thing to channel funds to ISIL and that, if they are not cut off now, these murderous individuals will come into their countries?
Yes, we are delivering that message and our partners around the world are active. We have seen action over the past few days in many countries, with people providing support networks to ISIL being disrupted, arrests being made and so on.
In seeking to establish its extremist state, ISIL is already seeking to use the territory it controls as a launch pad from which to attack the west, including the United Kingdom. The unprovoked attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels, the brutal beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the explicit threat to the life of a British hostage have made it clear that ISIL will not hesitate to attack western citizens wherever it has the opportunity to do so. As the House will know, our intelligence agencies estimate that more than 500 British nationals have travelled abroad to fight in Syria and Iraq for extremist groups, particularly ISIL. On the face of it, one of those individuals, nominally British although sharing none of our values, was responsible for the beheading of the American journalists. The potential return to the shores of hundreds of these radicalised jihadis, some of whom will have undergone training in the conduct of terrorist atrocities, represents one of the most serious threats to our national security and was directly responsible for the decision to raise the threat level for international terrorism from substantial to severe.
If I may, I will make a little progress.
Our response to that threat is and will remain measured, deliberate and comprehensive. At home, our police and security agencies are hard at work tackling the threat from returning jihadis and intercepting those intent on travelling abroad to join ISIL. Since April 2013, 23 people have had their passport removed and so far this year 69 people have been arrested for terror-related offences in relation to Syria and Iraq.
As the Prime Minister set out last week, we are now urgently considering what more we can do in the face of this unprecedented terrorist threat. Among the measures being actively considered by the Government are strengthening the existing terrorism prevention and investigation measures, including through stronger location constraints on suspects and a requirement on individuals to engage with the Prevent programme; putting the Channel de-radicalisation programme on a statutory footing; introducing temporary powers for police to seize passports at the border while suspected foreign fighters are investigated; creating a discretionary power to exclude British nationals from the UK; and putting on a statutory basis aviation security measures, including no-fly lists and the sharing of passenger information. As the Government crystallise our proposals, the House will have the opportunity to debate them in detail.
Strengthening our defences at home and tackling the movement of foreign fighters are just part of the answer. We must also tackle these threats at source, so we are responding to the urgent humanitarian situation in the region, alleviating suffering in northern and eastern Iraq and helping to ease the growing burden on the neighbouring states that has the potential to create even greater instability. Since the crisis in Syria began, we have committed more than £600 million in humanitarian aid. In northern Iraq, Britain was the first donor country on the ground, but we are clear that alongside the immediate humanitarian response there must also be a coherent political response to delegitimise ISIL, cut off its sources of financial support and create the conditions under which local forces can regroup and tackle ISIL head on.
The UK has already supplied non-lethal aid to the peshmerga. We have transported ammunition from eastern Europe for the Soviet-era weapons that the peshmerga have. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary laid a departmental minute before the House announcing the initial gifting of lethal aid to the peshmerga in the form of a supply of heavy machine guns, which should be delivered with the accompanying ammunition to Irbil today.
The Prime Minister said that if there was further evidence of a direct national threat and human catastrophe, that would warrant further military action. The Foreign Secretary has spoken about coming back before the House if further action is needed, but have we not reached the threshold at which there is evidence of both a direct national threat and human catastrophe, in terms of the genocide of Yazidis, Christians and others?
The point the Prime Minister was making was that we must reserve our right to intervene at very short notice if an imminent humanitarian catastrophe threatens, but we are also considering the longer-term proposition of how, in coalition with international partners, we can best rise to the challenge presented by ISIL. If my hon. Friend will allow me to continue, I shall say something about that now.
I must make some progress.
In Syria, we continue to support a negotiated political transition to end Assad’s brutal rule and pave the way to a political solution to this appalling conflict. To those who ask whether we should make common cause with Assad against the new enemy, ISIL, I say that Assad cannot be the answer to defeating extremism. Working with this butcher would only reinforce the appeal of ISIL and feed radicalisation at home. By contrast, therefore, we are strengthening our support for the moderate opposition, who share our values of respect for human rights, the rule of law and inclusive politics. They deserve our admiration as they take the fight to the extremist terrorists in their country as well as taking on regime forces.
In Iraq, we have strongly welcomed the formation of the new Government under Dr Haider al-Abadi. To be successful in turning the tide against ISIL, that Government must now win the confidence of all Iraq’s communities by turning into deeds the words of the new Prime Minister’s published programme for inclusive Government.
Will the Foreign Secretary accept my apologies for turning up to the debate slightly late? Does he accept that the new Government of Iraq now have to show that they are doing this, and that if they cannot, it will be time for the UK and its neighbours to reconsider what the political structure of Iraq can be to create stability in the region?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are clear that ISIL is a threat to us as well as to stability in the region. But we are equally clear that we can contribute to defeating ISIL only through the leadership of the Iraqi Government in Baghdad, and they have to be an Iraqi Government who are credible, inclusive, and command the respect and support of all the people of Iraq. A huge burden therefore rests on the shoulders of Dr al-Abadi as he embarks on this mission with his new Government. We wish him well and will offer him every practical support we can.
