House of Commons
Tuesday 28 October 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Nuclear Weapons (Vienna Conference)
The Government have received an invitation to the conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons to be held in Vienna in December. We are considering whether to attend.
I urge the Government to attend the conference and to join the family of nations around the world that supported the previous conferences. One hundred and twenty-eight nations attended the 2013 conference in Norway, 145 went to Mexico earlier this year and the New Zealand Government, on behalf of 155 nations, have urged universal attendance at this conference. They have drawn attention to the first ever resolution that was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1946, which drew attention to the devastating effects of nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare on humanity as a whole. Britain should be there and should not boycott it, as it will apparently do along with the other five permanent members of the Security Council.
The House will be aware of the hon. Gentleman’s consistent views on this subject. The goals of the conference are unclear and, consequently, none of the P5 nuclear weapon states has attended the conferences in the past, as he said. We do not believe that a ban on nuclear weapons is negotiable, nor that it would even be observed by many nuclear powers. Even if it could be achieved in theory, in practice the confidence and verification measures that would be necessary to make it effective are not in place.
The House is, as ever, grateful for my hon. Friend’s interest and expertise in this matter. The Government’s policy is that the Vanguard class submarine will be replaced at the end of its life in the late-2020s by the successor strategic submarine, which will carry the Trident missiles, subject to main-gate investment approval for the programme in 2016. I know that he will approve of that.
The last conference was attended by more than 140 states and by the United Nations, the Red Crescent and representatives of civil society. What message does it send to the rest of the world and to rogue regimes that seek to have nuclear weapons that the UK is prepared to boycott such a conference? The Minister went to school in Vienna. Why does he not take the opportunity to go back and take part in the conference?
As I said, the objectives of the conference are unclear. That is why the P5 nations have not attended in the past. The hon. Gentleman suggests that we are doing nothing. We have reduced the number of nuclear warheads that we possess by well over 50% since the peak of the cold war. In 2010, this Government announced further reductions to have no more than 120 operationally available warheads and a total stockpile of no more than 180 warheads by the mid-2020s. That is action, which is what the Government need to pursue.
Religious Minorities (Algeria)
We regularly discuss human rights with the Algerian Government, although we have not raised religious freedoms specifically. Human rights will be on the agenda for the next meeting of the EU-Algeria political dialogue.
I thank the Minister for his answer, although I am disappointed that religious persecution has not been raised with the Algerian Government. What advice is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office giving to colleagues in the immigration service to ensure that they are fully equipped to offer good advice and support to people from Algeria and north Africa more generally who apply for asylum on the basis of religious persecution?
I certainly will raise the matter with my Algerian counterparts. The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. She will be aware that regulations governing religion in Algeria came into force in May 2007. They are designed to be multi-faith and not to focus on one particular religion. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the matter in more detail.
The atmosphere in which religious discrimination takes place is affected by other issues in a country, including economic pressures and the like. Does my hon. Friend think that the recent successful elections in Tunisia will ease the atmosphere in respect of persecution across the area more generally? Does he also think that economic development in the area, which is necessary for justice to prevail, is getting a boost from our work in Algeria?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, and Tunisia is to be congratulated on the considerable progress it has made. It has just completed parliamentary elections, and presidential elections will follow in November, replacing the technocratic Government who have guided the country on its transition towards its new status as a fully fledged democracy. I very much welcome those changes: strong civil society, national dialogue, an apolitical army, and new progress towards a constitution.
Religious intolerance and persecution is a problem throughout the world. What will the Government do to raise that issue with the Human Rights Council next year, and what does the Minister think the United Nations can do now to tackle the problem?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the issue is raised at the United Nations General Assembly and in our bilaterals. Britain will continue to raise the issue on a regular basis at all our meetings, not just those in the middle east but also with other countries where there are questions to be asked in that area.
What is the Minister doing for my constituents who have complained not only about the treatment of Christians in Algeria but also about the increasing pressure on Christians in Pakistan? What are we doing to monitor that, and what will we do about it?
As I said, we are having bilaterals on that issue. The specific issue in Algeria is to do with new regulations that have been introduced. The rules are there but they now need to be implemented, and we will continue to have a dialogue on that. I intend to visit Algeria soon, and given the concern that the House has expressed today, I will certainly raise that issue during my visit.
The independent feasibility study on resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory is on track to report by January 2015. Ongoing consultations with interested parties, including Chagossians, are taking place so that all relevant facts are considered in the analysis of the practical costs and risks of resettlement.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given upcoming negotiations on extending the military base on Diego Garcia with the United States, may I have assurances from the Department that the interests of the Chagos islands people will be very much part of those discussions with Washington?
That is precisely why we have commissioned the KPMG report. The way that the Chagossians were treated following their removal in the ’60s and ’70s was clearly wrong, and substantial compensation was rightly paid. We welcome the US presence in Diego Garcia. It is an increasingly important asset for both our Governments, but there have been no formal discussions with the US about the possibility of extending the exchange of notes to date.
I met 60 members of the Chagos community in my constituency on Friday—a faithful people but as they do not have the right to return they once again feel that will not adequately mourn their dead as they approach All Hallows next week. Their elders are passing away without having recorded their stories of displacement, and their young are finding it increasingly difficult to find salaried employment or to visit their friends in Crawley and other places across the country. They also worry about us ceding sovereignty. Does the Minister agree that we should be doing more for those people, rather than less?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no issues of any sort about ceding sovereignty—we should deal with that point straight away. The draft KPMG report, which we were not obliged to undertake, will be out on 17 November, and thereafter there will be time for all those who have been consulted to make such points before the final report early next year. That is why we have included the Chagossians in the testimony.[Official Report, 3 November 2014, Vol. 587, c. 5-6MC.]
A previous Father of the House and great friend of mine, Sir Bernard Braine, was a passionate advocate of the rights of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia when the whole idea of turning it into a base was launched. In his memory, may I say that I very much hope that the guarantees that he received from the British Government of the time about looking after those people will be fulfilled?
My right hon. Friend is right to remind the House of our responsibilities towards the Chagossians, and as I said earlier, the actions of the ’60s and ’70s were clearly wrong and substantial compensation was rightly paid. It is worth pointing out that the British High Court in 2008, and the European Court in 2012, ruled that the compensation was a full and final settlement of the Chagossians’ claims.
4. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Turkey. (905691)
Turkey is an important security partner for the UK in NATO and in actions against terrorism. She faces major challenges because of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and we value the Turkish humanitarian contribution and her support for coalition activities against ISIL.
I thank the Minister for that reply. The security situation in Turkey remains extraordinarily delicate. What support have the Government given to assist Turkey with those serious security concerns while also respecting the rights and freedoms of its citizens?
Only last week we held one of our regular discussions with the Turkish authorities about counter-terrorism co-operation. The subjects discussed included better work to detect explosive traces in material going through airports and how we can better share information about airline passengers to guard against future terrorist attack.
The Minister referred to Turkey’s role with regard to Syria. Does he agree that it is absolutely deplorable that the Turkish Government are not providing assistance to the besieged people of Kobane and the other Syrian Kurds facing an existential threat from ISIL? Turkey needs to get off the fence and to decide which side it is on. Is it with ISIL, or is it with the civilian population and the Kurds in Syria?
The Turkish Government have made it very clear that they are on the side of the coalition and against ISIL. They are now allowing Kurdish fighters to cross through Turkish territory to take part in the fighting around Kobane. It is also worth the hon. Gentleman bearing it in mind that Turkey is providing refuge to 1.5 million people who have fled the fighting in Iraq and Syria, and we ought to acknowledge that contribution too.
Turkey’s security interests with regard to Islamic State are absolutely engaged, as are those of the other two major regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. If those three countries can be got to agree a political strategy towards Islamic State, we will begin to have a sensible military strategy to underpin it. What work is going on to get those three countries to discuss that seriously?
There was a coalition meeting of Ministers in the margins of the recent NATO ministerial meeting at which that political discussion was taken forward. Clearly, we would welcome it unreservedly if it were possible to rally all the regional powers towards a united effort to defeat ISIL and to see the Iraqi Government, the legitimate authorities, re-establish control over all their territory.
For four years, I have noticed that the Tory Con-Dem Government have very much been apologists for Turkey. The Prime Minister indicated that he wanted Turkey in the European Union. Here we are again, apologising, or at least this Front Bench is apologising, for Turkey’s failure to act in concert with the British and Americans. What is it that gets Tory Ministers so engaged in wanting to befriend Turkey and to get it into the EU?
