House of Commons
Tuesday 9 June 2015
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—
EU Sanctions (Russia)
Sanctions were imposed because Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine. They can be rolled back when Russia has taken steps to comply with international law and its own commitments, starting with the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.
The sanctions on the Russian regime are clearly starting to have an effect, but does my right hon. Friend agree that support for the democratically elected Government of Ukraine is also important? Will he describe the action that the Government are taking to support the democratically elected president, President Poroshenko, in moving forward to defend Ukraine from Russia?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of helping the elected Government of Ukraine. The United Kingdom has provided Ukraine with technical assistance to support economic and administrative reform as well as humanitarian aid and non-lethal military assistance. We stand ready to discuss with the Ukrainian Government what further ways we might be able to help them in their task.
Will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the Defence Secretary to ensure that the toughest possible sanctions are applied to Russia until all the Minsk II protocols are met, and that Russia is aware that threats to Moldova and the Baltic states will result in the most severe repercussions?
My hon. Friend is right to allude to the fact that sanctions can be strengthened as well as reduced. It all depends on what Russia chooses to do. We have demonstrated our strong commitment to our NATO allies in the Baltic states through our participation in air policing and NATO training exercises in that region, and our solidarity with them will certainly continue.
We hear this morning of even more tragic deaths in Ukraine. When will all this stop? Sanctions are not enough. The Russians are looking closely at us as we run down our defence forces and do not commit to the 2% spending level. That is a fact—the Secretary of State does not like it, but the fact is that a weak Britain, weak in Europe, is not good for our country.
I think it is generally accepted that there is not a military solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. That is why we are determined to continue with the diplomatic and political path on which we, together with our partners and allies, have embarked. We need to see the Minsk agreements implemented in full and, in particular, for the OSCE monitoring mission to be given access to the areas controlled by the separatists, which is still not happening.
I am pleased to hear the Minister say that there is no military solution in this case. Over the weekend the Foreign Secretary reportedly said that “unnecessary provocations” must be avoided when dealing with Russia but, when asked, he did not rule out the placement of US nuclear missiles on UK soil. Will he take the opportunity to rule that out very firmly?
Given that evidence was submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had no in-house Crimea experts at the time of the Russian annexation, does the Minister agree that greater investment is required in our analytical capabilities?
We have an extremely talented team of analysts working in the eastern European and central Asian directorate within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In the light of events over the past 18 months, we have taken steps to strengthen the capacity of that side of the FCO. It is fair to say that most Governments throughout the world had hoped on the basis of the past 25 years’ experience that Russia was moving towards integration in a rules-based international order. It is clear from the actions that Russia has taken in the past year that that cannot be guaranteed and we need to respond accordingly.
The G7 communiqué agreed in Germany states that
“we…stand ready to take further restrictive measures in order to increase cost on Russia should its actions so require. We expect Russia to stop trans-border support of separatist forces and to use its considerable influence over the separatists to meet their Minsk commitments in full.”
Given the clear evidence that Russia continues to pursue its proxy war in the Ukraine, what more will the Government do to ensure European unity and maximum pressure on Russia in the sanctions process? On today of all days, does the Minister agree that our role as a strong voice for united European action in the face of Russian aggression would be helped if we did not leave the European Union—a move that would delight President Putin?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his final words. If he looks at how the United Kingdom Government have been engaged since the Ukraine crisis began, he will see that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been decisive in getting a tough EU sanctions regime in place against Russia. We are actively engaged in contingency planning should those sanctions need to be further strengthened in response to Russia’s actions. When I saw the Russian ambassador last week, I emphasised to him the need for the Minsk agreements to be implemented in full, including access to all territory for the external observers.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have already started talking to our counterparts about our agenda for change in Britain’s relationship with the EU. We have set out British concerns with the status quo and the areas where we need to see change.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said last week that one of the guiding principles of negotiations on the UK’s future within the EU should be “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this clearly shows a real willingness by our EU partners to work with us on reform and find a flexible solution?
We were very heartened by the German Chancellor’s comments. The great majority, perhaps all, of our EU partners want Britain to remain in the European Union. They understand now, because the Prime Minister has set it out to them, what needs to be done to make that a possibility, and we are confident that they will now work with us to achieve that over the coming months.
The crisis in the eurozone is clearly a challenge for the eurozone. Part of our agenda is to ensure that a robust framework is in place to regulate the relationships between the eurozone countries that will integrate more closely in the future and the non-eurozone countries such as Britain that are in the EU and need to be sure that they will be treated fairly and appropriately as the eurozone integrates further.
The Prime Minister set out in a number of publications and speeches the key areas in which we need to make change. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has ever engaged in a process of negotiation, but if I were to produce a piece of paper with our red lines and bottom lines on it, we would be shot; our negotiating position would be destroyed. We do not intend to proceed in that way.
22. Like many constituencies, South East Cambridgeshire contains many industries that compete in the international markets, as well as many small businesses. Will the Secretary of State engage as many of those businesses as possible in the debate on reform? (900196)
The Prime Minister has been clear about the areas in which we need change, and I have referred to one of them this morning: the relationship between the eurozone and the non-eurozone has to be definitive and protected so that we can be confident that our interests will be protected in the future. It is our belief and our understanding, and the legal advice that we are receiving, that the reforms that we want to see around access to welfare benefits, which were set out very specifically in the Conservative party manifesto, will require treaty change in order to proof them against judicial challenge in the European courts.
As the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, he has been consistent. Indeed, the comments that he made in his press conference yesterday afternoon were exactly the same as the comments that he made in this House last week. He feels that his previous comments were misinterpreted. He has now clarified the situation and we are able to move on.
As a sign that Europe is open to reform and is willing to renegotiate, would it not be sensible for Her Majesty’s Government to help Switzerland enforce its referendum result, getting it out of the free movement of people, as a model for British renegotiation?
On the contrary—what is happening to Switzerland is an important lesson. I have heard many people outside this House and one or two inside it talking about the Norwegian model or the Swiss model, implying that it is possible to partake fully in the single market without having to comply with single market rules. Of course, that is not the experience that the Norwegians or the Swiss have had. Access to the single market has a price, and the price is contributing to the EU budget, complying with all the EU’s rules and having no vote on how those rules are made.
The Prime Minister created utter confusion yesterday on the subject of collective Cabinet responsibility and the Government’s position on the EU referendum. Can the right hon. Gentleman clarify for the House whether Ministers will be allowed to campaign against the Prime Minister’s position during the referendum?
The Prime Minister has made the position clear. Ministers who are part of the Government are all signed up to our proposal to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union. We are all committed to success in that exercise, but we do not yet know what the outcome will be, and until we know what the outcome will be, we do not know what position the Government will take. It is simply hypothetical at this point to talk about who will be allowed to do what in relation to a position that we have not yet defined.
The question was not about what position the Government will ultimately take. It was about whether Ministers will be allowed to campaign against the Prime Minister’s view, whatever view he finally reaches. Having got no answer on that one, let us try another. Once the renegotiations are completed, the Government will have a responsibility to put their view forward and provide the British people with information that they need to take their decision. With this in mind, and bearing in mind that the Foreign Secretary last year indicated that the Government would need to be prepared to stand up from the table and walk away if necessary, what assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the consequences for jobs, growth and investment if Britain were to leave the European Union?