On Syria, surely the position must be that, rather than leave Assad out of the process altogether, we should restart the Geneva process in order that there can be a proper deal between our allies in the Free Syrian Army and the Assad Government. They can then be on our side in taking on the fundamental enemy, which is of course Islamic State. That process can engage the Russians as well, but if they are left outside this exercise we are dooming it to failure from the start.
As we have now moved to the welcome state whereby we are providing more than just assistance to the Kurds, would it not now be sensible to do the same thing for the Free Syrian Army, who have themselves been fighting ISIS for over a year?
Our decision at the moment is that we will continue to supply non-lethal aid to the Syrian moderate opposition. Of course, we keep that decision under continuous review. As I said earlier, the situation in Syria is very different from the situation in Iraq. While ISIL is seeking to make it a single theatre, we have to respond to the realities on the ground in both countries.
These are vital steps, but the Prime Minister has made it clear that the political and humanitarian response in Iraq must be backed up by a security response that will defeat ISIL on the ground. The Government’s clear position is that there will be no UK combat boots on the ground in Iraq, but we have given our full support to the targeted air strikes conducted by the United States at the request of the legitimate Government of Iraq. With other NATO allies, and with the consent of the Iraqi Government, we have been delivering arms and equipment directly to Kurdish forces, as I have set out.
I know that many right hon. and hon. Members will, crucially, want to know whether we intend to go further in our security response. As the House will know, Secretary Kerry is currently in the middle east seeking to build a regional coalition of the willing to support Iraqi forces in the battle against ISIL—an organisation which, by definition, represents an existential challenge to all of them. President Obama will speak to the American people later today to set out his wider strategy for dealing with the threat from ISIL, including a possible expansion of US air strikes.
As the global resolve to tackle ISIL strengthens, we will consider carefully what role the UK should play in the international coalition. I should emphasise that no decisions have been made. However, as the Prime Minister set out on Monday, if we reached the conclusion that joining in American-led air strikes would be the appropriate way to shoulder our share of the burden, then, in accordance with the established practice, we would ensure that the House of Commons had an opportunity to debate and vote on that proposition.
May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to his answer to the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) about the position of the Assad regime? The whole House shares his view that this is an odious regime, but surely what has changed is that two years ago it was rational to assess that the Assad regime could be removed. Is that still his view?
Our clear intention is to create the conditions where within the Alawite community and the community around the regime, the pressure builds to change the leadership—to remove Assad and those closely associated with him and replace them so that it is possible for the moderate opposition forces and the international community to envisage a political solution in Syria.
We are facing in our near abroad the most capable terrorist group currently operating anywhere in the world. We cannot underestimate the threat that it poses to regional stability and to our security here at home, and we must be prepared to intensify our contribution to action against ISIL if the situation demands.
In relation to ISIL and the foreign fighters, the Secretary of State will have seen reports from King’s College London, which engaged with some of these fighters in Syria and Iraq. It reports that some foreign fighters want to renounce terrorism and return to their countries of origin. Does the United Kingdom have a position on that, and was it discussed with other NATO members so that there is a combined position?
I too read the reports that my hon. Friend mentions. Clearly, those who have committed terrorist acts must be held accountable for their actions; there can be no general amnesty. Obviously, the Home Secretary will want to look carefully at the situation that we are facing. I suggest that she will have noted what he said and might be able to respond further when she winds up the debate.
As I understand it, the Foreign Secretary is saying that our policy is dependent on having a credible, inclusive Government in Baghdad. On what criteria will the Foreign Office assess that Government? What does he make of the appointment of Ibrahim al-Jafari? What about the Interior Ministry? What about the Defence Ministry? What about the position of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian revolutionary guard commander, in Baghdad? What possible reason do we have at the moment to believe that this Government are inclusive?
I recognise my hon. Friend’s gentle scepticism, shall I call it? Many figures within the newly announced Government are not new faces. However, the programme set out by Dr al-Abadi does represent, on the face of it, an approach that is far more inclusive and far more willing to recognise the aspirations of the separate communities within Iraq than that of the previous Iraqi Government. Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. We will be looking at this very closely and providing every support we can. We and other allies will be applying all pressure that we can on the Iraqi Government to pursue diligently the course that they have set out in that programme, and we very much hope they will deliver on those commitments.
I must make some progress now because we have a wide range of issues to cover.
While we have been facing an ideological challenge to our fundamental system of values from ISIL in Iraq and Syria, we have also faced a fundamental challenge to the post-cold war system of international relations in Europe.
For more than two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the west has opened a door to Russia and sought to draw her into the international rules-based system, offering partnership, trade, investment and openness. By its illegal annexation of Crimea and its aggressive destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, the Russian leadership has slammed that door shut. It has chosen the role of pariah rather than partner, and in doing so it has undermined the long-term security architecture of Europe.