The Government do not apologise for upholding the national interest of the United Kingdom by working closely with Turkey, which has been our NATO ally under Governments of different political colours over many decades. There are issues on which we disagree, in which case we make our views clear, but I hope that even the hon. Gentleman would welcome the work that the Turkish Government are doing to try to bring about a reconciliation with the Kurds—something we all want to see.
On 12 October, at the reconstruction conference in Cairo, the UK pledged £20 million to help kick-start Gaza’s recovery. It is essential that both sides take the necessary practical steps to allow reconstruction. Reconstruction of Gaza is necessary and urgent to get the economy back to business, but progress to a political settlement must follow quickly on its heels.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Many in the House were concerned about the impact on ordinary Palestinians during the 50-day conflict. Of particular concern was the bombing of the hospital in Gaza. Will he advise us what the Government are doing to help rebuild vital medical facilities in Gaza?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is deeply engaged in that question. As I have said, we have pledged £20 million and we will continue to work with the UN and other agencies, but we urgently require an unsticking of the process that allows construction materials into Gaza so that physical reconstruction can commence. When that process is under way, I am sure there will be significant further pledges of assistance on top of the billions of dollars already available to reconstruct Gaza as a result of the Cairo conference.
Have any arrangements been agreed to ensure that much-needed building materials for hospitals, schools and homes will not be diverted to rebuilding the terror tunnels, which Hamas claims it has started to do?
This is the essential challenge: ensuring that construction materials in the quantities needed can enter Gaza under a monitoring regime that is satisfactory to the Israelis as well as the Palestinians and that they are applied to the rebuilding of homes, schools, hospitals and infrastructure, and not diverted for military purposes. Such a mechanism is in place. There was a temporary glitch—hopefully—earlier this week in its operation, but officials are working flat out to try to resolve it. I hope we see major progress over the next few days.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while Hamas continues to rule Gaza with such brutality and to amass missiles—as we have heard, many of them are from Iran—the prospect of a viable and democratic Palestinian state looks ever more unlikely?
The challenge to the authority of the Palestinian Authority from what is happening in Gaza is an impediment to progress on a broader middle east peace settlement, but I am of the view that we must first bring humanitarian relief to Gaza, which means getting started urgently on reconstruction. We then need a sustained ceasefire and settlement around Gaza as a step to proceeding to a resumption of the wider middle east peace process. I hope for significant American leadership to revitalise that process over the coming weeks and months.
I agree with the Secretary of State that the urgent and pressing matter is the humanitarian and reconstruction needs currently faced by the people of Gaza. Is it a forlorn hope—can he give us some hope—for a political solution in the medium to long term that allows the security needs of the Israelis and the Israeli nation to be met at the same time as the lifting of the economic constrictions and the strangulation of Gaza? That has to be the way forward.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. All hon. Members would agree that the Gazan economy needs to be reactivated so that people can get back to something like life as normal. The stranglehold imposed by the access regime needs to be relaxed, but it can be relaxed only in the context of Israel feeling safe and secure.
The UK is providing £19 million of assistance to the Ukrainian Government. We are one of the largest contributors of election and border monitors, but most importantly, we are maintaining pressure on Russia through sanctions to withdraw troops, to cease support for separatists and to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine.
I am sure the House wishes President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk every possible success in resolving their dispute with Russia peacefully. I met the Prime Minister in the summer and he told me that his country was desperately short of resources and equipment. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to do whatever they can to help.
The Government have already made non-lethal equipment available to support the Ukrainian armed forces, and we are working with European Union partners to look at the needs of the Ukrainian economy over the coming winter. Ukraine faces a massive energy crunch over the next few months, and the Ukrainian economy is likely to have shrunk by more than 6.5% since before the conflict began. We are acutely aware—we discussed this at the Foreign Affairs Council last Monday in Luxembourg—of the fact that Ukraine is likely to be looking for further support from the EU this winter.
Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that the dismemberment of Ukraine stays at the forefront of everyone’s mind? Can he absolutely assure the House that there is no intention on our part of allowing this to slip down the agenda, thereby allowing the aggression to stand and the de facto creation of new Russia to become embedded?
The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. The big risk is of a frozen conflict and people’s attention turning elsewhere, and it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that some of our European partners are more robust on the agenda that he has set out than others. We are determined—and we have some powerful allies in the European Union—to maintain the pressure on Russia, including keeping sanctions in place, until Russia complies with its obligations under the Minsk agreement, in particular: the removal of Russian forces; the proper monitoring of the border between Ukraine and Russia, not the line of control between separatists and Ukraine forces; and an end to active Russian support for the separatists.
Last night I returned from Kharkiv, which, as my right hon. Friend knows, is just to the north of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. In Kharkiv on Sunday, the situation was calm, peaceful and orderly, and I suspect we will find that the results of the election will prove to be fair and a proper reflection of what the people of Ukraine want. That being so, will my right hon. Friend call the Russian ambassador in and tell him that it is wholly inappropriate for the Russian Foreign Minister to seek to promote unofficial elections in Donetsk and Luhansk?
Sunday’s elections were a clear demonstration of Ukraine’s commitment to democracy. We have made it clear, and the European Union again last week endorsed a collective position, that we will not recognise illegal elections organised by separatists. The only elections we will recognise are those organised by and operating under Ukrainian law.
It is good to be back on the Front Bench after a short absence. I thank hon. Members for their messages of good will, especially those from some Government Members who are somewhat fearful of their own party’s direction at the present time.
In our current debates about the European Union, we should not forget that its expansion to include former Warsaw pact countries was a victory for peace and democracy. It was a foreign policy victory for the west, championed by the Conservative Government at the time, and it means that war between member states is almost inconceivable. However, for countries outside the EU, such as Ukraine, it can be a very different story. Following the elections, what more can we do with our European partners to stop the further undermining of Ukrainian sovereignty and ensure that a newly elected Government there is free to choose its own path for the country’s future?
First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s return to his place on the Front Bench. We look forward to debating all these issues with him.
Of course the election on Sunday was important in underscoring the legitimacy of the Ukrainian Government. I have already set out our demands that the Russians comply with their obligations under the Minsk agreement—withdrawing their troops from Ukrainian territory, allowing proper monitoring of the border and ending their support to the separatists—but it goes further than that. It is about the more subtle forms of Russian control and influence over the Ukrainian economy and political system. We are working closely with President Poroshenko and his Government to ensure that Ukraine has a robust position in response to those forms of pressure. Although the European Union does not agree on all issues in relation to the Russia-Ukraine dispute, it is pretty much clear and unified in its view that Ukraine must be allowed to choose its own future free of external pressure.
Israel and Palestine
7. If he will encourage Israelis and Palestinians to participate in projects which bring them together and build a new generation of leaders committed to peace and dialogue. (905694)
11. Whether he has discussed with his Israeli counterpart the content of the debate in the House on 13 October 2014 on Palestine and Israel; what recent discussions he has had with his Israeli counterpart on the future of the peace process; and if he will make a statement. (905698)
Despite the tragic events during the summer, we remain committed to supporting efforts for peace. Our embassy in Tel Aviv and the British consulate general in Jerusalem work closely with all sectors of society, including the ultra-Orthodox communities, Israeli Arabs and Palestinian communities affected by the occupation, to build constituencies for peace.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but on an International Development Committee visit to the middle east earlier this year, it was noted that the conflict fund had insufficient funding to support groups that were promoting peace from both sides. I urge the Minister to expand the conflict fund pool and look again at organisations such as Cherish, Parents Circle and Middle East Education Through Technology, which are trying to get peace in the region.
Certainly, the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence are keen to receive strong applications for the conflict, stability and security fund—as the conflict fund is now called—for joint projects that bring Palestinians and Israelis together to achieve peace. This is the first time I have heard that there are issues to do with the funding. I will certainly look at it and write to the hon. Gentleman.
It is important to step up the work that the Minister outlined, because the only way to resolve this conflict is through a stable, two-state solution with security and peace for both Israel and Palestine. There is no legalistic, unilateral or bureaucratic route to that objective; it will be achieved only by getting Israelis and Palestinians working together to build trust, to compromise and to negotiate and by means of economic development and trade in the west bank and by the reconstruction and demilitarisation of Gaza.