The Government’s position on that is very clear. We believe that Britain will be better off in a reformed European Union. The British economy clearly benefits from access to a single market of 500 million people, but this is a democracy and we are very clear that there are areas in the way the European Union operates which have become unacceptable to the British people. We need to get reform in those areas in order to have the continued consent of the British people for our membership, and thus access to that vital single market.
ISIL: Iraq and Syria
I attended a meeting of Ministers from the counter-ISIL coalition core group in Paris a week ago today. We discussed recent events in Iraq and Syria and progress in pushing back ISIL in Iraq since last summer. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also discussed ISIL with world leaders during the G7 summit and announced plans for increased UK support to Iraq.
So far, 700 British citizens have travelled to Syria and Iraq, and some to Yemen, in order to fight for ISIL and al-Qaeda in the south Arabian peninsula. What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having with international partners to try to stop that happening?
That is one of the strands of work that the counter-ISIL coalition is focused on. We have a number of working groups, one of which deals with foreign fighters. We have made considerable progress, particularly with our Turkish colleagues, in ensuring that we do everything possible to identify and intercept those seeking to reach Syria through Turkey. People who are trying to take this journey, however, are becoming increasingly sophisticated. I have seen reports recently of journeys that are routed via Canada to get to Turkey and then into Syria, rather than going directly from the UK. It is, therefore, a continuing struggle.
The US President says that the counter-ISIL strategy needs further development; the Sunni Speaker of Parliament said during a US visit that they need a Sunni national guard; and, of course, the Kurds are challenged to fight ISIL over a 1,000 km border. Is my right hon. Friend confident that we have enough resources on the ground and that our embassy is well enough resourced to be able to handle those challenges and to make sure that the strategy is developed and put in place?
I can tell my hon. Friend that we have surged our political support to our embassy in Baghdad and our consulate general in Irbil, with a number of additional Foreign Office personnel being moved out there. He is absolutely right to say, however, that there is a need for a political initiative to address the alienation of the Sunni community. That involves the creation of a national guard and a repeal of the de-Ba’athification laws, in order to allow Sunnis to participate fully in the Iraqi state.
The Prime Minister has announced that an additional 125 British troops will be deployed to assist with counter-IED training and logistics in Iraq, but President Obama has said that US personnel sometimes have more training capacity than there are recruits for that training. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore tell us how the additional trainers will make a difference, and what protection they will be given as they carry out that very important task?
Yes; the hon. Lady makes an important point. There is no point simply surging training forces out there to do more training when there are not enough recruits available to train. What we have always said is that we will reinforce our support where there is something specific we can do and where we can bring some value to the table. Sadly, because of our experience in Afghanistan and in the previous Iraq campaign, counter-IED training is a British niche capability, and that is what our troops will be doing. It is a much-needed requirement and we are glad to be able to provide it. In terms of protection, the British forces deployed to Iraq proper will be within US perimeters and protected by US forces.
Economic Migrants: North Africa
We remain firm in our belief that a comprehensive plan is needed to tackle the problem of irregular migration. The most useful development towards stopping the flow of illegal migrants would be the formation of a unity government in Libya, and we are working with European Union partners to achieve that. We are also working with colleagues in the Department for International Development and the EU to support countries of origin; reinforce security in countries of transit; and, with the Ministry of Defence, save lives in the Mediterranean.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the current instability in Libya means that its borders are not being properly policed and that, as he says, if the warring parties could get a ceasefire and form a unity government, that would help tighten up the borders and stop the tide of economic migration to southern Europe?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Although the maritime component has much the highest profile, it is the transit and trafficking operations that need to be stopped. Parties and stakeholders in Libya are coming together in Morocco—in fact, the conversation started yesterday under United Nations envoy Bernardino León—and we hope they will finally be successful.
The problem in Libya obviously stems from much further away than Libya itself, so the stabilisation of Libya is not the solution. What will the Government do to make sure that people do not need to flee to southern Europe, because that is the root of the problem?
The hon. Gentleman is right in part, but as I have just pointed out, it is not simply the transit issues that are important. There is a maritime component, on which we are working with Operation Triton, and there is also the source countries, so there are three parts to the solution. However, if Libya is able to provide the stability that is needed and to provide its own security, the trafficking operations can be curtailed.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As I say, there are complex aspects to tackling this problem. It is important to understand what is happening in the source countries, notably Nigeria and Somalia. We are working with our DFID colleagues to make sure that happens. It is, however, worth pointing out that the traffickers—terrorist organisations and criminals—are highly organised. They charge about $1,000 a seat to make the journey from Africa to Europe. We must make sure that this stops.
19. Will the Minister also look to the humanity of those escaping places such as Libya, rather than being driven solely by Daily Mail-style quotas? Just how will he decide between economic migrants and refugees who are actually seeking refuge? (900193)
The processes we are following are well established in international law. I commend the work of Federica Mogherini, the EU lead on this. In April, she brought together EU member states on the common security and defence policy operation that will ensure we are able to prevent the boats from leaving Libya in the first place.
5. What assessment he has made of public support for holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. (900179)
As it happens, I have made an assessment of public support for holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The only recent poll that actually matters delivered a clear mandate for the only party that offered a credible commitment to hold such a referendum.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, we have already achieved some success in relation to the fishing industry, demonstrating that it is possible to change things in the UK’s interest within the EU. One of the key drivers of reform is the need for Europe to up its game to generate more economic growth to create the jobs and the prosperity that the continent needs, which will be good for all 28 member states, not just for Britain.
The opportunity presented by the referendum to resolve this profound choice over our role in the world for at least a generation will be wasted if the process is seen as a fix in favour of the establishment side of the argument. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that he supports and enables independent analysis of the costs and benefits of the choice to be presented to the British people by Committees of this House, and that both sides of the argument in the referendum will be treated and funded fairly?
Yes, both sides of the argument in the referendum will be treated and funded fairly. I shall have more to say about that in the Second Reading debate later. In relation to Committees of the House, my Department always seeks to co-operate with them in any way it can.
The previous Government carried out a detailed assessment of what the European Union has delivered for the people of the United Kingdom—known as the balance of competences review—yet all has gone quiet. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me when his Government will come forward with an overview of all 32 reports to show the British people what the European Union has delivered, and help to inform the debate?
The balance of competences review was published during the last Parliament. It was always intended to be a factual assessment of the balance of competences that could be drawn on by all parties in the forthcoming debate. As a body of factual information, it is already proving its worth. In fact, a number of other countries in Europe have started to draw on information in our balance of competences review for use in debate in their own countries.
I join the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) in urging the Foreign Secretary to use the negotiations as an opportunity to achieve the fundamental reform that we need of the common fisheries policy—a policy that has been an unmitigated disaster for fishing stocks, the fishing industry and the fishing communities that depend on them. Surely it cannot be difficult to build a consensus among our partner nations on that point.