The tactics that President Putin has adopted—from covert disruption to the first deployment of deniable irregulars and unbadged Russian military personnel to capture sites in Crimea, through to the transfer of heavy weapons and equipment to Ukrainian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk, and now, more recently, the deployment of formed Russian military units on to Ukrainian soil—reflect a pattern that we have seen elsewhere. However much it is denied, Russia’s direct responsibility for the situation in eastern Ukraine is undeniable.
On 17 July, the irresponsibility of Russia’s behaviour reached its terrible apotheosis, with the shooting down, from separatist-controlled territory with a Russian ground-to-air missile, of flight MH17, with the loss of 298 totally innocent lives. Their blood is on the hands of Russia’s leaders.
The Government, together with our international partners, have been clear from the start: whatever the provocation, there can be no purely military solution to this crisis. The solution must be political, based on negotiations between Moscow and Kiev but upholding the fundamental principles of respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and of the right of the Ukrainian people to decide their own future. There can be no Russian veto on democracy in Ukraine.
The international community has a clear role to play by exerting the greatest possible pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian soil, cease its support for the separatists and enable the restoration of security along the Ukraine-Russia border with effective international monitoring.
Russia has used asymmetric warfare to further its ends, exploiting the relative advantages of its ability to act quickly, decisively and without transparency. We must respond to that by using our relative advantages, most notably the enormously greater strength and resilience of our economies compared with Russia’s, with its terrible demography and its structural over-dependence on oil and gas exports.
The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to leverage that economic strength through the imposing of far-reaching economic sanctions. As the Prime Minister announced to the House on Monday, the latest European Union sanctions, building on the previous measures, will make it harder for Russian banks and energy and defence companies to borrow money; prohibit the provision of services for the exploration of shale, deep water and Arctic oil; and widen the ban on dual-use goods such as machinery and computer equipment. Additionally, a new list of individuals to be included on sanctions lists has been agreed, including the new separatist leadership in Donbass, the Government of Crimea and key Russian decision makers and oligarchs.
The situation in Ukraine has caused considerable consternation and concern among our eastern European NATO partners. I am sure that during his speech my right hon. Friend will reaffirm our commitments to them under our NATO obligations, but what is he doing specifically to encourage NATO partners such as Lithuania which are spending less than half the prerequisite 2% of GDP that they ought to be in these circumstances?
I will come in a moment to the measures we are taking to support eastern partners, but my hon. Friend will know that Lithuania, along with all the other 27 NATO members, signed up to the defence spending commitment at last week’s NATO summit. That was a huge triumph for British diplomacy.
Does the Foreign Secretary believe that a man who spent 16 years rising to the top of the KGB and who is currently the President of Russia will be deterred by economic sanctions when it is clear that Russia has territorial ambitions, as we have seen elsewhere in Europe?
These sanctions are having an effect: they are exacerbating an already negative trend in Russia’s economy. Russia’s economy shrank by 0.5% in the first quarter of this year. Its largest bank has downgraded forecasts of growth from 2.3% to 0.2%. Russian sovereign bonds have been downgraded to one notch above junk bond status, and capital flight is continuing, with an estimate that it could reach £80 billion. Although I understand absolutely the hon. Gentleman’s question and his attempt, quite rightly, to analyse the emotional side of Mr Putin’s approach, he will not be able to be blind to the impact these sanctions are having on Russia’s economy.
We have also supported NATO measures to reassure our eastern allies who feel most exposed to Russian pressure, including through the provision of RAF jets to undertake an air policing role in the Baltic area. We are clear about the collective security guarantee that NATO offers to our eastern NATO partners, and Mr Putin should be clear about that, too.
The engagement of article 5, which eastern partners would, of course, be perfectly entitled to seek if they felt they were subject to threats, can elicit a response at various different levels. It does not have to involve full-scale armed conflict. The response would have to be proportionate. Although this is in its infancy, there is growing recognition that, in a much more complicated world in which cyber-warfare will have a very large role to play in any future conflict, we need to work out how we would respond proportionately and effectively to any given type of attack.
I must make a little more progress.
We welcome the ceasefire that has been announced between Russia and Ukraine, but, as we agreed with President Poroshenko and key allies at the NATO summit, there must be a proper peace plan that ensures that Russia respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereign rights—and it has to be delivered, not just written down. Our position remains that flagrant violation of international norms and law will bring long-term costs for Russia, its economy and its standing in the world.
Understandably, the ISIL challenge and the situation in Ukraine have dominated the agenda for the past few weeks, but we are also confronted by a sharp deterioration in the situation in Libya, as rival factions battle for control of Tripoli and the disparate groupings that have been a feature of the violence in Libya have started to coalesce into two main groups. The deterioration of the security situation has required the evacuation of hundreds of British nationals and the relocation of our embassy and staff to Tunis. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Royal Navy for its excellent work in extracting British nationals to Malta, and to thank publicly the Republic of Korea, which evacuated 47 British nationals on a Korean warship that was in the area.