The whole House would agree with the hon. Gentleman. I, too, had the opportunity to visit Gaza, Jerusalem, Israel and the occupied territories over the last few weeks. I was astonished by the amount of energy there and by the people who absolutely want to work together. One example of that is the UK-Israel tech hub, which is driving economic and technological collaboration between the UK and Israel. The hub is working with Israeli and Arab experts, including Palestinian, to support work and build partnerships in the quick-growing Arab internet sector.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to comments made last week by the Israeli deputy Defence Minister, Moshe Yalom, a Likud party MP and close ally of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He said about President Abbas:
“He is a partner for discussion; a partner for managing the conflict. I am not looking for a solution, I am looking for a way to manage the conflict and maintain relations in a way that works for our interests.”
Has the Foreign Secretary discussed those comments with Israeli officials?
We take on board the comments made, and it is interesting to note that on Yalom’s visit to the United States, no senior representation was there to meet him. That is perhaps a reflection of how out of sync those comments were. As the Foreign Secretary has reiterated, it is important that we focus on humanitarian efforts, which were discussed at the Gaza donor conference in Cairo, which I attended. Then we should see an immediate return to negotiations.
The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have condemned the building in the occupied territories. Such building certainly makes it more difficult for Israel’s friends to defend it against accusations that it is not taking the process for peace seriously. We very much encourage all sides to come to the table. I visited the E1 area on my recent visit, and it was clear what difficulties this building would cause in the conurbation between Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem. We discourage the building of any further settlements there.
Illegal settlements are not just about how to defend the Israeli Government. Surely, the result of such settlements is to put the possibility of a two-state solution further and further into the future, to the extent that it could be argued that such a solution has now been completely undermined. Does my hon. Friend accept that no leader of the Palestinians could accept a solution that, for example, made it impossible for a Palestinian state to have East Jerusalem as its capital?
The issues raised by such settlements are very serious indeed, but we must not allow them to deflect from the bigger issue of reaching an actual settlement. It is possible for land swaps to take place and, as my right hon. and learned Friend implies, what is happening is illegal under article 46 of The Hague regulations. However, we do not want people to be distracted by the settlements; we want them to come to the table and restart the negotiations.
Does the Minister agree that the key point is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to get round the negotiating table to discuss a two-state solution without preconditions, reflecting Israel’s security interests and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians?
My hon. Friend’s question illustrates the complexity of the situation. We do require leadership on both sides. From Israel we require a commitment to dialogue and to avoiding all actions that undermine prospects for peace, including settlement activity, while the Palestinian Authority must show leadership in recommitting itself to the dialogue and establishing itself as the authoritative voice in Gaza.
The Arab peace initiative could prove vital in assisting a move towards the essential two-state solution for Israel and the long-suffering Palestinian people. Does the Minister agree that in the light of yesterday’s welcome Tunisian election results, which were good news not only for the Tunisian people but for the wider Arab world, it is right for such regional initiatives to be considered as a matter of urgency?
I think that those are wise words. I have congratulated Tunisia on the journey it has made, bearing in mind that it was responsible for the very start of the Arab spring. It is a small ray of hope in a very complex area, and I hope that other nations will take a lead from it.
EU Sanctions (Russia)
8. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of EU sanctions against Russia in encouraging a change of approach by that country towards eastern Ukraine. (905695)
EU sanctions are having a clear impact on Russia’s economy. Capital flight has increased, and Russian access to western financial markets is severely constrained. Sanctions are estimated to have slowed GDP growth by 1%, and to have contributed to the rouble’s falling by 20% against the dollar since 1 January. The fall in the oil price is piling further pressure on the Russian economy.
The sanctions are robust. I think that the important relationship is between the dependence on Russian energy supplies and the robustness of the position of some of our partners on the question of maintaining those sanctions. Fortunately, the sanctions that are in place will last until March or May, depending on the type of sanction involved, before any opportunity arises to debate their renewal or otherwise. That means that, at the very least, we shall get through the winter with the sanctions in place.[Official Report, 3 November 2014, Vol. 587, c. 6MC.]
We hear that today, having apparently endorsed the main Ukrainian elections, Moscow has yet again reiterated its support for separate elections in Luhansk and Donetsk, thus undermining the peace process. Does the Foreign Secretary think that that should lead the European Union to review the level of sanctions that is appropriate, and, if necessary, enhance it?
24. Sanctions should be a means to a diplomatic end. These sanctions are clearly having an impact on the Russian economy, but will the Secretary of State update the House on what diplomatic reaction there has been from President Putin in the light of the pressure on his economy? (905711)
I do not think that the phrases “diplomatic reaction” and “President Putin” usually go hand in hand. There has certainly been a reaction from President Putin, but I am not sure whether it could be described as diplomatic.
Channels are open. The Germans, in particular, maintain a close dialogue with the Kremlin. I think that the Kremlin understands, and needs to understand, the determination of the European Union to stand firm, and the fact that Russia must honour its obligations under the Minsk agreement. There is nothing else to discuss at the moment.
The United Kingdom is part of a coalition of more than 60 countries supporting the Government of Iraq against ISIL, and RAF strikes are assisting Iraqi ground forces. A number of strategically important towns in the north have been liberated by the peshmerga, but the scale of the problem remains significant. The coalition’s air intervention has halted the rapid ISIL advance, but it alone is not capable of rolling back ISIL’s gains. Ultimately, the fight against ISIL in Iraq must be led by the Iraqis themselves, with the new Government ensuring that there is an inclusive and unified response.
The Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged that the air strikes are only one element of a wider political and military strategy, including support for the creation of a more representative Iraqi Government. Having just returned from Iraq with the Foreign Affairs Committee, I am aware of ongoing disputes between Irbil and Baghdad, which may well have a negative effect on the achievement of that aim. What progress does the Foreign Secretary think can be made, and what are the implications if the situation cannot be resolved?
There are still outstanding disputes between Irbil and Baghdad, but, if I may say so having been there two and a half weeks ago myself, the mood music between Irbil and Baghdad is much better now than it has been for months, probably years. Kurdish Ministers are now in Baghdad. There is a serious discussion going on about the division of oil revenues, which is one of the crucial outstanding issues. I told the House a week or so ago, and I repeat again today, that I am optimistic about relationships between Irbil and Baghdad at least in the medium term.
Important though air strikes are, of course alone they are not going to defeat ISIL. In his answer to the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) my right hon. Friend explained the political progress being made in Iraq. Will he update the House on how he sees the importance of political progress in Syria in also defeating ISIL?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the fullness of time, pushing ISIL back in Iraq, which is our first priority, will not be sufficient to defeat that organisation; there will have to be political progress in Syria as well. At the moment we are focused on ensuring the consolidation of the Syrian moderate opposition and the organisation of the additional training and equipping that the US Congress has now agreed to finance for Syrian moderate opposition fighters.
Speaking of the campaign against ISIL, the US director of national intelligence recently testified that the Syrian opposition is composed of at least 1,500 separate militias, and a recent US congressional report went further in claiming that the Free Syrian Army does not actually refer to any
“organised command and control structure with national reach”,
so can the Foreign Secretary set out whether the Government’s own scoping exercise that is under way is focused on the Free Syrian Army, or whether support for other opposition groups is being considered as part of this exercise?
We will be working closely with our American allies, and General John Allen in his newly appointed role will be the overall co-ordinator of this programme, but the Americans have made it very clear that while the Free Syrian Army will be part of this programme of training and equipping, the whole thing will not operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army; other organisations who are judged to be moderate and share our objectives will be able to participate.
But does the Secretary of State accept that in Syria it is going to be months, if not years, before the Syrian moderate opposition will be strong enough to push back the Islamic State terrorists in the north? Is there not a fundamental gap in international strategy, including that of the British Government, if that is what they are relying on to remove Islamic State in Syria?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right; it will take time—it will take time to train and organise the force that will be able to do this. In the meantime, we will use coalition air strikes to contain and degrade ISIL, but defeating it on the ground will take Syrian boots, and training those Syrian boots is going to take time.
During a visit by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to Iraq and Kurdistan last week we were told of the gratitude of the Iraqis and the Kurds towards the British Government for the help they are giving. We also saw the peshmerga being trained with the new weaponry that has been sent to Kurdistan, but they are taking enormous hits. They are very brave as we all know, but they are taking enormous hits and they need more weapons; that is the message they wanted us to get across.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and she will not be surprised to learn that I heard a very similar message when I was in Irbil a couple of weeks ago. The Prime Minister has appointed Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall as his security envoy to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Part of his task is to assess the needs of the peshmerga, and their abilities as well—there is no point giving them weapons they cannot maintain or use effectively. We have supplied them with some heavy calibre machine guns, which they are now deploying to good effect, but we are constantly open to suggestions from the peshmerga about any additional requirements they may have.