The Prime Minister’s in/out referendum is widely popular in north Northamptonshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said, it needs to be a fair referendum if the result is to be accepted by the nation. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government will not seek to campaign, and that there will be a purdah period for the referendum?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I think he is referring to the media comments about the proposal to disapply section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I shall have more to say about that, including a detailed explanation, during my Second Reading speech later today. I hope that I will satisfy his concerns then.
24. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak for the first time in this Chamber.As part of the right hon. Gentleman’s assessment of public support for holding a referendum, what discussions has he had with all parties in Scotland about the massive public support that there is for extending the franchise for the referendum to 16 and 17-year-olds, who will, after all, be the people who have to live longest with the result, whatever that might be? (900198)
Our position is that the appropriate franchise for a United Kingdom question—a question about the future of the whole country—is the Westminster franchise. I know there are people in this House who think we should review the scope of the Westminster franchise, and that is another debate. We are very clear that the franchise for this referendum should be the Westminster franchise, and that it would not be appropriate, as an exception, to include 16 and 17-year-olds.
Many constituents in Basingstoke have expressed their support for a referendum on our future membership of the EU. Local businesses, in particular, are keen for it to happen sooner rather than later. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of whether the referendum can be held sooner—perhaps even in 2016—rather than waiting until 2017, as was indicated in the manifesto?
As my right hon. Friend will know, the legislation sets 31 December 2017 as the latest possible date for the referendum, but the Prime Minister has made it clear that we do not intend to wait until the end of 2017. We will hold the referendum as soon as we are ready to do so. The ball will be firmly in the court of our EU partners. If they embrace our agenda with enthusiasm and facilitate a rapid move forward, a referendum in 2016 may be possible.
On the timing, and given the importance of this question for the country as a whole, will the right hon. Gentleman have regard to the respect agenda for the devolved countries of the United Kingdom and guarantee that the referendum will not be held on the same day as the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, in line with the Electoral Commission’s recommendation?
The Minister for Africa, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), has called on all parties to end the violence and respect the principles of the Arusha agreement. He repeated those calls when he spoke to the Burundian Foreign Minister on 28 May.
I thank the Minister for that answer. He and the Minister for Africa will be aware that just this week civil society representatives have called for the replacement of the UN special envoy who is meant to be mediating the dialogue. The Burundi electoral commission’s legitimacy is also being questioned, and it has now scrambled together a date for an election in circumstances that are particularly adverse, with repression still at play, refugees unable to return and armed youth groups not disarming. What will be the Africa Minister’s message to international partners and the Burundi Government at the African Union meeting?
We need to focus on the Arusha agreement. The UK Government are extremely concerned about the instability in Burundi that the hon. Gentleman articulates and are working actively within the region, with the African Union and the international community, to resolve the crisis.
23. The instability is principally being caused, of course, by President Nkurunziza’s desire to avoid the constitutional term limits, which threatens not only Burundi but the region as a whole. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with Ministers in Burundi’s neighbouring countries about their attitudes to that extension to the constitutional term limits? (900197)
First, I acknowledge my hon. and learned Friend’s interest in and understanding of that part of the world. He is absolutely right that there needs to be a regional solution, and I believe that the only way forward for future stability involves President Nkurunziza stepping down and a political solution in line with the Arusha principles.
The situation in Burundi reminds us of the risk of mass atrocities and the need for the international system to be more effective in preventing them and responding to them. What is the Foreign Office’s attitude to the French initiative, which proposes veto restraint by the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council in cases in which mass atrocities might have occurred?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to illustrate that the situation is about what is happening not just in Burundi but in neighbouring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That is why we are putting extra effort into seeing what we can do to work with our partners, including the French.
Is it not the case that the office of the President, the Opposition parties and the constitutional court in Burundi need to ensure that peace breaks out, not violence, and that all parties need to agree a new date for the presidential and parliamentary elections?
MV Seaman Guard Ohio
I can only imagine how difficult the situation continues to be for the men and their families, and I share their frustration. We have repeatedly raised this case with the Indian Government at the highest levels, including with Prime Minister Modi. The case is now before the Supreme Court bench in New Delhi, and we expect the response in July.
There has been meeting after meeting and discussion after discussion with the Government and authorities in India, yet my constituent Nick Dunn and four other former British soldiers are still being detained in India. They are innocent people. What more can the Minister and the Government do to ensure that they are returned to the UK as soon as practicably possible? Can he give the families a glimmer of hope, for goodness’ sake?
The hon. Gentleman is right to continue to campaign for his constituents. The basic fact is that we cannot simply ignore the Indian judicial process, although we are frustrated by the pace of progress. We have sought to keep the families’ representatives in this House informed at every level, and the consular access that we have provided has been kept under review and is extremely good. I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the three new Members who represent those who are currently in India, that I understand that officials in the consular section of the Foreign Office have offered them a meeting. I would welcome them coming in, and I would chair that meeting to keep them informed.
We should acknowledge that the Indian navy has been an excellent partner in the fight against piracy off the Somali coast and in the wider Indian ocean. However, as the case highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) shows, other parts of the Indian bureaucracy have not been as helpful. Frankly, do we not need the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister to get off their backsides and strongly press the Indian Government to set these men free to get back to their long-suffering families, back to work and back to normal life?
The right hon. Gentleman lets himself down by the content and tone of his question, and I am not sure what relevance the Indian navy has to this case. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised the issue with Prime Minister Modi in November last year, as did my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary when he met his counterpart in March. Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman’s party decides who will lead it, that person can make their own representations. We look forward to that day.
ISIL: Militia Groups
Given the volatile situation in Syria, it is difficult to ascertain exactly the number of British nationals who are fighting in militia groups against or for ISIL without the risk of being inaccurate. We advise against all travel to Syria and parts of Iraq and do not want British nationals taking part in the conflict on either side. There are ways to support the Syrian people more effectively and get aid to where it is most needed.
A young and quite vulnerable Newark man with autism has recently been recruited to fight with the Kurdish peshmerga through their foreign legion, the Lions of Rojava, who recruit—somewhat indiscriminately —through Facebook and websites. While we all stand shoulder to shoulder with the brave peshmerga, will the Minister urge the Kurdish Government to exercise greater caution and, in particular, to review those websites?
I am sorry to hear about the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, and if he would like to meet me I would be delighted to take more details so that we can look into it. I will be visiting the countries shortly and I will seek in Irbil to see how a better process can be established to understand who is coming into the country.
The Minister will be aware that Cardiff, like many parts of the UK, has been afflicted by young people being attracted to fight for ISIL. What steps is the Foreign Office taking with the Turkish authorities to help to close that route into that part of the world?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary attended the meeting in Paris last week, where 20 of the 60 nations came together to work on the five key themes, one of which is countering the movement of foreign fighters, including the sharing of information between countries—including Turkey.