Finally, I want to turn to the perennial problem of Israel, Gaza and the middle east peace process. Ending the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and seeing a responsible, viable and independent Palestinian state that respects the rights and security concerns of Israel taking its place among the family of nations would be a major step towards restoring stability throughout the region.
Throughout the summer, in my meetings and phone calls with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Abbas, President al-Sisi and others, I have supported the Egyptian-led talks in Cairo as being the best way to bring a rapid end to the violence, and we warmly welcome the agreement that was reached in Cairo on 26 August, which has, at last, led to a ceasefire that has held. It is now vital that negotiations resume and rapidly agree some practical, deliverable and confidence-building first steps to improve the situation for ordinary Palestinians in Gaza at the same time as reassuring Israel that there will be no further rocket fire against Israeli civilians and no rebuilding of military infrastructure inside Gaza.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that President Abbas now deserves the opportunity to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that the peaceful path towards statehood, not just the rockets of Hamas, can bring dividends? He needs the opportunity, through diplomatic support, to make the same kind of progress that, unfortunately, Hamas can now demonstrate that it has made in having the blockade on Gaza modified.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall come to the point about the involvement of the Palestinian Authority in a moment.
The steps we need to take must include measures that will pave the way for the Palestinian Authority to resume control of Gaza and restore effective and accountable governance, which will allow the progressive easing of Israeli security restrictions on Gaza and, in turn, allow the Gazan economy to grow.
Both the Prime Minister and I have expressed our grave concern at the level of civilian casualties and the scale of human suffering in Gaza during the recent violence, but we have also been clear that the indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets from Gaza into civilian areas of Israel by Hamas was a clear breach of international humanitarian law, and that by launching attacks from densely populated civilian areas—in some cases, from sensitive buildings, such as mosques and schools—Hamas bears a direct responsibility for the appalling loss of civilian lives. We have been equally clear that Israel has a right to defend itself against attack, but that in doing so it, too, must act in accordance with international law with regard to proportionality and the avoidance of unnecessary civilian casualties.
In the light of what the Foreign Secretary has just said, will he please explain why the British Government abstained at the United Nations Human Rights Council on its official call for an investigation into war crimes that have occurred there? Could he not express some regret about Britain’s close military relationship with Israel, which has indeed helped it to kill more than 2,000 people in Gaza during the recent siege?
The hon. Gentleman’s last allegation is regrettable and completely inaccurate. We have looked very carefully at the nature of the matériel and equipment supplied to the Israelis, and we are confident that very little of what we supplied could in any way have been used in equipment deployed during this operation in Gaza.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, we chose to abstain on the resolution, along with all our European Union partners, because it was not worded in an even-handed and open way. It was not aimed at getting to the truth of what happened in Gaza, and it was not targeted at possible wrongdoing by both sides. It was heavily lopsided, and made a political point, rather than seeking to get to the bottom of what actually took place. I would, however, say to him that we are clear that, in due course, there must be a proper inquiry into what went on. I shall return to that in a moment.
I will give way again in a moment, but let me conclude this point.
In due course, a resolution of the immediately pressing issues in Gaza and a resumption of Palestinian Authority control in the strip must be steps towards the wider middle east peace process leading to a two-state solution. However, for the negotiations to have the best possible chance of success, both sides need to resist domestic pressures to take actions that could jeopardise the prospects of long-term peace. That is why we deplore the Israeli Government’s provocative decision to expropriate 988 acres of land near Bethlehem. We have unequivocally condemned that move, and we will continue to press the Government of Israel to reverse that decision. The UK’s position on settlements is clear: they are illegal under international law; they present an obstacle to peace; and they take us further away from a viable two-state solution.
I am very pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary condemn the Israeli action, but does he still not see that from the outside it looks as if the British Government are guilty of double standards? When Israel makes a land grab of this type, yes we have some harsh words, but nothing else follows; if Putin does something in Ukraine, things follow much more dramatically. I do not want to see such things, but I do want to see an end to double standards.
I think that the hon. Lady is being a little harsh. The reality is that in the Israel-Palestine conflict, we have a deeply entrenched and largely intractable challenge, which has defeated many people who have tried to solve it over many years. We have to make progress on this issue, but we are not going to make it by wagging fingers; we have to make it by engagement. The situation in Ukraine is different, with a clear violation of the hitherto well-observed principle of international law that we do not resolve border disputes in Europe by force of arms. The fact that Russia has breached that principle has put at risk the whole edifice of European security that has served us so well for many years.
I have been very forward-leaning in saying to my Israeli interlocutors—not only about the policy of settlements, but about the scale of the civilian casualties that occurred in Gaza—that whatever the rights and wrongs and whatever the position in international law when the analysis is done, Israel runs a serious risk of losing the sympathy for it that existed when it came under attack by Hamas rockets earlier this summer. Israel needs to think about its long-term best interests, not just about the short-term reactions that it can deliver. I started this section of my speech by saying that if we are to make progress, both sides need to resist the temptation to react to short-term provocations and to play to domestic audiences. Both sides need to think about the long-term best interests of both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people.