The point has just been made that the peshmerga are defending hundreds of miles of frontier with just rifles, and what they desperately need is equipment, equipment and equipment. To what extent is the Foreign Office liaising with our allies to make sure there is not a duplication of equipment and to enable us to supply the very important equipment the Peshmerga need?
There is co-ordination with allies. Part of the point of the US appointing General John Allen to act as a co-ordinator for the coalition is to ensure that we do these things efficiently and effectively. My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that the peshmerga are defending 1,000 km of frontier in what is effectively ISIL-controlled territory. They are doing that extraordinarily bravely, but there are still significant deficiencies in their weaponry, and we must look collectively at those and address them as rapidly as we can.
As I have just said, the Prime Minister has appointed Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall as his security envoy to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. At the request of the Government of Iraq, we have delivered over 300 tonnes of supplies to Irbil. This includes over 100 tonnes of weapons and equipment from the UK. We are instructing peshmerga soldiers on the operation of the heavy machine guns that we have delivered, as well as on counter-IED techniques.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he believe that more could be done by regional states to support the fight against ISIS by the peshmerga? Does he also believe that more could be done to ensure that we retain the support of our constituents who rightly think that more should be done by the regions?
Yes, but let me answer that question slightly more widely. The situation in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan region, is complex. There is a lot of history and a lot of baggage in the region. While the neighbouring states are all—remarkably—aligned in their desire to see ISIL defeated, the historical pattern of relationships and enmities between the different groups means that we have to take care when deciding who does what and how they do it. We need to be sensitive to the context of the region.
This is not just about Iraq and Syria. As the Foreign Secretary knows, ISIL-backed groups have also been successful in bringing Yemen to the brink of civil war. What further action can be taken to help the Governments of the whole region?
Specifically on Yemen, we are very concerned about the security situation there and we continue to support the legitimate Government in Sana’a and to work with regional partners. I had a meeting with Gulf Co-operation Council partners the week before last, at which we considered carefully the options for supporting the legitimate regime in Sana’a against the Houthi coup.
Political Prisoners (Burma)
I last raised the subject of political prisoners with Burma’s Deputy Foreign Minister Thant Kyaw in June. We welcome the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners since 2011, but we are concerned by the recent rise in politically motivated arrests and we continue to lobby for the unconditional release of all political prisoners.
Since 8 October, 3,000 petty criminals have been released, as well as 91 in August and 109 in September, including child soldiers. The answer, however, is that one political prisoner in Burma is one too many, and we will continue to make that point to visiting Ministers, who come here fairly regularly these days.
The Minister has rightly raised concerns that the headline figures for the release of political prisoners are perhaps not what they seem. Concerns have been raised about conditions being attached to the release of prisoners, for example, and about the continuing arrests of human rights defenders and journalists. Does he share the concern of the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights about signs of possible backtracking by the Burmese regime? What can we do to ensure that Burma remains on the road to democracy as we approach next year’s elections?
As the hon. Lady knows, we have continuing concerns, not least in Rakhine and Kachin. Only yesterday I was discussing these concerns with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has just been there. The big goal in all this is the parliamentary elections next year. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that they are inclusive and credible elections, from which can flow a better and more democratic Burma for all the component parts of that wonderful country.
We regularly assess the security situation in southern Lebanon, as well as the rest of the country. We are concerned about the continued low-level violence, but commend the crucial role of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—UNIFIL—in maintaining the peace and de-escalating conflict when it occurs.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will know from his previous job that Iran provides funds and arms to insurgents who previously killed and maimed British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran is now doing the same with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. What steps can we take to stop Iran being such a dangerous body in that part of the world?
We are watching the situation carefully, but we currently judge that neither Israel nor Hezbollah wants to escalate the situation in southern Lebanon. Both sides have chosen to make public statements following recent incidents, and UNIFIL-led tripartite meetings involving the Lebanese armed forces, the Israeli defence force and the UN are arranged, and have successfully reduced tension and prevented escalation.
Since the summer, the Foreign Office has responded to multiple crises. The UK has joined the coalition against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, pledged £20 million to help rebuild Gaza, led a tough European response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and been front and centre of the international fight against Ebola. Beyond those immediate crises, my priority is to put the national interest at the heart of everything the Foreign Office does: to redouble the FCO’s efforts to help British companies abroad; to lay the ground for a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union; and to ensure that the Foreign Office builds stability overseas to maintain our security at home.
The UK is leading on the Ebola response in Sierra Leone, and the British people should be extremely proud of what we have delivered: we have so far pledged nearly £250 million; we are building 700 beds in the country; we have about 750 service personnel deployed in support of that operation; and we are lobbying furiously for support from both European Union partners and other countries around the world. I am pleased to say that that lobbying effort is beginning to bear fruit, with significant pledges of both money and, more importantly, clinical workers to support the effort we are carrying out in Sierra Leone.
May I welcome, on behalf of the Opposition, the UK’s £205 million contribution to helping tackle the spread of Ebola, and of course the additional EU resources secured at last week’s Council meeting? Will the Foreign Secretary set out how quickly those resources from other EU member states will be utilised? The commitments are important but, as he recognises, it is vital that action is taken on the ground in west Africa.
Many of the financial commitments that have been made are commitments to support the UN fund. The UN recognises that the three framework countries—the United States in Liberia, France in Guinea and the UK in Sierra Leone—are best positioned to deliver an effect on the ground. One thing we are trying to do is get partner countries to plug in to the framework that we have already put on the ground. So we are building these 700 beds, we have a logistics operation in place and where we are told, for example, by Australia, “I can give you 50 clinical staff”, we can plug those in straight away; they do not have to set up an operation on the ground.
Let me ask a little more about the operation on the ground. It is, of course, right that we acknowledge the extraordinary work being undertaken by British aid workers, officials and troops based in the region, who are putting themselves at considerable personal risk. I also pay tribute to the International Development Secretary, who sent an important signal by travelling there with British troops. Of course it is the responsibility of the Government to support their efforts and to take every possible precaution with the safety of British personnel, so will the Foreign Secretary set out what measures are in place to support the diplomatic and consular staff, as well as the military, who are currently based in west Africa?
That is a very good question. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have slimmed down our diplomatic staff, removing from Freetown people who are medically vulnerable and dependants who do not need to be there. We are constructing, and will have in operation within the next 10 days, a dedicated 12-bed unit, run by British military medics, for the treatment of international health care workers and British nationals to a western standard of care. We also have a medevac capability, which has been pretty thin over the past few months but which by the end of this month will have surged in capability so that we would be able to deal with any foreseeable level of medevac requirement from Sierra Leone.
T3. Ministers will be aware that Boko Haram continues to detain 200 young women in Nigeria and that the country becomes progressively more unstable and divided as the weeks go by. What can the UK do diplomatically to try to support more effective government in Nigeria? (905680)
As my hon. Friend knows, an election is taking place in Nigeria next year and, in the pre-election season, it is quite difficult to change government behaviour. We are working closely with the Nigerian security services, military and intelligence services to try to track down the Chibok schoolgirls and other people who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram.
T2. It is vital that the countries affected by Ebola get the right medical, logistical and engineering personnel they need not only to deal with the immediate situation but to rebuild their health systems. What advice and training are the Government giving to British nationals who are travelling to the region to help fight this virus? (905679)
The British Army medical corps has established a facility just outside York to train people who have volunteered to work in UK facilities in Sierra Leone. These people have nursing qualifications and experience, but they need training around the specific precautions that are required to be taken in relation to protective equipment to prevent infection by the Ebola virus. Ensuring that people understand how to protect themselves is the key to slowing down the transmission rate of this disease.
T7. Iran’s recent execution of a 26-year-old woman has attracted international condemnation. It is a tragic reminder that Iran continues to lead the world in executions per capita and retains one of the world’s worst human rights record. In the light of that, what discussions has the Minister had with the Iranian Government and the UN about upholding the rights of women in Iran? (905685)
The Prime Minister raised that matter at bilateral talks with Iran during the UN General Assembly meeting. They were the first such talks to take place in many, many years. If Iran is interested in moving forward and participating in a more responsible attitude in the region, it is that sort of behaviour that needs to be curbed. We will continue placing pressure on the country to change its ways.