Middle East Peace Process
We do see merit in a balanced UN Security Council resolution at the right moment, setting out parameters for a political settlement. But if such a resolution is to be part of a successful process, it must command the full support of the Security Council and, in particular, of the United States, which is the only power that has any leverage over Israel. Our judgment is that now is not the right moment for such an initiative, but I have regular discussions with my French and American counterparts on the middle east peace process. We will judge any proposal on the basis of whether it supports further progress in that process.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his detailed reply. Given that Mr Fabius will visit Israel and the Palestinian territories at the end of this month to push for a United Nations Security Council resolution to revive the peace talks between the two sides, what more can the Secretary of State do to convince the United States of America and his EU counterparts that it is now crucial to get Israel and the Palestinians round the table again?
I agree with the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question: it is crucial that we move forward. The issue with timing is that until we have resolved the nuclear negotiation with Iran, which is an extremely sensitive issue in the middle east—including with Israel—our judgment is that we would be throwing away an opportunity to play an important card in the middle east peace process. We need to get the Iran thing dealt with first, and then we need to press the US Administration to deliver on the commitment that they have repeatedly made to us—that after the Israeli elections and the Israeli Government had been formed, there would be a new, American-led initiative.
We believe that European Union countries individually unilaterally recognising Palestine is throwing away an opportunity that the European Union has to exercise leverage by collectively holding out the prospect of recognition or non-recognition as a way of influencing behaviour.
Last Wednesday, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) told the House:
“The international community has recognised that the PA is now ready for statehood.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 575.]
When will the Government recognise the Palestinian state, in line with the vote of this House last October?
Persecution of Christians
Freedom of religion and belief is one of the Government’s core human rights priorities. We try to help Christians facing persecution overseas through our bilateral diplomacy and our participation in international organisations, most notably the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Christians suffer the most persecution globally, and many of my constituents with relatives in Syria and Iraq, and Church groups, rightly campaign to highlight that. People of different faiths and atheists are at risk in different parts of the world. What more can the UK do to promote more collaboration between faith communities to promote more religious tolerance?
Obviously, the approach that is likely to work best will vary from one country to another, but we do, for example, through the Department for International Development, fund a number of programmes that try to help community and religious leaders in particular conflict-torn parts of the world to learn the importance of religious tolerance and to apply that within their own societies.
Given this country’s excellent record in defending liberty abroad, may I strongly encourage Ministers to make religious freedom a strategic priority, as proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Religious Liberty Commission?
We certainly continue to treat religious freedom and the freedom of people to express their beliefs as a core element of our broader human rights agenda. It is often Christian communities themselves who say that it helps them if their own concerns are presented within that broader human rights context.
Demolitions are an impediment to the two-state solution and, in all but the most limited circumstances, contrary to international humanitarian law. We have made our concerns clear to the Israeli Government, and I raised our objections with the Israeli national security adviser last week and during my visit to the occupied territories in October.
I welcome those steps, but that is broadly the same answer Ministers have been giving for a number of years. The demolitions are breaches of the fourth Geneva convention on war crimes. Given that the demolitions are continuing in spite of these steps, is it not time to consider stronger action, such as the suspension of the arms trade with Israel?
The hon. Lady is right to say that these complex issues have perplexed the House—and, indeed, the international community and the region—for a long time, but as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary articulated, we want the talks to resume as soon as possible. The Israeli elections are now out of the way and that is what we now need to be looking towards.
The priorities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for this Parliament will remain the protection of Britain’s security, the promotion of Britain’s prosperity and the projection of Britain’s values in support of a rules-based international system. The three key immediate challenges on which I am focused are the struggle against violent extremist Islamism in all its forms; the containment of Russia’s aggressive doctrine of asymmetric warfare and her incursion in Ukraine; and the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his response. The illegal sale of antiquities is not only a crime; it provides significant funding for organisations such as ISIL. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that Britain supports the International Council of Museums updated red list, which classifies endangered archaeological objects and works of art to help to prevent their illegal sale and export?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s interest in this area. In an effort to remove connections to past civilisations, ISIL is indeed tearing down ancient monuments and selling them on the black market. The International Council of Museums, to which she refers, and its red list will help tackle illegal sales, and the Government very much support it.
As more and more people try to make the perilous boat journey across the Mediterranean, the dedicated men and women of HMS Bulwark are having to rescue an ever-increasing number of desperate people in very difficult circumstances. Given that about half a million people are now gathering in Libya, does the Foreign Secretary think that there is currently sufficient capacity in the EU maritime force to cope with this crisis?
First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in recognising the heroic work that the crew of HMS Bulwark, in particular, are doing. They have just landed another 1,200 migrants, bringing to well over 2,000 the total number of people plucked from the sea by that one single vessel. I think the best criterion by which to judge the answer to his question is the number of deaths, and, although we cannot be certain, we believe that since the naval force has been deployed in the Mediterranean the number of migrants’ lives being lost at sea has declined to close to zero. I think that means that the scale of the operation is, for the moment, adequate.
T4. Back to Africa. The people of Africa are not the problem; the resources of Africa are not the problem; but so often, the governance of African countries is the problem. With that in mind, does the Minister agree that next year in the Democratic Republic of Congo it is absolutely vital that there is a peaceful transition and the constitution is respected and upheld? (900168)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not too dissimilar a situation to the one we find in Burundi, where there is a constitution which should be recognised and should be honoured—and we expect President Kabila to do the same. Until that happens, unfortunately we will have further instability.
T3. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that leaving the EU will damage our economy, undermine business and have devastating consequences for the living standards of people in this country? Will he remind his own party of those facts? (900167)
What I have no doubt about is that having access to the single market contributes significantly to our economy. But we live in a democracy, and the hon. Gentleman would have to be blind, deaf and dumb—although perhaps some of his former colleagues were blind, deaf and dumb in the run-up to the general election—[Interruption.] He would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that there is very considerable concern among the British public about some aspects of our membership of the European Union. What we have a mandate to do is to sit down with our partners and negotiate to see whether we can deal with some of the problems that most agitate British public opinion, while retaining the benefits of access to the single market.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: following the Arab spring, we have seen huge advances in that area of Africa—in governance, prosperity and, indeed, stability. I was able to visit the region two weeks ago, and I hope to return in November with trade missions, taking British companies to that part of Africa in order to promote the prosperity agenda.
T5. Yesterday, Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai called on world leaders to halt the inhuman persecution of Burma’s Muslim minority Rohingya people. It is time for the international community to back up its words with action. Will the Minister unequivocally condemn the Myanmar leadership and tell the House what steps he has taken to secure equal rights and opportunities for the Rohingya? (900169)
The hon. Lady will have had an opportunity to take part in the Adjournment debate last week, on 4 June, on the whole issue of the Rohingya people and Rakhine. If she reads the Hansard report, she will see that this Government have been right at the forefront in urging the Government of Burma to treat the Rohingya in the way to which they are entitled.
T8. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the grave concerns about the political situation in the Maldives and the imprisonment of former President Nasheed. Will he update the House on the work being done by the international community to ensure that the current Government uphold democracy and the rule of law? (900172)
I applaud my hon. Friend’s continuing support for President Nasheed and her interest in the situation in the Maldives. I have raised these concerns several times with the Maldives Government, most recently with Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon on 28 May. In April, Charles Tannock tabled a resolution on the Maldives in the European Parliament, and a joint resolution of all seven political groups was overwhelmingly supported by the Chamber. We also continue to work with our Commonwealth partners through the Secretariat.