I am coming to the end of my speech, and I know that many hon. Members want to participate in the debate.
The stability of the international order is at risk. Our values and principles—freedom, democracy and the rule of law—are coming under sustained attack, and our homeland security is under threat. Our resolve to meet these multiple challenges is being put to the test. The Government are clear that we cannot shirk our responsibilities in the world. If violations of international norms are allowed to go unchallenged and the spread of terrorist organisations with violent and extremist ideologies is allowed to go unchecked, the future prospects for our own national security and that of the friends and partners who share our values will only get worse.
In standing up to Russian aggression, we must continue to send the clear message to President Putin that his behaviour will not be tolerated, and that the end result will be a weaker, not a stronger Russia. In tackling the terrorist threat from ISIL and in supporting the newly formed Government of Iraq, we must be prepared to use all the means at our disposal to reverse ISIL’s advance, to deny its objectives and to defend ourselves at home. In supporting the resolution of the conflict between Israel and Hamas and ultimately the advance of the middle east peace process, we must be clear with both sides that only a negotiated political settlement can deliver the security guarantees that Israel needs and the viable state that the Palestinian people deserve.
In the face of these multiple threats to our security and our interests, I have no doubt that the British people will rise to the challenge and show the resolve, the courage and the determination that have defined our nation for hundreds of years.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for the remarks with which he opened the debate. This is our first exchange on the Floor of the House since his appointment, so may I take this opportunity to warmly welcome him and the Secretary of State for Defence to their vital roles for our country? The Foreign Secretary comes to the post to help us navigate a time of very real risks and rising uncertainties for the United Kingdom. In these difficult times, I know that the whole House will wish him well in carrying out his duties in the months ahead.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that Members from all parts of the House have been calling on the Government to grant a full day’s debate on foreign affairs. I welcome the opportunity to discuss Ukraine, the middle east, north Africa and security today. This debate undoubtedly takes place at a time of significant global upheaval and significant challenge for the United Kingdom. The conflicts in the middle east and north Africa, the threat of ISIL, the destabilisation of eastern Europe by Russia and the new challenges facing NATO have created a palpable anxiety that the future may be less certain than many in the west had previously anticipated.
Given the scale and the pace of change, any Government must seek to approach the challenges with appropriate humility. However, as I and others across the House have argued, that must not give way to passivity in international affairs. For Britain to retreat from the world would be as foolish as it would be futile. Growing interdependence and the rise of cross-border threats mean that co-operating and collaborating with international partners is more vital in promoting our national interests than ever before. Today, the alliances that have helped to keep half a century of peace in Europe—the transatlantic bond, NATO and our co-operation with EU allies—are essential to Britain’s security and prosperity, perhaps more so than for many years.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the middle east. That region is experiencing some of the darkest days of its tumultuous and violent history. The Arab uprisings that began in December 2010 fleetingly seemed to herald a new beginning, yet they precipitated a period of unprecedented turmoil in Syria, Egypt and Libya, the spill-over effect of which has brought to the fore historical sectarian and religious tensions across the region.
ISIL is the latest and possibly the most brutal manifestation of this period of regional upheaval. Labour is clear that that threat cannot and must not be ignored. It cannot be ignored, because of our sense of conscience towards those who immediately face ISIL’s terror, because ISIL threatens the democratic Iraqi state and seeks to establish a state—a caliphate—of its own, and because of the danger that the export of ISIL’s ideology causes here in the United Kingdom.
The discussions at last week’s NATO summit highlighted the need to build the widest possible consensus in the pursuit of any strategy to combat ISIL. As the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, embarks on his tour of regional capitals today, it is clear that a broad partnership across the region, alongside a genuinely multilateral political, diplomatic and humanitarian alliance, is vital as we chart a way ahead.
Of course, any international strategy for combating ISIL in Iraq must ultimately be led by Baghdad. The formation of the new Iraqi Government this week was a much needed step forward. Prime Minister Abadi has a duty to his citizens and a responsibility in his Government to advance a more inclusive power-sharing form of working within the capital of Iraq—a subject about which there has already been some discussion on the Floor of the House. The progress that has been made so far shows that there is the possibility of further progress. With crucial posts such as Defence Secretary still to be filled, there is more that can and must be done to establish an inclusive Government who can earn the critical trust of Sunnis and Kurds across Iraq.
The threat that ISIL poses stretches across borders, so a strategy for combating ISIL cannot be confined within the borders of Iraq.
Would the right hon. Gentleman like to define what an inclusive Government in Baghdad would look like? What kind of offer needs to be made to the Sunni people in terms of autonomy, who should be in the Cabinet, and how would he judge whether the Government are or are not inclusive?
In asking his question, the hon. Gentleman anticipates my answer, which is that, frankly, it is not for the shadow Foreign Secretary to make that judgment. The critical judgment will be that of the Sunni community within Iraq. It is vital that there is a dialogue ahead of appointment, so that we do not have a situation in which those outside Iraq presume that a degree of unity has been achieved but, alas, it proves to be illusive within the country. The point that he makes is fair, but it only reinforces the vitality of there being inclusivity preceding the appointment, rather than assertions of inclusivity after the appointment.