T4. There are massive asks on both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership in taking us to a place where we can have meaningful peace discussions. Will the Minister reconsider his earlier comment that the issue of settlement building was something of a distraction, and that we should not be fixated on it. It is no more a distraction than achieving peace in the region and security for the Israelis. (905681)
I would like to answer this question, because I know exactly what the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) was trying to say earlier on. The settlements are illegal and building them is intended to undermine the prospects of the peace process. We must not allow that to happen. These are buildings; buildings can be transferred and demolished. Where these buildings are built must not be allowed to define where the final settlement line can go. We must be very clear about that.
I very much welcome the comments condemning the illegal settlements, but if the Government’s response to calls for sanctions against Israel is “not yet”, how many additional illegal settlements are required for the answer to be “now”?
The Foreign Secretary has just made it clear that we do not want the settlement issue to hog the wicket here. We need to focus on the humanitarian efforts. Gaza will face an emergency in a number of weeks when the winter weather approaches. That is a priority. Then we need both sides to come back to the table. That is our focus at the moment, and we do not want to be distracted by the settlement issue.
T5. The election results in Tunisia at the weekend are welcome and prove that secular and non-secular parties can co- exist in the middle east. As the Minister has welcomed those results, will he let the House know what aid the UK Government can give to Tunisia to ensure that that country becomes a beacon for democracy in the middle east? (905683)
It is right that we again pay tribute to Tunisia for the journey that it has taken. It is operating in a tough neighbourhood, but it is not yet out of the woods, as there are still concerns about jihadist threats and about what is happening on its borders. But the journey it has made is thanks to its strong civil society and its direct approach in wanting to have elections—first parliamentary and then presidential. We are working with it through our Arab Partnership programme. Funding from the Deauville Partnership and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is helping to support governance in Tunisia.
A transatlantic free trade deal would be a massive win for the UK and the world, but there have been concerns about procurement and health care, among others, that need addressing, and, I believe, debunking. Will the Minister give us an update on progress and consider making a statement on this important issue?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing this, because it is time to slay a lot of urban myths that have crept up around the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. If TTIP goes through, it will mean an economic prize worth up to £400 for each household in the UK, and £10 billion to our economy. If we delve into the details and look at the investor state disputes settlements and so forth, there is absolutely no reason to think that TTIP can undermine the NHS or anything else.
T6. There are accusations that some UK companies are being short-changed on contracts associated with the construction of World cup venues in Qatar, and even claims that some moneys unpaid have been siphoned off to Syria and into the hands of ISIL. Will the Minister urgently look into these allegations and offer support to UK firms regarding their reimbursement by the Qatari royalty, Government or businesses? (905684)
I was in Doha last week and I raised this very issue. Qatar has what is called the kafala system, which is now being upgraded, and the hon. Gentleman may be aware of it. It is being replaced to give greater rights to migrant workers, of whom there are 1.3 million in Qatar, but it is also giving responsibilities to the employers to make sure that they look after them. It is something that will be raised this week when the Emir of Qatar visits this country.
I welcome the contributions by UK doctors and others to reconstruction in Gaza, but is not the cycle almost bizarre? We fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to do valuable work in building schools and homes, the Israeli defence force destroys some of them, and then regularly we pay to have them rebuilt after a long period of argument about whether the cement will be used for the schools or for tunnels. What can we do to resolve this cycle?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do not want to repeat this cycle. In six years, we have been round this buoy three times. A different mood is developing. We are picking up the agenda that was arrived at in April with John Kerry. As I mentioned, we had a successful donor conference in Cairo, and there is growing pressure on Israel to come to the table, but also on the Palestinian Authority to show proper leadership in Gaza, and that was reflected in its cabinet meeting there two weeks ago.
T8. I have just returned from Mali, which continues to face real security threats for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The military commander of MINUSMA says that just 30 bilingual English-French speaking staff officers would make a huge difference to the Malian army’s response to these threats, and the EU training mission says that it needs to continue beyond May of next year. What consideration are the Government giving to increasing our support for the Government in Mali? (905686)
I have discussed this with my French opposite number and we have made it clear that we will support the French proposal to extend the mandate of the EU training mission in Mali. I am not aware of any request to us to provide further staff officers to the mission, but I will speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.
My hon. Friend will know that the Swedish prosecutor is, quite rightly, a fiercely independent lady, and independent of the Executive, as she would imagine. These are matters for the prosecutor to decide on, but if she wished to travel here to question Mr Assange in the embassy in London, we would do absolutely everything to facilitate that. Indeed, we would actively welcome it.
My constituent Bill Irving and six other British citizens are still in India, a year after being taken off their ship. Although they are now out on bail, Billy is effectively trapped in a hotel room and is in financial difficulties because he cannot work. What help can my right hon. Friend give Billy and the other British citizens to speed up the legal process and assist with the hotel bills?
They are certainly well represented by their Members of Parliament, whom I have met regularly. I have also raised the case regularly, and at the highest levels, with the Indian authorities, as have other Government Ministers—the Deputy Prime Minister did so in August when he met Prime Minister Modi. We cannot interfere in the Indian legal process, but we continue to press for the case to be resolved quickly, and our consular staff continue to provide them and their families with full consular assistance.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Will the Government condemn in the strongest terms the current efforts by the Israeli Government and settler movements to divide the area of al-Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest places in the whole of the Muslim religion? Does the Foreign Secretary concur with the US State Department’s statement last week that Israel is poisoning the atmosphere and making support difficult, even from its closest allies?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. Anything that makes it more difficult to reach a peace settlement is extremely unhelpful and we condemn it. We want both sides to work for a sustainable peace. I think that the degree of frustration now being experienced, even among Israel’s closest friends, is expressed by the response he referred to from the United States, hitherto often seen as an uncritical supporter of Israeli actions.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for that build-up. May I ask whether you have had any notification, either from the Foreign Secretary or from the Defence Secretary, that we will be having a dedicated statement on the ending of the campaign in Afghanistan, because such a statement would give opportunities to pay tribute to the fallen and to the wounded, particularly among hon. Members’ constituents, and to debate issues about the way in which the campaign was fought?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend raises an important and interesting point. I am sure that Members of the House will want an opportunity to pay tribute to the service and commitment that our servicemen and women have shown in Afghanistan. I will undertake to discuss with the Leader of the House whether such an opportunity could be found.
School Governors (Appointment)
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 require that school governors be appointed on the basis of experience relevant to the role; and for connected purposes.
I would first like to thank all the school governors across the land, because the role they play in ensuring that our schools are well managed, well led and well planned is enormous. The tribute I pay to them is heartfelt. They also contribute massively to local communities, and that, too, needs to be recognised.
Our schools are going through a changing landscape. There are more schools with increasing autonomy than ever before, and that direction of travel is continuing. That is quite right, because there is support across this House for academy status, and other schools are beginning to benefit from more autonomy. The structures behind those schools are changing as well, with the introduction of the regional commissioners, the changing role of local authorities and, indeed, the emerging debate on academy chains, and that means that governors and governance are becoming increasingly important. Another driver has been the role of Ofsted in focusing on the importance of leadership and governance as part of the inspection process by making the latter category one of the four that will determine whether a school is graded in the way it wants to be.
Already in Westminster we have seen a large number of actions under the auspices of those who want improved governance across the piece. The Education Committee—I see that its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), is in his place—has conducted an inquiry into school governance and made a number of recommendations to which the Government have, quite properly, responded. I established the all-party parliamentary group on education governance and leadership almost as soon as I arrived here, with the purpose of talking about school governors and ensuring that their role is properly understood and develops in line with education policy, and that we recruit good governors.
Another thing that has happened is the Inspiring Governors initiative whereby various organisations have formed an alliance, including the Department for Education, the CBI, employment and education bodies, and a whole range of others. They have come together to make sure that we can promote governance to people who may not necessarily have thought of being a governor before. I am running through this activity to demonstrate that there is a lot of thought behind what I am proposing in this Bill—thought that is underpinned by substantial work. Other bodies that are key for our governors include the National Governors Association, the Wellcome Trust, the School Governors’ One-Stop Shop, and Wild Search. They have all contributed to the wider debate about the role of governors.
So where do we need to be? First, we want school governing bodies to be flexible. We want them to be able to decide how they are constructed, how they develop their plans, and how they interface effectively with their schools. The need for more autonomy for school governing bodies is recognised and required. Strong accountability of head teachers matters. A governing body needs to be able and willing to take on a head teacher who is not delivering—that is absolutely critical. We do not want weak governing bodies; we want strong and supportive governing bodies that are nevertheless capable of making a harsh decision if it ever becomes necessary. Nobody wants to do that without forethought, but the governing body needs to be capable of backing up the decision if necessary.