T6. I was pleased to represent the all-party group on the worldwide abolition of the death penalty to Suriname. Will the ministerial team welcome the fact that Suriname has become the latest country in the world to abolish the death penalty, but does that not contrast with the fact that Saudi Arabia has just advertised for eight executioners? What will the Government do to lobby this supposed ally of the UK? (900170)
I welcome the news from Suriname. It is a slow process, but progress is being made. As I have said many times in the House, Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the UK. Our relationship is vital to our domestic national security and gives us access to senior levels of the Saudi Arabian leadership. That enables us to make our views known on these issues—and we do.
Yes, absolutely. In fact, labour market policy is by and large a matter for national Governments, but across the EU there is a clear gap in performance between those who have taken difficult steps to achieve radical labour market reform and those who have not.
Given what the Foreign Secretary has said about the importance of the Iran discussions on the nuclear agreement, what is he doing to ensure greater clarity about the baselines, the extent of the inspection regime and the consequences of infringement? Given that the agreement will allow advanced centrifuge, the infringements might arrive a little earlier than anticipated.
We are working intensively with our E3+3 partners and Iran to conclude the nuclear agreement that we set out in principle in Lausanne a couple of months ago. It is essential that, as part of the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency can verify all Iran’s nuclear-related commitments, including through access to all relevant locations. We are not going to do a bad deal with Iran. Proper access is central to the deal we agreed in Lausanne and has to be delivered.
Having apparently spoken to his own Back Benchers about the EU referendum, will the Foreign Secretary provide any information about the number of likely Tory Eurosceptics the Prime Minister might describe in the same way as John Major described his Eurosceptics, one of whom of course remains in the Cabinet?
The Burmese Government often give the impression that the Rohingya people are not really Burmese. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia confirm that the Foreign Office has seen a map from the 18th century that confirms very clearly that the Rohingya people were part of Burma at that time and that this has been shared with the Burmese Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have got charts, which we have shared with the Burmese Government, and they show very clearly that there were Muslims, as they were described in the ledger, going right back to the 18th century. It is absolutely certain, as far as we are concerned, that the Rohingya have been in Rakhine for many, many years. Of course they are mixed in with probably more recent arrivals from Chittagong and the Chittagong area in Bangladesh, but a significant number of these people have clearly been in Burma for a significant amount of time.
The Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, is likely to be flogged again this Friday—a brutal flogging. The Minister can boast about our special relationship with Saudi Arabia, but really is there not some hypocrisy at the heart of British foreign policy when we continue to sell the largest amount of arms to the Saudi Arabian Government?
I prefer to focus on the practical steps that now need to be taken. I have raised the issue of Mr Badawi with the most senior levels of the Saudi leadership before. The judicial process has now been completed. That is not the end of the story, because, as in many such countries, there is an Executive power of clemency and commutation. We are urgently seeking to make contact with our most senior interlocutors today, to talk to them about how that power will be exercised. It will be my intention certainly to ensure that nothing happens on Friday, and I hope that nothing happens at all.
Does the Secretary of State share my relief that the Turkish people have, for the time being at least, called a halt to the creeping Islamisation of their country? What assessment has he made of political stability in that important NATO ally?
The fact that there was a turnout of no less than 86% in the Turkish parliamentary election demonstrates the vigour of Turkish democracy. We are looking forward to working with the new Government, once they are formed, as there are many important political, economic and strategic interests that the UK and Turkey share.
It is very important that a nuclear deal with Iran is not made at any price. The P5+1 must stand firm if Iran will not accept any-time inspections of all suspect sites or come clean on possible military dimensions of the nuclear programme, as suspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Should Britain and the P5+1 not engage much more closely with Arab states and Israel, who share concerns about an agreement that in a few years would allow Iran to greatly expand its nuclear programme?
Perhaps for the first time, I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The reality is that the alternative to an agreement that will restrict Iran’s development of civil nuclear enrichment capabilities for a period of perhaps 20 years is no deal and a free-for-all. We have got to get this agreement right and we have got to carry the Gulf states and Israel with us, and the meeting at Camp David that the US President hosted with the Gulf Co-operation Council countries was part of a process to reassure allies in the Gulf of our commitment to their security.
Yes. I think I have told the House before that there are two issues that we are trying to deal with in order to reopen the embassy. One is around the visa regime and how we deal with Iranian overstayers in the UK, and the other is around the importation of communications equipment that we need to import, uninspected by the Iranians, in order to be able to safely operate our embassy. Until we have resolved those two issues, we really cannot make progress.
Many people, most of all Shaker Aamer’s family, will be pleased that the Prime Minister raised his case again with President Obama this week, but they are dismayed that nothing has happened since the President told the Prime Minister in January that it was a priority. Given that Shaker Aamer was cleared by six national security agencies in 2009 for release, will that process have to be gone through again? If the Minister does not know the answer to that question, can he seek it from the US authorities, so that Shaker Aamer can be returned to his family in the UK?
We continue to raise the issue of Shaker Aamer with the United States authorities at every opportunity. As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the United States Defence Secretary who now has the file on his desk, and there has recently been a change in the occupancy of that position. We continue to press the United States to make progress, and to make good the commitment that President Obama made to the Prime Minister last year.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This concerns the deteriorating character of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which is doing so much damage to the reputation of the House and the reputation of politics.
Last week the Prime Minister asked the acting Leader of the Opposition four questions, almost more than she asked him. Just before the end of the last Parliament, he answered a question by raising nine issues none of which was the subject of the question asked. Prime Minister’s Question Time is becoming an exchange of crude insults and non-answers. As you know, Mr Speaker, I have written to the Prime Minister suggesting that he depoliticise the situation by convening all the party leaders with the aim of reinventing Question Time by giving it a format that would be dignified, still robust, but acceptable outside.
Might it not be a good idea to change the name of Prime Minister’s questions to Prime Minister’s answers, so that at least the Prime Minister would get the point? When he last answered a question from me, he handed the conduct of this matter over to you, suggesting that you take action.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As the House will be aware, my responsibility is to try to keep or, as necessary, restore order. I have no responsibility for the content of either questions or answers.
I do not mind saying to the hon. Gentleman what he may know in any case: that I have, on a previous occasion, written to the party leaders to make the case for a cultural change in the manner in which Prime Minister’s questions are conducted, and I received positive replies from them. The start of a Parliament might seem an auspicious time to try to bring about meaningful change, and I think it would be to the advantage of the House if Members were to take account of, and accord weight to, the very widespread public disapproval of the way in which the proceedings are conducted.
One method of dealing with the matter would be the convening of all-party talks, but that is not for me to do. I would smile on it, but it is not for me to lead. An alternative method might be to ask the Procedure Committee of the House, under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), to consider the way in which matters are handled, and to suggest either a continuation of the status quo or reform options. I think that is all that I can reasonably be expected to say on the matter today.
At the end of the last Parliament, Mr Speaker, the fire Minister told the House that firefighters in England who were found to have retired early would not face any financial penalty in relation to their pensions. Regional fire authorities are now challenging the legality of the Minister’s statement, which is leaving our fire and rescue men and women in limbo. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, on how best to clarify this very, very important issue?