The shadow Foreign Secretary says that it is not the role of the international community to intervene in who comes to office and what position they take, but surely he agrees that the international community has a role in ensuring that another Government like Mr Maliki’s do not come to power. If that happens, the international community must dissociate itself at an earlier stage. If it had done so with Mr Maliki’s Government, we might not have the problem that we now have of international terrorism in Iraq.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about former Prime Minister Maliki. I had the opportunity to speak to President Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government a matter of weeks ago by video conference. He could not have been clearer about the destructive effect of the sectarian approach that was taken by the Maliki Government, both in corrupting the chain of command in the Iraqi army and destabilising the politics of the country. Our friends and colleagues in the United States were entirely right in holding out the need for Maliki to go, given the profound damage that he did to the fabric of society and the process of governance in Iraq. The challenge, however, is not to look backwards, but to look forwards to see whether the new Prime Minister is in a position to make the progress that many of us wish Maliki had been able to make.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) is making, and with which many of us agree, is that the Government and the Opposition seem to have an unachievable aim. It is slightly ironic that we are offering devo-max after 300 years of union, while at the same time we think there can be a unified Iraq, even though it has a Kurdish state that has its own Prime Minister, President and armed forces; the Saudis are not content to allow Iran to dominate the country; and the Iranians do not want 10 million barrels of oil a day to be pumped from a unified Iraq. That seems to be an unrealistic aim on the basis of which to have UK air strikes.
It ill behoves the hon. Gentleman to suggest that there is any meaningful comparison between what we are witnessing in Scotland and what is taking place in Iraq. When he has had the opportunity to reflect on the wisdom and sense of the remarks that he has made, I hope he will think again. There are unique and specific challenges facing Iraq that are wholly different from those we are facing in the United Kingdom. They reflect the particular circumstances of that country and the challenges that it faces today. If his point is that we need to find a way for a more inclusive approach to be taken to the politics within Iraq, I think we can agree with each other. I am not sure that I can go much further than that.
Perhaps I could try to clarify the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay). Is not the issue in Iraq that in large areas of the country, people do not accept the state or the democratic system because they do not think that it speaks to them and they do not think that there is a peaceful means of change? How will we persuade them that there is a peaceful, democratic answer?
Again, I think that the question is revealing. It is not for us in the House of Commons or in the west to persuade those people; it is for the politics of Iraq to move in the direction that we on both sides of the House wish it to move in. That places a premium on domestic, political leadership. It is deeply regrettable that Prime Minister Maliki succumbed to the forces of division, rather than showing the kind of leadership that we all wanted to see and creating unity. However, that is not a test for the Opposition or even for our Government; it is primarily a test for the Government in Baghdad. I sincerely hope that they will show themselves capable of rising to that test in the months ahead.
On Syria, no one would deny that there were differences of opinion across the House on the proposed military action to target President Assad’s chemical weapons facilities 12 months ago. However, even those who supported military action accept that the decision that was before the House a year ago in August was not a choice between ending or prolonging the conflict. It is the continuation of the conflict, rather than the form it has taken, that has allowed Syrian territory to be used as a training and recruiting base for ISIL. That is why the Opposition have argued that the priority for the international community must be to refocus attention on achieving a transitional agreement in Syria of the type that was anticipated in the Geneva II process. That is the only way to facilitate a more co-ordinated Syrian front that is dedicated to combating the threat of ISIL within the sovereign territory of Syria.
Humanitarian support for the countries affected by the turmoil in Iraq and Syria is vital. I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will address the Opposition’s calls for a more comprehensive package of support for Jordan—a country that has one of the longest land borders with Iraqi ISIL-held territory and an even longer border with Syria in the north.
I think all of us in the House agree that when it comes to ISIS and Iraq, the solution has to be political. On the military options, does the shadow Foreign Secretary accept that airstrikes alone will not defeat ISIS? Ground troops are required, but they should not be western troops. They should be local forces, and the elephant in the room is the Iraqi army itself.
I travelled down for this debate from Scotland, where I have been otherwise occupied, and had the great pleasure of reading the exchange between the hon. Gentleman and the Foreign Secretary on exactly that matter. I found myself in agreement with the point that the Foreign Secretary made before the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. Of course airstrikes have a role to play as part of the unique military capabilities of the United States, and they have been deployed in Iraq in particular, but that alone is not an adequate response to the scale and threat of the ISIL challenge that we are now witnessing. That is why I stand behind the process that Secretary of State Kerry has initiated, coming out of the NATO summit in Newport. I welcome the fact that he is in the region at the moment talking to those in regional capitals, and I hope to develop a little more of my theme on the matter in the coming moments.
Let me make a little progress, then I will be happy to take some more interventions.