We need to make sure that strategic thinking takes place in schools. Governing bodies have to set the scene, the ethos and the direction of travel in making sure that the head teacher and everybody else is aware of the process. It is also important to engage with the wider community. No school can survive successfully without proper engagement in the community, and the governing body is part of that process. An effective governing body is the type of structure with good communication skills that can make the difference in this whole field.
We also want better links with employers. We must cultivate circumstances in which schools are talking to businesses much more readily and frequently about the requirements that businesses have. If we are going to start measuring the performance of schools by the destinations of their pupils, we need to be clear that schools bear some responsibility in making sure that their pupils know where they can go and where they should go, and are equipped to get there.
Getting the right people is an important mission. We need to enable employees of businesses to perform on governing bodies if they agree to do so. As the Department for Education has acknowledged, that may require an amendment to the Employment Rights Act 1996, and I would certainly want this Bill to incorporate that. We need to raise the profile of governors so that they can be recognised properly. I include national honours in that, but also civic responsibilities, civic duties and civic recognition.
Strong chairs of governors are absolutely essential and it is worth considering selecting as chair somebody who was not previously on the governing body. We need to choose the best people, not wait for them to come through the pipeline. We need an accelerated process to enable them to get where they need to be. That needs to be debated.
We also need to have a rapid response to failing schools. The Government are taking action, but some local authorities are not necessarily doing so as fast as they should be. The introduction of an interim executive board has often yielded good results and turned schools around, but there is no use in waiting for things to get so bad that turning them around is such a big job. We should be acting swiftly. Governing bodies have a role to play by recognising when they have themselves lost control and need some outside help.
I want to suggest some further steps to pave the way. We need pools of tested and proven governors who are able to address certain situations. The regional commissioners may well want to consider that suggestion as their role develops during the course of the current reforms. It is important that we have governors to choose from, rather than have to search for somebody who will do the job reluctantly. That is essential for good governance in all areas, certainly in schools.
We need to think about the transparency of decision making. The more people understand what governors do and the more they see the responsibility they have and how it can make a difference, the better. Transparency of school governing bodies is important.
A further next step for school governing bodies to take is on the need to be more corporate in how they conduct their affairs. We have already seen that pattern emerge and develop in the further education sector, so I think we should see more of it in the school sector, because it will encourage the sorts of skills, characteristics and processes I have already discussed.
In short, this Bill would make it easier, more attractive and rewarding to be a school governor, because we want the right people with the right skills, enthusiasm and motives to make sure not only that learning is a school’s top priority, but that its other characteristics can be encouraged and developed.
Finally, we are enormously thankful to those governors who currently serve, but we need to move to the next stage, which is a new shape for education, with more autonomy and responsibility. That will, of course, be a greater challenge for governing bodies, and that is why we need governors of the calibre I have described.
Question put and agreed to.
That Neil Carmichael, Alistair Burt, Mr Graham Stuart, Richard Graham, Mr Robert Syms, Sir Alan Beith, Fiona Bruce, Matthew Hancock, Chris Skidmore, Jeremy Lefroy and Robert Jenrick present the Bill.
Neil Carmichael accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January 2015 (Bill 109).
He may be a great man—that is a divisible proposition, but what is not a divisible proposition is that he cannot sponsor a 10-minute rule motion. The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) has enough supporters and he need not trouble his head about the matter any further.
[8th allotted day]
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform (Disabled People)
I beg to move,
That this House notes the comments of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform, Lord Freud, on 30 September 2014 that the work of disabled people is not worth the minimum wage; believes that these comments have further undermined trust among disabled people in this Government’s policies, a trust which had already been damaged by delays in assessments for a personal independence payment, problems with work capability assessments, and the poor performance of policies aimed at helping disabled people into work; further notes that the conduct of Lord Freud had already damaged that trust through his oversight of the housing benefit social sector size criteria which has had a particularly severe impact on disabled people, many of whom have nowhere else to move to and need extra room for medical equipment or carers; and therefore concludes that this House has no confidence in the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform; and calls on the Prime Minister to dismiss him.
I offer the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) who is unable to be in the Chamber today.
This afternoon, the eyes of millions of disabled people, their families, friends and carers are on this House. They include people such as Ciara, who has a learning disability. I had the pleasure of meeting her in Parliament a few weeks ago. She works full time for Mencap. When she heard of the noble Lord Freud’s remarks about disabled people, she said:
“People with a disability are often made to feel like second class citizens and face many barriers when trying to receive the same rights as everyone else, especially in employment. Having a politician place further barriers to us being included is incredibly upsetting and frankly quite frightening.”
Not yet. No, I will not.
“I hope politicians realise that people with a disability should be encouraged to become active citizens, and not to be discriminated against for their disability, and I want to call for a full explanation of how these comments are deemed acceptable in this day and age.”
I hope that this debate will give Ciara some answers.
There are 116,000 more disabled people in work now than there were a year ago. Is it not time that the Labour party stopped using the disabled to smear its opponents, and supported this Government’s and Lord Freud’s efforts to get people mainstream jobs, rather than leave them stuck in joblessness or Potemkin factories?
I am astounded by that intervention immediately after I had quoted the concerns of a disabled woman.
For many months under this Government, disabled people have endured hardship, hostility and fear. They have lived with the consequences of Ministers’ decisions, which are causing them and their families real pain. As things have got worse, they have lost all faith that Ministers understand their lives. They do not believe that the Government are on their side. They have become anxious and despairing, desperate and insecure.
The remarks of the noble Lord Freud last month that disabled people were not worth the minimum wage sparked an outpouring of anger and outrage. That has prompted this debate today, for those remarks go to the heart of the collapse in trust in this Government among disabled people, not just because they might be thought a plausible statement of Government policy or of what the Government really think deep down—that is what a Freudian slip is, after all—but because disabled people already know from the effect that the Government’s policies are having on their lives that they are not valued by this Government.
Will my hon. Friend use this debate to try to flush out details not just about Freud, but about other aspects of disability, such as the disabled students allowance? Can we find out whether the Government have taken away that allowance or partially put it back? They should have been proud of the fact that every disabled student in this country had the ability to go into higher education, but that has been wiped away.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. This afternoon, we in this House have a chance to send exactly such messages on behalf of disabled people, as well as to send messages to them. I hope that the whole House will embrace this opportunity to state that we value them as equal citizens, believe we should treat them with respect, recognise the worth and potential of every person, and will not tolerate an attack on their dignity or their rights.
Of course it is right that the benefits bill for disabled people has risen under this Government, but it remains Ministers’ ambition to cut that spend. The former Minister with responsibility for disabled people, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), told me in a written answer on 14 July that the Government were on track to achieve billions of pounds of savings in cuts to the personal independence payment by 2017-18. Ministers need to be clear about whether they are spending more on disabled people or are in practice aiming to cut their benefits.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is so shocking about Lord Freud’s comments is the simple lack of common humanity and decency in them, which reflects the Government’s attitude to disabled people as a whole? When I have asked questions about work capability assessments or Atos cancelling appointments, the Government simply do not know: they do not choose to find out such information because they do not actually care about it.
I have known the hon. Lady for a long time, and I am concerned by a charge she is making. Will she explain to the House why, if this matter of the clumsy and offensive words for which Lord Freud has apologised were of concern to the Labour party to the extent it says, Labour waited weeks after it had the recording to bring it forward at Prime Minister’s questions? Surely if Labour Members were so concerned about this—instead of the faux concern they are now showing—they would have raised it immediately and demanded an apology and an explanation. Why did they not do so immediately rather than wait for weeks?
We were so taken aback and stunned by these remarks, and we considered them so offensive and serious, that we considered it right to bring them before the Prime Minister in the highest forum in this land, this Chamber, in the very first Prime Minister’s Question Time that we had the opportunity to do so.
I want to go back to the question about increased spending. It is unacceptable to boast of increased spending when that is due to inefficiency and the failure to deliver. In 2010, the Office for Budget Responsibility expected spending on incapacity benefit to fall. That projection has now been changed to an increase of £3 billion, which, put against the sort of savings being made on disabled people through the bedroom tax, is absolutely outrageous. Surely nobody can boast about spending more if it is down to their own inefficiency.
My hon. Friend is right.