Before I respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, I must correct myself. I should properly have referred to the hon. Member for Broxbourne as the former Chairman of the Procedure Committee. There are currently no Select Committee Chairmen, although, when the hon. Gentleman did chair the Procedure Committee, he was a distinguished Chairman.
The point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) is one of great importance, but it is not a matter for the Chair, and I therefore cannot rule on it. We will leave it there. [Interruption.] It is always helpful, when one makes a ruling, to have the sedentary support of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who is a notable parliamentary specialist himself.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My constituent Mr Ali, a political asylum seeker, is facing deportation this evening to Balochistan, an area of political upheaval where political activists have been persecuted. Can the Home Secretary be encouraged to make a statement on such deportations to such unstable regions in the world?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity; he is newly arrived in this House, but he has already worked out how to get his point on the record. I feel confident that his words will be winging their way to the Home Secretary ere long on what is indeed a very important and urgent matter.
European Union Referendum Bill
I must inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of Mr Alex Salmond. Before I ask the Foreign Secretary to move the Second Reading of the Bill, the House will not be surprised to hear that some dozens of colleagues are seeking to catch my eye and a time limit will have to be imposed. Front Benchers are not constrained by it, of course, but the Foreign Secretary and his shadow are nothing if not sensitive to the wishes of the House and I am sure they will want to balance the need to cover the subject thoroughly and take interventions with the interests of other colleagues in having the chance to contribute.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a simple, but vital, piece of legislation. It has one clear purpose: to deliver on our promise to give the British people the final say on our EU membership in an in/out referendum by the end of 2017. For those who were present in the last Parliament, today’s debate will be tinged with a sense of déjà vu: we have, of course, debated this Bill before. So before I start, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). His European Union (Referendum) Bill in the last Parliament was passed by this House, but sadly was blocked in the other place by the opposition parties. He deserves the credit for paving the way for the Bill we are debating today.
Let me also pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Dobbs who sponsored the Wharton Bill in the other place, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) who reintroduced the same Bill in the following Session.
The commitment on the Government side of the House to giving the British people their say has deep roots.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I am going to make a little progress, bearing in mind Mr Speaker’s exhortation.
It is almost four decades ago to the day that I, along with millions of others in Britain, cast my vote in favour of our membership of the European Communities, and like millions of others I believed then that I was voting for an economic community that would bring significant economic benefits to Britain, but without undermining our national sovereignty. I do not remember anyone saying anything about ever-closer union or a single currency. But the institution that the clear majority of the British people voted to join has changed almost beyond recognition in the decades since then.
There must have been some strange juxtapositions in the campaign held in the 1970s, in which I took a very active part. Most of the debates I took part in were about the pooling of sovereignty and the direct applicability of European legislation without parliamentary intervention, which was a very controversial subject, and, besides, ever-closer union was in the treaty to which we were acceding.
Call me negligent, but as an 18-year-old voter in that election, I did not actually read the treaty before I cast my vote.
Treaty after treaty—the Single European Act, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon—individually and collectively have added hugely to the European Union’s powers, often in areas that would have been unthinkable in 1975, and that change has eroded the democratic mandate for our membership to the point where it is wafer-thin and demands to be renewed.
Two weeks ago I was in North Uist and met one of my constituents, who is from Germany. She has lived in North Uist for 25 years and she voted in the Scottish referendum, but she cannot vote in this referendum. Why were the Scottish Government more generous to and more understanding of her rights as a citizen for 25 years than the Tory Government? Why is she excluded?
If the hon. Gentleman can bear to stop wagging his finger and wait a little, I will come to the question of franchise.
To many people, not only in the UK, but across Europe, the European Union has come to feel like something that is done to them, not for them. Turnout in last year’s European Parliament elections was the lowest ever, dropping to 13% in Slovakia. The fragility of the European Union’s democratic legitimacy is felt particularly acutely by the British people. Since our referendum in 1975, citizens across Europe from Denmark and Ireland to France and Spain have been asked their views on crucial aspects of their country’s relationships with the EU in more than 30 different national referendums—but not in the UK.
We have had referendums on Scottish devolution, Welsh devolution, our electoral system and a regional assembly for the north-east, but an entire generation of British voters has been denied the chance to have a say on our relationship with the European Union. Today we are putting that right. After fighting and winning the general election as the only major party committed to an in/out referendum, in the face of relentless opposition from the other parties, today we are delivering on our promise to give that generation its say.
In the Foreign Secretary’s opening remarks, he referred to the number of changes that have taken place since 1975, when there was last a referendum. Can I take it from what he said that unless the British people have a right to reject all those changes brought about without a referendum he will not be satisfied? Or, can he at least set out today what it is that the Government wish to take back, rather than simply condemning his and all previous Governments since 1975?
The answer to question No. 1 is no and the answer to question No. 2 is that the Prime Minister has set out in a series of speeches, articles and interviews, and in the Conservative party manifesto, the key areas where we require change to the way that Britain’s relationship with the European Union works if we are to be able to get the consent of the British people to our future membership.
Conservative Members have long been clear that the European Union needs to change and that Britain’s relationship with the European Union needs to change. Unlike the Labour party, we believe that Brussels has too much power and that some of those powers need to be brought back to national capitals. In a world whose centre of economic gravity is shifting fast, Europe faces a serious challenge. If we are to continue to earn our way in the world and to secure European living standards for future generations, the EU needs to focus relentlessly on jobs, growth and competitiveness. Bluntly, it needs to become far less bureaucratic and far more competitive.
With the European electorate more disenchanted with the EU than ever before and with anti-EU parties on the rise across the continent, it is time to bring Europe back to the people, ensuring that decisions are made as close to them as possible and giving national Parliaments a greater role in overseeing the European Union. Such issues resonate across all member states. Change is needed for the benefit of all to make the EU fit for the purpose of the 21st century.
I applaud my right hon. Friend’s opening remarks and the Prime Minister for making certain that we had the Bill. May I ask the Foreign Secretary one question? In the last statement made by the Prime Minister in the previous Parliament, he clearly said that he wanted reform and a fundamental change in our relationship with the EU. Will he explain what the second part of that means in practice and in relation to the debate?
My hon. Friend’s question is germane to the point I am making.
For the good of all 28 countries, there are things that need to be done to reform the way in which the European Union works to make it more competitive, effective and democratically accountable. However, the British people have particular concerns, borne of our history and circumstances. For example, we are not part of the single currency and, so long as there is a Conservative Government, we never will be. We made that decision because we will not accept the further integration of our fiscal, economic, financial and social policy—[Hon. Members: “We made it!”] The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) says that Labour made that decision. Is it the position of the Labour party that we will never join the single currency? I have not heard that position being articulated from the Labour Benches. It would be a seminal moment in our parliamentary history if Labour was able to make that commitment today.