The rise of ISIL has now created a threat so extreme that it is apparently uniting previous adversaries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, neither of which has an interest in allowing it to succeed. Last week’s agreement by Arab League leaders to unite against ISIL is a hopeful sign of progress in the region, which as we have heard is too often divided along sectarian, ethnic and religious lines. That relates to the point that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) made. We support the decision of our friends and colleagues in France to convene an international conference on Iraq on 15 September, but as a permanent member of the Security Council and its current chair, we believe that the United Kingdom can and should do more to co-ordinate the efforts of key regional allies, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as to engage with Iran. So far, the Prime Minister has hinted at Iranian involvement but given no commitment to facilitate that where appropriate. I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will give us a little more clarity about what discussions are under way in relation to Iran.
It seems clear from recent statements that the UK Government are still formulating their approach to the threat of ISIL. Obviously they are not alone in that endeavour, given recent and anticipated statements by the US President. Although any strategy for dealing with ISIL will by definition be long-term, that is not an excuse for long-term delay in setting it out. Of course there is a need for operational discretion, but diplomatic and political alliances can be effectively built only on the basis of open and frank discussions about aims and objectives in the days and weeks ahead. I therefore hope that further clarity will be provided.
The shadow Foreign Secretary calls for clarity in the weeks and months that lie ahead. If Her Majesty’s Government were to decide that air strikes against Iraq, or parts of Iraq, became the right thing to do, and if they were—wrongly in my view—to come to the House and ask for a vote on the matter, would the Labour party support the Government?
First, I do not think it is under contemplation that there would be air strikes against Iraq. If there were air strikes, they would be against ISIL. We have made it clear on many occasions that we would reach a judgment on the basis of any motion brought before the House. That was the position that we took in relation to Libya a couple of years ago and in relation to the vote on chemical weapons in Syria in the House a year ago in August. It is for the Government to set out their thinking and for the Opposition to reach a judgment.
The shadow Foreign Secretary knows that the United States has been engaged in air strikes—there have been about 130—and that the Kurds have warmly welcomed the contribution that those air strikes have made to blunting the advance of ISIL. To return to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) asked, if it were put to the right hon. Gentleman today that the United Kingdom should join the United States in those air strikes, would the Labour party support that?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, no such request has been made. America has unique military capabilities, and we have supported the Government in their support of those US air strikes, which are at the specific request of the Iraqi Government. I am rightly not privy to all conversations between the British and Iraqi Governments, but my understanding is that no such request has been made to the British Government for air strikes against ISIL. We have supported the understanding that was set out in relation to the humanitarian mission and the use of Tornadoes for reconnaissance capabilities, first at Mount Sinjar and then more broadly. We have also strongly supported the arming of the peshmerga. I am glad to say that we have been able to take a genuinely bipartisan approach, and it ill behoves the hon. Gentleman either to suggest that a request has been made, when none has yet been forthcoming, or to anticipate particular circumstances. It is reasonable that we would be expected to cast our judgment on the basis of the circumstances at the time and the nature of the request issued.
I have been generous in taking a couple of interventions on this point, and I am keen to make a little progress.
The past seven weeks in Gaza and Israel have been the deadliest for years in an area already scarred by the tragic pattern of conflict. Today, the hopes of millions hinge on the willingness of all sides to uphold the latest, and hopefully lasting, Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. The Opposition opposed the Israel incursion into Gaza. When it began, we warned from the Dispatch Box that further escalation of the conflict would be a disaster for the people of both Gaza and Israel and a strategic error for Israel.
We have all seen this deadly pattern of violence too many times before. Five years ago, after an earlier conflict in Gaza, I walked amidst the rubble of what had been a Palestinian family’s home. As a father myself, I will never forget the father showing me tearfully where his children had been killed. The death toll caused by three weeks of intense and bloody fighting shocked and outraged many around the world. Such fighting goes on to define a generation, I fear; it makes enemies out of neighbours. Since the conflict began in July, more than 2,200 Palestinians have lost their lives, the vast majority of them innocent civilians. Of course the conflict must not be reduced simply to a ledger of casualties, but the scale of suffering in Gaza today must be fully and frankly acknowledged, because the life of a Palestinian child is worth no less than the life of an Israeli child.
Today, out of the rubble of Gaza, the death and destruction that followed the Israeli military incursion will be there for the world to see. Many people have been forced from their homes and more than 350,000 are thought to be sheltering in emergency accommodation. Many now have no home to return to, so the priority must be getting vital humanitarian resources into Gaza to help those in desperate need. I welcome the Government’s assurances on the UK’s bilateral support, and it is vital that the planned Palestinian donor conference, now scheduled for 12 October, does not face further delays.
Palestinian poverty cannot continue to be Israel’s de facto strategy for security. An end to the fighting, although of course welcome, must not be an excuse for a return to the status quo of terror, occupation and blockade. The whole House will feel real regret that instead of seizing the initiative to move forward, Israel has given the international community renewed cause for concern. The recent Israeli annexation of land in the west bank must be forthrightly condemned. It is a serious setback at a perilous time, and the Israeli Government must reverse that decision. Israel’s own Finance Minister has said that the decision harms Israel, and he is right.
In Israel, the death of 64 soldiers and three civilians has scarred a society already traumatised by the cost of conflict. No one should question Israel’s right to defend itself, but we all have a duty to raise questions about the wisdom, morality and legality of the force that is used. There can be no military solution to the conflict, either now or in the future. Only a wider political agreement to end the violence will provide the longer-term security that civilians on all sides crave. Of course, we unequivocally condemn the rocket attacks on civilian populations in Israel. There can be no justification for the conduct of Hamas and other organisations operating out of Gaza, but ultimately only a political agreement to end the violence will provide that longer-term security.
Today, the risk is a return to a period of no peace and no process. After the fighting has stopped, we all hope that talks will begin, but peace will come only when all sides accept that talks are not simply the things that happen in between renewed bouts of the conflict. Talks are about bringing a meaningful end to the cycle of violence, which is why I hope the British Government will continue their efforts to support meaningful attempts to secure a negotiated solution.
I wholly support the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks that we need a political settlement of the Gaza-Israeli dispute. Does he agree that the Israelis risk losing international sympathy if they carry on building settlements and seizing land, which is contrary to international law and unacceptable?
One of the profound challenges facing the state of Israel is to recognise that in responding to its immediate security challenges in the region, it risks losing standing and authority in the international community. A younger generation of citizens in the United Kingdom have no memory of the experience of the Israeli state after 1948, when it was periodically threatened by invasion from powerful neighbours. Instead, they have seen in recent conflicts the overwhelming use of military force by the Israel defence forces, which shapes and affects their view of the conflict.
It is important for the Israeli Government to recognise that statehood for the Palestinians is not a gift to be given, but a right to be recognised. It is not simply that Israeli settlements on occupied territory lands are illegal under international law, it is that it is simply wrong to build on other people’s lands. That is why the most recent initiative is so wholly unacceptable, both because of the reality that Israel is building once more on other people’s land, with that land being occupied for military purposes, and because of the symbol that it sends about the seriousness of the Israeli Government to try to make meaningful progress on a negotiated solution. We must break the pattern of periodic conflict, permanent blockade, and episodic attempts at talks. In that sense, of course there is a heavy burden of responsibility on the Palestinians, but there is also a very heavy burden of responsibility on the Israeli Government. My genuine fear is that this latest step in settlement building will be interpreted as being far from positive as to the sincerity of the Israeli Government’s efforts in that regard.
My right hon. Friend heard the Foreign Secretary say that simply wagging fingers would not contribute to meaningful peace in the middle east. Will he say what UK stance, either bilaterally or with our partners, could make any higher diplomatic or political case than wagging our finger?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. How does one effectively seek to influence the conduct of the Israeli Government? One truth that we in this House must confront is that Prime Minister Netanyahu—many of us have had concerns about specific actions he has taken—is probably more popular 10 years after taking office than when he first assumed it. The test for me is not, “Can we make headlines?”, but “Can we make a difference?”, and the test of that is whether actions taken in the United Kingdom, or at European level, strengthen the forces of progress in Israeli society, or strengthen the forces of reaction.
I fully understand the depth of feeling among many Opposition Members about the urgency of finding meaningful ways to influence Israel, and for it to adopt an approach that many of us believe better suited to its long-term interests. But in reality, if we were to take actions that strengthened a narrative in Israeli society that somehow the whole world is against them, that the only people they can trust to defend them are the IDF, and that they can have no security reliant on international agreements but must instead look only to themselves, I fear that far from that leading to the progress we all sincerely want, we would get a further reinforcement of the pattern of destruction and blockade that we have seen over recent years. I am conscious of the anger, urgency and frustration that so many people on both sides of this House feel about making progress, but our challenge is about what can make a difference given the discourse in Israeli society, the balance of forces in the Knesset, and the views previously taken by the Israeli Government.
During the crisis of the last six weeks or so, American arms have continued to flow to Israel, the EU-Israel trade agreement continued unabated, and Britain, while not exporting a vast amount of equipment to Israel, has continued a military relationship with it. Does my right hon. Friend think that at the very least we should be supporting an investigation into war crimes and suspending military co-operation with Israel while that is going on?
We took a different position to the Government on the export of arms—once they managed to sort out what their position was—by saying that no arms should be exported during this conflict, and certainly that no arms should be exported where there were reasonable concerns that the consolidated criteria were not being adhered to by the end user, which in this case was the state of Israel. Of course any allegations of war crimes that are brought to the attention of the United Nations, and others, should be investigated.
On my hon. Friend’s substantive point, the nature of the military relationship between the United Kingdom and Israel is profoundly different to the relationship between the United States and Israel. It is important to nail the misperception that somehow the sustained military aid provided by the United States Government to the state of Israel, based on their long-standing strategic alliance, is comparable in a meaningful way to the export of arms to Israel under tightly drawn consolidated criteria and on a commercial basis by arms manufacturers in the United Kingdom.
When I was Secretary of State for International Development under the