As we start the debate this afternoon, let me say that we can send a message of dignity and respect to disabled people in two ways. We can do so by voting for the motion to make it clear that anyone who makes comments that suggest discriminating against disabled people or that demean them should not be in government, least of all in a role in which they make decisions day in, day out that affect disabled people’s lives. We can also show our feelings by the way in which we conduct this debate. The real reason this debate matters so much is that it is an opportunity for us to show disabled people that we understand why Lord Freud’s remarks caused such anger and pain and that we understand what is happening in their lives. Lord Freud’s comments have touched a chord because disabled people are already suffering so much from the policies for which he and his ministerial colleagues are responsible.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to condemn unreservedly the reprehensible comments that were made by Lord Freud at the Conservative party conference, but should we not also condemn his actions? It must never be forgotten that Lord Freud is the chief champion of the bedroom tax, which has condemned two thirds of disabled people to live in poverty.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this debate is about the Minister’s bedroom tax, which disproportionately affects disabled people and their families, with two thirds of those who are hit being disabled people, their families and their carers. It is about the chaos of the personal independence payment, which is leaving thousands of people without essential support. It is about Ministers’ handling of the work capability assessment and the abject failure of their policies to support many disabled people into work, and it is about the collapse in social care and the services that support people to live the lives that they want. My hon. Friend is right that what this afternoon’s debate is truly about is putting the policies that Lord Freud and his colleagues have been pursuing under the microscope, and understanding what has gone wrong.
In this place I have campaigned on mental health with people from all parts of the Chamber, including some fabulous people from the Opposition. The one thing that I have learned is that people make mistakes. Sometimes people get it wrong, like Lord Freud did, but they apologise and are allowed to move on. Please will the hon. Lady find some compassion for people who make mistakes and apologise? He is not a bad man.
I have known Lord Freud for a number of years and I agree that, personally, he is courteous and caring. However, his remark touched a deep nerve for disabled people and we have to understand why. It is because it came in the context of the Government’s policies and the effects that disabled people are experiencing.
Lord Freud is an intelligent and articulate individual. He knew what he was saying and he meant what he was saying. Does my hon. Friend agree that Ministers, of whatever political persuasion, who make such offensive remarks about disabled people should be kicked out of office immediately, never to return?
I do think that it is difficult for someone who expresses such views to remain in government and in that role.
Let us examine the policy record of the Government. Let us start with the bedroom tax—Lord Freud’s brainchild. Everyone knows that it is a disaster for disabled people. Many disabled people have lived in their homes for years. They have invested in adaptations, as have their families and local councils. Some people need an extra room for equipment or so that an overnight carer can stay. Some people have a condition that means that they cannot share a room with their partner. Many people are settled in their community, with care and concerned family and neighbours close to hand so that they can call for help when they need it. Now they are being forced to move, to cut back on other expenditure to pay the rent or to go into debt.
We all know of cases in our constituencies, such as that of a disabled grandfather, Paul Rutherford, who cares for his severely disabled grandchild, Warren. Extra space is needed in the family home to cope with all of Warren’s equipment. Paul has to rely on discretionary housing payment to pay the rent. Why should he have to go through the anxiety and indignity of pleading for the support that he and his family need? Have we lost all compassion? Have we lost all sense of people’s dignity?
Not only is the bedroom tax exceptionally cruel; it is failing to meet its objectives. Only about 7% of those who have been hit by the tax have been able to move to a smaller home. It is not saving the money that the Government said it would, either. Is it not time that Ministers admitted that this Freud tax is not working and got rid of it, as Labour has pledged to do?
Having served with the hon. Lady on the Work and Pensions Committee, I applaud her commitment to these issues. She made an important point about the tone in which this debate must happen. Does she agree that what matters most is what all of us are doing as individuals and as part of the Government or the Opposition to support people with disabilities to get back into work? In that context, Gloucestershire county council is one of the best rated authorities in the country. Through its Forwards programme, it is working closely with the Government on a Disability Confident event that I am hosting on 14 November, which the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), will attend. Will the hon. Lady join me in saying that that is precisely the sort of thing that we need to do around the country to help people with disabilities to get into jobs and find ways of taking their lives forward helpfully and productively?
Of course, I welcome any initiatives such as those that the hon. Gentleman describes. I am looking forward to hosting a Disability Confident event shortly with my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) in our local authority. However, I think that we need to look a little more broadly than just at what we all do as individuals. It is the collective responsibility of Ministers and the collective policies of the Government that are under examination this afternoon.
When the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform questions whether disabled people are worth a full wage, does he forget that under his Government, hundreds of thousands of disabled people are right now sitting in queues, waiting to be assessed for the financial support that they should be receiving from the Government? More than 300,000 people are awaiting an assessment for personal independence payment, which is the Government’s replacement for disability living allowance.
Can Members imagine what it must be like to become disabled as a result of a catastrophic event such as a stroke or a terrible accident; to have to spend a fortune on adapting your home, on transport to get to appointments, on new equipment and on adjusting to your new life; to have to give up work and to have less money coming in; for your partner to have to give up work as well to care for you; and then for your PIP award, which should be helping with the additional costs associated with your impairment, to become stuck in an enormous backlog?
No, I will make some progress.
We heard again this morning in Westminster Hall that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), is determined to bring down the waiting times for PIP assessments to 16 weeks. That is welcome, but he should acknowledge that it is a less ambitious timetable than the 12 weeks from application to decision that the Government initially suggested in the PIP toolkit. Meanwhile, disabled people are left high and dry for months. I have constituents who have waited almost a year for an assessment. My constituent, Mr W, has even received compensation for the delay that he has experienced. I was shocked when I asked the Minister how much compensation payments had cost the taxpayer. In a written answer on 20 September, he told me that the Department for Work and Pensions is not bothering to keep a record.
Most pertinently, when the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform says that the way to get more disabled people into employment is to cut their pay, I point to the failure of a raft of Government policies. The work capability assessment, which was introduced by Labour in a staged manner, was then pushed through by this Government in a botched rush. There is now a backlog: 600,000 cases are awaiting a first assessment. Reassessments have been put on ice altogether. People are waiting for weeks, in some cases with no money at all coming in, for mandatory reconsideration. There is a terrible record of poor-quality decision making and a huge number of cases have been appealed successfully. Just last week, The Independent reported that thousands of people with degenerative conditions are being put in the work-related activity group and denied the support element of employment and support allowance. Can Members imagine the anxiety that that must cause, not to mention the waste of resources?
At the same time, the number of people being put into the support group overall is rising rapidly. Far from getting people into work, more people are being cast aside by the coalition Government. People are being abandoned, exactly as happened under Mrs Thatcher, when incapacity benefit was used as a means of massaging down the unemployment figures. Of course disabled people who are not able to work must get the support to which they are entitled, but many disabled people could work and would love to work, and they are being truly failed by the Government.
The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) highlighted the number of people who have moved into work, but he should also acknowledge that the gap between the employment rates of working-age disabled and non-disabled adults remains at a stubborn 30%.
No, I will not at the moment, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I want to finish my point.
For a while under Labour that gap was closing, but now progress has stalled. The Work programme—the Government’s flagship programme for getting people into work—is totally failing disabled people, getting only around one in 20 into sustained employment. It is worse than if there were no programme at all.
One year after the last factory closed, 50% of Remploy workers are still without work. The number of people on the Access to Work programme, which helps with adaptations in the workplace to enable disabled people to work, has fallen by 1,800 since 2009-10, and more and more people are reporting difficulty in accessing it. Although last year the DWP claimed that it was expanding Access to Work to cover internships and placements, and that that would benefit hundreds of disabled people, on 9 September the Minister told me in a written answer that he could not provide me with statistics to show how many people had benefited. Meanwhile, the number of specialist disability employment advisers in Jobcentre Plus is down 20% under this Government, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) pointed out, Ministers are cutting the disabled students allowance by upwards of £70 million.
This is a difficult area in which to get policy right, and criticisms can be made of this Government and indeed the previous Government. What is the point of personalising this issue when Lord Freud was wrestling with exactly the issue the hon. Lady has just identified? How do we get the disabled into work, and how do we support them? If, because of their severe disability their commercial value is not right, how do we supplement that? That is what Lord Freud meant and I think the hon. Lady knows that. Perhaps she will put that on the record.
I will put on the record that it was not anybody making those remarks but the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Reform. He is responsible for making decisions that affect millions of disabled people’s lives, and they took deep offence and were hurt by what they heard him say. Those remarks exemplify Government policies that are failing the objective that the hon. Gentleman describes. That is why we think it important to connect Lord Freud’s remarks with wider Government policy.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will make some progress as I know that many other colleagues want to join the debate.