We made that decision because we will not accept the further integration of our fiscal, economic, financial and social policy that will inevitably be required to make the eurozone a success. So, in answer to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), we need to agree a framework with our partners that will allow further integration of the eurozone while protecting Britain’s interests and those of the other “euro-outs” within the EU. Because we occupy a crowded island with a population that is growing, even before net migration, and a welfare system that is more accessible than most and more generous than many in Europe, we are far more sensitive than many member states to the impact of migration from the EU and the distorting effects of easy access to benefits and services and of in-work welfare top-ups to wages that are already high by comparison with many EU countries.
In the Conservative party manifesto, we therefore committed to negotiate a new settlement for Britain in Europe—a settlement that addresses the concerns of the British people and sets the European Union on a course that will benefit all its people. The Prime Minister has already begun that process by meeting 15 European leaders, and at the European Council in June he will set out formally the key elements of our proposals.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s point about the pressures of increased numbers coming to work in the United Kingdom, but will he take a moment to pay tribute to the hard-working eastern Europeans from Poland and elsewhere who have come here, worked hard, paid their taxes and contributed to our society?
I am very happy to do so. I do not think anybody—or at least not very many people—in this country has a problem with those who come here to work hard, pay their dues and make a better life for themselves while contributing to the UK economy. They are the not the focus of our concern. Our focus is on the distorting effect of easy access to our welfare system.
The Secretary of State said earlier that he thought Brussels had too much power. Will he tell the House which powers affecting the United Kingdom Brussels has too much of? Will he also tell us whether he would consider it a success or a failure if the Prime Minister failed to repatriate those powers?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has just fallen into the obvious trap. He knows that a negotiation is a negotiation. He asks me to set out a list of powers for repatriation, then invites me to say that the Prime Minister would have failed if we did not achieve the repatriation of every single one of them. No sensible person with any negotiating experience would approach a complex negotiation in that way.
I need to make some progress.
There are those who will say that this process cannot succeed, that Europe will never change, and that our negotiations will not be successful. Looking at the record of the last Labour Government, I can see why they would say that. Under that Labour Government, there was a one-way transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels. They gave away £7 billion of the hard-fought-for British rebate but got absolutely nothing in return. They presided over a massive increase in the EU budget, they signed us up to the eurozone bail-out funds and they failed to deliver on their promise to give the British people a say before ratifying the Lisbon treaty. Labour’s record on Europe was one of dismal failure.
In the last Parliament, however, we showed what could be done. We showed that, even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, change could be achieved by adopting a tough negotiating stance and a laser-like focus on our national interest. We cut the EU budget for the first time ever, saving British taxpayers billions of pounds. We took Britain out of the eurozone bail-outs that Labour signed us up to—the first ever return of powers from Brussels. We vetoed an EU treaty that would have damaged Britain’s interests, we brought back control of more than 100 police and criminal justice measures and we secured exemptions for the smallest businesses from EU regulation. Our record in the past five years shows that we can deliver change in Europe that is in Britain’s national interest.
The Foreign Secretary is taking a lot of noise and advice from those on the Labour Benches, but many of my colleagues and I remember sitting here, Friday after Friday, while they bitterly opposed the European Union (Referendum) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). I presume that my right hon. Friend welcomes the sinner who repents today, but as he takes all that advice will he just remember that if we had taken the advice of Labour, Scottish National party and Liberal Democrat Members, Britain would now be languishing in the euro?
Does the Foreign Secretary believe that, when the Prime Minister completes these unspecified negotiations and decides to campaign for a yes in the referendum, my next-door neighbour the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and his allies who held the Major Government hostage will ever be satisfied?
I will let my hon. Friend the Member for Stone speak for himself in the course of the debate. I am sure, however, that he will await—with a healthily sceptical approach—the return of the Prime Minister from Brussels with that package, and that he will consider it carefully and analytically, safe in the knowledge that underpinning this whole process is an absolute commitment to allow the British people to have the final say on this issue in an in/out referendum.
None of the concessions that the Prime Minister has so far obtained from the European Union, including the veto of the fiscal union treaty, has fundamentally changed our relationship with the EU. How does he intend fundamentally to change that relationship?
My hon. Friend is right, of course. I have already mentioned an area in which we need fundamental change in the way in which the European Union operates. It is now a Union with a eurozone of 19 member states at its core, and those states will integrate more closely together. There needs to be an explicit recognition that those who are not part of that core do not need to pursue ever-closer union. There needs to be an explicit protection of the interests of those non-eurozone members as the EU goes forward. That is an example of an area in which we need specific structural change to the way in which the European Union operates.
I must make some progress.
Of course, negotiating with 27 member states will not be easy and it will not happen overnight, but we expect to be able to negotiate a new deal that will address the concerns of the British people about Britain’s relationship with Europe, which we will put to them in the promised referendum. The Bill provides the mechanism to do that. It sets in stone our commitment to hold the referendum before the end of 2017. Of course, if the process is completed sooner, the referendum could be held sooner. So the Bill allows for the date of the referendum to be determined by regulations, made by affirmative resolution.
The Bill provides for the wording of the referendum question on its face. In 2013, the Electoral Commission assessed the referendum question posed by the Wharton Bill. The Commission recommended two possible formulations. This Bill specifies the simpler of the two:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”,
with a yes/no answer.[Interruption.] Hon. Members need not answer now; they can wait until the designated referendum day. The Electoral Commission will of course report again on this Bill and we look forward to its assessment.
It would be perfectly possible not to accept the Prime Minister’s negotiating stance but to want to remain a member of the European Union. Should we not have a specific vote on the Prime Minister’s recommendations as well as on the retention of membership of the European Union?
No. We made a proposal to the British people, it was put to the test in the general election and we have received an overwhelming mandate to progress. That is what we will do.
The Bill also sets out the entitlement to vote in the referendum. Since this is an issue of national importance, the parliamentary franchise is the right starting point. It means that British citizens in the UK or resident abroad for less than 15 years and resident Commonwealth and Irish citizens can take part. The Bill extends the franchise in two very limited respects: to Members of the other place who meet certain qualifications and to Commonwealth citizens resident in Gibraltar. Members of the other place cannot take part in elections to this House on the grounds that they are already represented in Parliament, but it is clearly right that the franchise should be extended to them in the referendum. Gibraltar will also be deeply affected by its outcome. It is part of the European Union and its economy is closely bound to its relationship with the EU. Of course, Gibraltar already takes part in elections to the European Parliament as part of the South West of England. During debates on the private Member’s Bill in the previous Parliament, there was cross-party support for Gibraltar’s inclusion. I hope that that will remain.
We will extend the franchise to Gibraltar only with the consent of the Government of Gibraltar, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has already agreed the principles for achieving that with the Chief Minister. Wherever possible, the Bill leaves it to the Gibraltar Parliament to make provision to implement the referendum in Gibraltar. The Government of Gibraltar intend to introduce their own referendum Bill, which will be complementary to the UK legislation.
Some will argue that we should extend the franchise further to 16 and 17-year-olds, perhaps, or even to citizens of other EU countries resident here. We do not agree. This is an issue of national importance about Britain’s relationship with the European Union and it is right that the Westminster parliamentary franchise should be the basis for consulting the British people. I concede that there are those in the House who will wish to debate whether that franchise itself should be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, but the Government are not persuaded and that is a debate for another day. It would be wrong to include 16 and 17-year-olds in this referendum as an addition to the Westminster franchise.