It seems that the Government are happy to accept a waste of potential, and the additional cost of leaving disabled people on benefits year after year is resulting in their spending £8 billion more than Ministers planned. I think we are all agreed: if we—including Lord Freud—want more disabled people in work, as Labour does, there are plenty of policy areas to consider and policies that could be improved before we start to talk of cutting pay.
We have already come forward with our ideas: to refocus the work capability assessment on its original purpose of helping to identify the package of support that a disabled person who could work would need in order to do so; to introduce penalties for wrong or poor-quality assessments by work capability providers; and to ask disabled people to be part of a process of reviewing and improving the WCA, as they have direct experience of it. We know that the Work programme is not working for disabled people. We have said we will replace it with a specialist programme of locally contracted support that will mean that local providers, who have best knowledge of local opportunities, services and other providers, will be able to design holistic support for disabled people, to enable them to prepare for work. Perhaps Ministers will heed our practical suggestions, and most importantly, perhaps they will heed our promise that under a Labour Government the tone of the debate will be different.
We should all be ashamed that disability hate crime continues to increase, and that disabled people report experiencing a stream of negativity and hostility towards them. Research by Scope last year, one year after this country proudly hosted the 2012 Paralympic games and celebrated our medal winners, found that 81% of disabled people said that attitudes towards them had not improved in the previous 12 months, with 22% saying that things had got worse. Some 84% of those who said that that had happened thought that media coverage of benefit claims and the welfare system had had a negative effect on public attitudes.
I am deeply ashamed that disabled people feel hounded and bullied in our country, and I am angry that DWP Ministers, if not actually using hostile and negative language towards disabled people, are certainly not doing anything to halt it. Indeed, the DWP is promoting it. In one egregious example recently, the DWP press office retweeted a derogatory story about disabled people on benefits that had appeared in the national media. Last month’s remarks by Lord Freud have done yet more damage.
Angela Maher, a brave mother battling angina with two disabled sons in my constituency, fell prey to a whispering campaign—“Why is she getting a car on benefits?” It culminated in her severely disabled son having stones thrown at him when he was in his wheelchair. She came to see me the day after the Chancellor’s speech on shirkers and strivers. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely shameful that the disabled should ever in those circumstances be branded as “shirkers”? It is a disgrace that we have a tone that has led to hate crime on the rise once again in 21st-century Britain.
None of us can feel proud when we hear that story. Hon. Members do not have to take my word for the concerns of disabled people. Michaela, a member of Trailblazers, Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s network of young disabled campaigners, says of Lord Freud’s remarks:
“I’ve worked since I was 17 to improve, enhance and find full inclusion for those of us living life with disabilities. I’ve worked with a range of charities as a volunteer, pushing for better policies for a range of services, tried to give my voice to the cause and I can honestly say that I do feel more included in society today than ever before…What happened yesterday”—
she means the day Lord Freud’s remarks became public—
“has damaged our position. Lord Freud has enforced the idea that we are less productive, less valuable and by definition less human than the rest of society.”
That is how disabled people feel, and Ministers know how damaging Lord Freud’s remarks have been.
On 16 October the Secretary of State for Health said on “Question Time”:
“Well first of all, I don’t defend what he said, those words were utterly appalling.”
and the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Employment, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), said:
“you’re right those words will haunt him. I cannot justify those words, they were wrong.”
I know Lord Freud has apologised, but the damage has been done—done in deed and in word by the Minister and his Government. Disabled people deserve a clear signal that we know the offence and hurt that Lord Freud’s remarks have caused. This afternoon we can send them a clear message that we will not tolerate such language, and that we value and respect them as equal members of our society. This afternoon, we can vote for the motion before the House, and I ask hon. Members to do so.
I am very disappointed by the tone of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). This is a cynical debate, and I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State put his finger on the issue because if the hon. Lady meant what she said about the remarks of my noble Friend Lord Freud, she should have exposed them when she first knew about them. The fact is that the Opposition, right up to and including the Leader of the Opposition, used those remarks as a cynical device to detract attention from the excellent performance of the economy and the 2 million jobs that were created—news that was announced on 15 October but that the Leader of the Opposition did not want the House to focus on. That is what this is about.
Not until I have at least made some opening remarks.
The Leader of the Opposition did not want the House to focus on the fact that employment is at record levels or that there has been the largest annual fall in unemployment on record. He did not want the House to focus on the fact that the claimant count had fallen below 1 million or that there had been the largest annual fall on record of youth unemployment. He did not want the House to focus on the fact that long-term unemployment was down, and that there are 400,000 fewer workless households since 2010. That is what this was about—a cynical piece of politics, and the hon. Lady had no answer to the charge of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] She did not, and that will have been exposed to all those watching this debate.
Let me focus on the motion before the House—[Interruption.] We have reduced the deficit by a third since the election. The hon. Gentleman does not want us to focus on the record of job creation among businesses in our country, so let us get back to the motion.
Let me make one point, and I will give way to my hon. Friend.
The motion contains not a single positive idea about improving the lives of disabled people. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned some ideas in her speech, but she has not troubled the House with any of them in the motion, which is an attack, pure and simple, on my noble Friend. In a moment, I will set out exactly why that charge is not warranted in any way whatever.
Our noble Friend Lord Freud used clumsy and offensive language and rightly apologised for it. Does the Minister agree that for the shadow Minister deliberately to misinterpret and mislead the House as to Lord Freud’s comments for blatantly partisan advantage and to castigate Government Members who care as much about disabled people as Opposition Members shows the very worst of the House? The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made a disgraceful speech.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. The Conservative party has a proud record. When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons held the office that I hold today, he took through the House the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the first Act of its kind. That is a record of which our party can be proud and we do not need to take any lessons from the Labour party. Frankly, the words of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston were offensive. I will deal with the points in the motion, with my noble Friend and with the positive policy proposals and record of the Government, and then I will invite the House to reject the motion.
The hon. Lady’s words would be a little more credible if there was some evidence that she believed them. Let me set out for Opposition Members, in particular for those who were not in the previous Parliament, some of the history of my noble Friend’s record on welfare reform.
I will set out some of the history before I take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
It is worth remembering that Lord Freud was hired by John Hutton, now Lord Hutton, the Labour Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in late 2006 to write a report on radical welfare reform. At that point, Labour thought Lord Freud was an excellent person to involve in the welfare reform agenda. He delivered that reform in March 2007. The right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) then became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—there was not a lot of appetite for welfare reform under him—followed by James Purnell, who was appointed in January 2008. On the second day of his term of office, he appointed Lord Freud to implement the proposals in his report. In the Command Paper, “No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility”, the then Secretary of State, James Purnell, set out the proposals of the Labour Government and made it clear that they were
“inspired by the reforms proposed by David Freud in his report on the welfare state.”
The Command Paper made it clear—boasted, in fact—that the Labour Government would implement all of Lord Freud’s reforms and even boasted that they would take the reforms further.
That is the man whom the Labour party is castigating. Labour brought him into Government to work with them on welfare reform. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) is chuntering from a sedentary position. It is worth the House remembering that he was appointed Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform in January 2008. Between then and October 2008 he served with Lord Freud implementing welfare reform under the Labour party. The right hon. Gentleman knows Lord Freud and that although Lord Freud expressed himself clumsily—he did so, and apologised—the characterisation of those words is simply inaccurate. The Labour party should be ashamed of itself.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but I fear that he has answered my question before I ask it. It is the same Lord Freud that the Labour party took into the heart of Government. Before his appointment Lord Freud had said that he understood nothing about welfare, so will the Minister explain why the noble Lord played such an important role in implementing and coming up with welfare policy for both the previous Labour Government and the current Conservative Government?
I will set out some of the things that Lord Freud has done in government, but let me finish on the record of the Labour party, which is worth listening to. Some Labour Members may have to do some rapid rewriting of their speeches.
James Purnell, when Secretary of State, appointed Lord Freud to work on his proposals. Lord Freud served with the Labour party until January 2009. He then concluded that there was no appetite for radical welfare reform under the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). Lord Freud then joined the Conservative party and our Front-Bench team, of which I was a member at the time, to develop our proposals for welfare reform. James Purnell of course had similar thoughts about the appetite of the Labour party for welfare reform and he resigned from the Government five months later. He called on the Labour party to dump its leader, and thankfully for us the public did so a year later.
Lord Freud joined us, I have worked closely with him and he is passionate about getting disabled people into work. I know that the travesty of his character that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston set out is unfair and unwarranted.