I reject, too, the suggestion that EU citizens living in the UK should be included. The referendum is about delivering a pledge to the British people to consult them about the future of their country. It would be a travesty to seek to include EU nationals whose interests might be very different from those of the British people.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about Gibraltar, which will be warmly welcomed by the people of Gibraltar and which recognise that Gibraltar is a particular case. Will he also accept that many of us who supported my Bill and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) in the previous Parliament did so on the basis of the parliamentary franchise? I strongly urge my right hon. Friend to stick to that and not be drawn into debates about broader issues of the franchise that are not part of this Bill’s proposals.
Speaking as somebody who worked in the Treasury between 1999 and 2005, may I remind the Foreign Secretary that it was a Labour Government that designed the five tests, a Labour Government that carried out the assessment and a Labour Government that kept us out of the single currency? It is thanks to a Labour Government that we are not in the single currency today.
I want to press the Foreign Secretary again on the question of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The answer he gave about why we should not do it—because it is an issue of national importance—is the main reason he should do it. He said that he did not want to deviate from the franchise for Westminster, but he is already doing that by extending it to peers. Why not let young people have a say on their future, which is what this Bill is about?
Has the Foreign Secretary seen the national opinion poll today that shows that the majority of British people want to stay in the European Union, but a reformed European Union with a form that is in not only the British national interest but that of continental Europe and our 27 European partners? Does that not underline the importance of European leaders listening not only to this Parliament but more importantly to the British people, both through this Parliament and directly?
Yes, and today we are ensuring that our partners in Europe understand that this is not about making a deal in a smoke-filled room with a few politicians but about delivering a package that satisfies the British people. My assessment has been for a long time and remains that the great majority of the British people want Britain to remain inside the European Union provided we can get the reform of the EU and of Britain’s relationship with it that satisfies and answers the crucial points we have set out.
On the question of European nationals voting in this referendum, will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether any of the referendums held in other European countries have been open to all other European Union citizens living in that country—[Hon. Members: “Scotland!”] It is not a separate member of the EU.
As far as I am aware, that is not the case. I note with interest that just this weekend it was reported that Luxembourg, an open and very pro-EU country, has decided not to extend its parliamentary franchise to the very many EU citizens who are resident in Luxembourg.
Although the central issue at stake in the Bill is simple and the three key variables—the date, the franchise and the question—are dealt with in the first two clauses, running a referendum is not straightforward. The remainder of the Bill, which includes 38 pages of schedules, deals with three important but technical areas. First, in clause 4(1) it establishes a power to set the conduct framework that will determine how the referendum will be run. Secondly, in clause 4(2) it creates the power to set more detailed conduct rules and combination rules to determine how the vote would be run alongside other electoral events should the chosen dates coincide with any. Finally, the Bill establishes the detailed campaign rules, updating the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 where necessary, taking into account the lessons of both the Scottish independence and alternative vote referendums and the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission.
The Bill also disapplies section 125 of the 2000 Act, and as this aspect has received some media attention I shall elaborate on the Government’s logic. Section 125 places statutory restrictions on Government publications in the final 28 days before the poll. There are operational and political reasons for disapplying it in this referendum. If left unaltered, section 125 would stop the Government “publishing” material that deals with “any issue raised by” the referendum question. In the context of this referendum, that is unworkable and inappropriate. It is unworkable because the restriction is so broad that preventing publication in relation to any issue raised by the referendum could prevent Ministers from conducting the ordinary day-to-day business of the UK’s dealings with the European Union and inappropriate because the referendum will take place as a result of a clear manifesto commitment and a mandate won at the general election.
That mandate is to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s relationship with the European Union and put them to the people in a referendum. In the light of the outcome of those negotiations, the Government expect to take a position, and if we have been successful, as we expect to be, the Government will want to explain what has been agreed and how the British people’s concerns have been addressed. We will want to make a recommendation on where the national interest lies, and Ministers will want to be able to continue making the case, up to referendum day, without being constrained by fears that, for example, the posting of comments on Twitter accounts could constitute publication.
Let me complete my remarks on this section, and then I will come back to my hon. Friend’s point. I hope that I will clarify the matter for him.
Clearly, it will be for the yes and the no campaigns to lead the debate in the weeks preceding the poll. The campaigns will be designated by the Electoral Commission, and will receive a number of benefits, including a public grant and eligibility to make a referendum broadcast and to send a free mailshot to voters. I can assure the House that the Government have no intention of undermining those campaigns, and they do not propose to spend large sums of public money during the purdah period prescribed by section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000. A vibrant, robust debate in the best traditions of British democracy is in all our interests. If my hon. Friend’s concern is that the Government are thinking of spending public money to deliver doorstep mailshots in the last four weeks of the campaign, I can assure him that the Government have no such intention. The Government will exercise proper restraint to ensure a balanced debate during the campaign.
I remember that one of the arguments that I made on my party’s behalf during debates on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 was that the purdah period should be extended, not restricted. While I understand the points that my right hon. Friend makes, and while I expect that I shall argue for a yes vote in the referendum—although I shall wait on the Prime Minister’s renegotiation —we have to be careful to provide a level playing field and make it clear that the Government will not abuse their position. For that reason, I hope that the Government will focus on this issue. The change that is being introduced to legislation that we previously said was deficient in this respect could convey an impression that the Government will come in and try to load the dice, and that must be avoided.
I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a particular question about the renegotiation. I think that there is virtually unanimous agreement in the House that the import duties currently imposed on cane sugar coming into Europe are unfair. Will he confirm that that item is on the list for the renegotiation that he has been telling us about?
I am delighted to see that the right hon. Gentleman is robust in his defence of the interests of Tate and Lyle—his constituents—and I will take that representation and put it with the many others from both sides of the House about particular areas that we need to raise in the course of the discussion.
I need to conclude my remarks because many Members wish to contribute.
Few subjects ignite as much passion in the House or indeed in the country as our membership of the European Union. The debate in the run-up to the referendum will be hard fought on both sides of the argument. But whether we favour Britain being in or out, we surely should all be able to agree on the simple principle that the decision about our membership should be taken by the British people, not by Whitehall bureaucrats, certainly not by Brussels Eurocrats; not even by Government Ministers or parliamentarians in this Chamber. The decision must be for the common sense of the British people. That is what we pledged, and that is what we have a mandate to deliver. For too long, the people of Britain have been denied their say. For too long, powers have been handed to Brussels over their heads. For too long, their voice on Europe has not been heard. This Bill puts that right. It delivers the simple in/out referendum that we promised, and I commend it to the House.
This Bill will set before the British people a clear and simple question: should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? It is 11 words, but the answer will have profound consequences for the future of our country, as the people of the United Kingdom make the most important decision on our place in the world for 40 years. It is a decision that will affect the future journey of our proud and great islands; it is a decision the consequence of which will be felt by the people of our country for decades and generations to come; and it is a decision that will shape not only how we view our place in the world but how the rest of the world sees us.
We support the Bill and its passage through Parliament, but we also support Britain remaining a member of the EU. The same cannot be said of all the right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches.