House of Commons
Tuesday 24 November 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—
During last month’s state visit, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Xi Jinping discussed the importance of ongoing dialogue on issues about which we disagree, including human rights. I set out the Government’s position on Tibet, including our human rights concerns, in a parliamentary debate secured by the hon. Gentleman in June.
I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that the UN Committee against Torture met last week in Geneva to review China’s record, and it expressed serious concerns over China’s continued use of torture to extract confessions from prisoners. In response, the Chinese delegation denied all allegations of endemic, systematic acts of torture. China also claims to hold no political prisoners at all. Will the Minister or the Foreign Secretary ensure that the routine use of torture in Chinese jails, including in Tibet, is raised with China at the next UN Human Rights Council?
We would normally raise such matters regarding Tibet or anywhere else. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on keeping Tibet at the forefront of the House’s deliberations, and there have been two debates on the issue, most recently in June and before that in December. The recent state visit was a huge success. President Xi acknowledged the importance of improving protection for human rights and said that China was ready for increased exchanges and co-operation on that issue with the UK. The UK is one of the few countries in the world to have an annual human rights dialogue with China, and that is an incredibly important architecture within which to press the Chinese and raise such matters. We shall continue to do so.
The Minister will recall that in an exchange on 22 October he confirmed that China is ready to co-operate with the UK and other countries in the area of human rights. Were matters such as Tibet and the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, the alleged forced harvesting of organs, and the harassment of Ai Weiwei discussed with the Chinese President when he visited the UK?
The right hon. Gentleman credits me with almost total recall, but our position has been consistent. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issues of Falun Gong and organ harvesting with State Councillor Yang Jiechi during the UK-China strategic dialogue in Beijing in August. We have raised specific concerns about reports of organ harvesting on numerous occasions, including in response to a written question on 15 July.
We raise those issues consistently with the Chinese within the framework of the UK-Chinese human rights dialogue, and our annual human rights report is updated every six months. Some comments about the recent state visit have implied that our relationship with the Chinese is purely one of commerce, but that is wrong. This is not a binary relationship. As we get closer to the Chinese and are seen as a good partner to China on the world stage, and in terms of inward investment and trade between both countries, we can discuss such matters more maturely than many other countries can. It boils down to whether we believe in megaphone diplomacy, or in getting alongside the people we are trying to talk to, and pointing out that the way to do things is the way that we do things.
Political Stability: North Africa
The UK is actively supporting UN efforts, led by the Secretary-General’s new special representative, Martin Kobler, to reach a lasting political agreement in Libya. We are helping Tunisia and other north African countries to build legitimate, inclusive institutions and develop their economies, as well as strengthening their counter-terrorism capabilities. I will visit Tunisia soon to discuss the effectiveness of UK political and security co-operation with that country, and I plan to meet UN Special Representative Kobler later this week.
Yes, I agree. Since the Sousse attacks in Tunisia, we recognise that we need to focus a bit more attention on those countries that are, let us say, one step away from the chaos that is going on in Libya—countries that are making a success of things, but which still have some vulnerabilities and are being targeted by the extremists. We need to help them to build resilience against extremism.
The Foreign Secretary will know that Tunisia’s economy has been badly hit by the collapse of its tourist industry. What steps is he taking to encourage other countries, particularly those in the Gulf states, to assist the Tunisians in maintaining both economic and political stability?
First, we need to work with the Tunisians to improve security so that the tourist trade can resume as soon as is practical. The EU is looking at the relaxation of olive oil quotas to allow Tunisia greater access to the European market for olive oil, a product it has aplenty, if it is able to export it. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), visited Tunisia a couple of weeks ago and discussed with the Tunisians a 49-point plan to support their economy. We are, with the French, seeking to act as cheerleaders for support within the European Union for the Tunisian economy.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we should take this opportunity to encourage institutions such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and a range of other organisations and institutions in our western allies—the United States, France and Germany, to name but three—to ensure political stability and democracy is brought to Tunisia, Libya, and, hopefully, other north African countries?
Yes, I agree. Of course, Tunisia is ahead of the game, as it were. It is one of the success stories of the 2011 Arab spring, with a functioning constitution and democratic elections. All of that is challenged, however, by the desire of the extremists to target such success stories. We must stand with them.
I am sure the Foreign Secretary will join us in expressing outrage at the terrorist atrocity in Mali in which 22 people, citizens of Mali, China, Russia, Belgium, Burkina, Israel, Lebanon, the US and Senegal, were slaughtered. Given that we now see al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Daesh-affiliated organisations operating across the Sahel and the Maghreb, including in Tunisia and Libya, will the Government say more about their regional approach to working with countries across the Sahara and the Sahel to tackle terrorism?
We are working with a wide range of countries, including, crucially, Nigeria. This is, of course, a pincer movement from Nigeria in the south and the Sahel in the north. We are working with a full range of countries. I would say, however, that if we are to stop the spread of terrorism, we have to tackle it at its heart, and its heart is in Raqqa, Syria.
The security situation in Sinai is a threat to Egypt and other countries in north Africa, as well as to the coalition against ISIL, as we saw with the recent terrorist attack. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the security situation in the Sinai region and its impact on political stability?
The security situation in Sinai is very serious. The Egyptian army is engaged in combat with terrorist groups across Sinai. The Foreign Office travel advice recommends against all travel to Sinai, except the area around Sharm el-Sheik. Sharm el-Sheik is itself still considered safe for travel, although travel through the airport is advised against. We seek to work with the Egyptian authorities to deal with the terrorist challenge it is facing in Sinai.
Does the Foreign Secretary believe that further air strikes alone will move us towards political stability in the wider region? Perhaps he will take this opportunity to address the efficacy of military intervention in Syria and how it will contribute to a wider initiative to end civil war and secure reconstruction. Does he have a plan for securing the peace that includes measures to close down all sources of finance and new recruits to the terrorist cult Daesh, including a Government inquiry into its financing? Why are the Government attempting to make a case for war while failing to address the clear and present need for a long-term, comprehensive peace plan?
The short answer, as we have acknowledged many times, is that, no, airstrikes alone will not destroy Daesh—as the hon. Lady implores me to describe it from the Dispatch Box—but they have to be part of the overall solution. On her other specific inquiries, if she will wait until Thursday, she can look forward to hearing from the Prime Minister how this fits into our broader strategy.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his response, and I wait in anticipation for Thursday’s statement. I am also grateful for his using “Daesh”; I wish that other Members would follow suit. As we understand it, in Syria today, the USA is bombing Daesh and does not support the Assad Government; Russia, which supports the Assad Government, says it is bombing Daesh but is also targeting rebels; Turkey is bombing Daesh but is also targeting Kurdish forces in the north; while the Australians, Canadians, Saudi Arabians and others are supporting the USA. If military action forces Daesh to give up territory in Syria and Iraq in the coming weeks and months, which force does he expect to take its place on the ground?
Again, the short answer is that the hon. Lady has correctly identified that the situation is extremely complex. As the Prime Minister has said, we have to resolve these two things in parallel: we have to get a political solution to the civil war in Syria so that we can get everybody dealing with the challenge posed by Daesh, instead of fighting each other, and that is what our comprehensive strategy will seek to achieve.
3. What recent discussions he has had with the Governments of British overseas territories with financial centres on central registers of beneficial ownership. (902304)
I discussed progress on central registers of beneficial ownership with the Premiers of the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda yesterday and will have a further opportunity to do so when they are in London next week for the joint ministerial council.
In April 2014, the Prime Minister wrote to the overseas territories:
“The rest of the world is watching us closely and public registries will demonstrate the sincerity of our commitment to improve corporate behaviour and set a new standard for transparency of company ownership.”
It is clear he wants overseas territories to have public registers of beneficial ownership. Will the Minister ensure that overseas territories adopt public registers or, at the very least, ensure access for the public in line with the fourth EU anti-money laundering directive?
The hon. Gentleman should give the overseas territories credit where credit is due. Progress has been made towards the greater use of central registers, and we are currently working on security and police forces’ access to them, but, in the longer term, he is entirely right: ultimately, we will have to move in the direction of public access to that information. But the overseas territories are making progress.
Syria: Displaced People
One of the five principal strands of the international counter-ISIL strategy is humanitarian and stabilisation support. The UK has been at the forefront of providing humanitarian support, having committed more than £1 billion to assisting host countries that have opened their doors to refugees fleeing Assad’s regime and terrorist organisations, including al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and Daesh.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must be energised. The Government are committed to working with the now 65-strong counter-ISIL coalition on our five-point strategy: defeating Daesh on the battlefield; cutting off its funding streams; stemming the flow of foreign fighters; countering the online messaging; and providing the humanitarian and stabilisation support I have already mentioned.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have done a huge amount in providing stabilisation and humanitarian support to do just that—to allow people to stay in the region, but also to help the vulnerable who need to be taken away from the region and supported, which is why we are taking 20,000 refugees here in the UK.
The issue for Syrian refugees in the region is that they are not allowed to work legally when they are in neighbouring countries. What are the Government doing to support countries such as Jordan economically, so that that can change and refugees may work in such countries legally?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I visited Zaatari camp, which contains 100,000 refugees. What the hon. Gentleman said is an issue, and causes a bit of tension locally with people in the camp willing to be paid less, but wanting to work. We are working with Jordan and the United Nations to provide employment programmes. The skills can be kept up, so that when the guns finally fall silent in Syria we can transfer those skill sets back into the country.
When I visited the Zaatari refugee camp, I saw at first hand the amount of aid that the UK Government are giving to help the situation on the ground in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere. The UK is the second-highest donor to those countries. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made on getting other neighbouring countries and other partners to make their proper contribution to helping the humanitarian crisis in the region?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support. Sometimes the number of 20,000 refugees that the UK is taking is taken out of context in comparison with the work we are doing to support people such as those in the Zaatari camp. We are providing support to other countries, but we are also encouraging the neighbours. That is one reason why we are hosting a conference here in February, along with Kuwait, to encourage other countries to provide donations so that we can be ready for post-conflict reconstruction both in Iraq and in Syria.
I discussed the situation in Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov at the two recent meetings of the International Syria Support Group in Vienna. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also discussed Syria with President Putin in the margins of the G20 summit in Antalya last weekend.
I think my hon. Friend well knows my views and those of the Prime Minister on this issue. We believe that it is morally unacceptable to outsource to others an action that is essential to the defence of the United Kingdom and UK citizens around the world. That is why we are seeking to build a consensus in this House for taking military action against Daesh in Raqqa.
On the situation in Syria, has the Foreign Secretary seen the letter in today’s The Times in which nearly 200 Islamic scholars have denounced ISIS terror in the strongest possible terms? That is the sort of propaganda we should use, and the Foreign Office should use it in different parts of the world. Should we not make it perfectly clear, as those scholars have, that the atrocities in Paris have nothing to do with the wicked west? We went to war over Kosovo in order to protect Muslims—and we were right to do so.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Our position is a moral one. We are defending the right of people—whether they be Christians, Yazidis, Jews or Muslims—to practise their religion freely against a tyranny that imposes its view by beheadings, rapes and mass deportations. We must end this terror. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that a vital tool in our armoury is the very substantial body of thoughtful, moderate Islamic scholarship around the world. We need to ensure—and when I say “we”, I mean all nations of good will, as this has to be led essentially by the Muslim countries of the world—that that moderate view prevails. We need to help the Muslims of the world reclaim their religion from the extremists.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of this morning’s appalling news that a Russian bomber has been shot down by a NATO country, Turkey? Is that not potentially extremely dangerous, given that nothing like that happened during the whole of the cold war period? If we are to get a solution in the north of Syria and Iraq, we have to look to building a moderate Sunni regime there. We may have to go back at the end of the war to redraw the boundaries drawn up by Sykes-Picot.
Our view, and the strong view of, I think, all our partners and allies, is that we need to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria. I can promise my hon. Friend that if we start opening up boundaries in the region, we will prolong the agony.
As for the reports that have been coming in this morning of the shooting down of what was possibly a Russian air force jet near the Turkish-Syrian border, we are seeking further details urgently in both Moscow and Ankara. Clearly this was potentially a serious incident, but I do not think it would be wise to comment any further until we have more certainty about the facts.
Following its shockingly brutal attacks in Paris, no one doubts that we must defeat Daesh in both Iraq and Syria, and that that must be linked to the urgent need for a peace plan to end the Syrian civil war. When does the Foreign Secretary expect a decision to be reached on which opposition groups will take part in the talks that are due to start on 1 January, and what is his current assessment of the chances of securing a ceasefire during the discussions about the formation of a transitional Government?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, both those issues—the ceasefire and the definition of the opposition groups who will take part in the talks—have been at the heart of the International Syria Support Group’s work. Working groups have been tasked with drawing up an agreed list of opposition participants, and I hope that when the ISSG next meets—we expect it to do so during the second week of December—we shall be able to approve a list. However, I should emphasise that there are still some differences among members of the support group. The Russians and the Iranians do not necessarily take the same view of who is an acceptable interlocutor as many of our other partners.
The unanimous agreement of United Nations Security Council resolution 2249 last Friday was a significant moment in the fight against Daesh, because the world community has come together to fight this evil using, in the words of the resolution, “all necessary measures”. What is the Foreign Secretary’s latest assessment of how Daesh’s base in Syria is contributing to and co-ordinating threats both to its neighbours and to the rest of the world, as we have seen recently and tragically in the killings in France, the suicide bombings in Lebanon and Turkey, the blowing up of the Russian airliner, and, of course, the killing of British tourists in Tunisia?
As the Prime Minister has said on many occasions, there is no doubt that the head of this multi-tentacled monster is in Raqqa in Syria. Its logistics, its controlling brain and its strategic communications, which are extremely effective, are all run from that headquarters. We will not destroy it by cutting off its limbs; we can destroy it only by going for the head and the heart. I should add that while some of the activity that is being conducted around the world in the name of ISIL is clearly directed from Raqqa, in other cases it is inspired by ISIL propaganda but not directly controlled from Raqqa, so it is a mixture.
Our immediate priority is to ensure that the European Union Referendum Bill passes into law, so that those who are eligible to vote can do so. The Government are, however, also committed to supporting efforts to maximise registration, and the Electoral Commission plans to launch a national public awareness campaign in the run-up to the referendum.
On three occasions, this House—the elected House—has voted against lowering the voting age to 16 for the referendum, and the Government will propose to overturn the latest amendment from the Lords. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it is a bit rich for him and his party to carp about the franchise, given that they voted against having a referendum at all.
Will the Minister assure the House that following the completion of the Prime Minister’s renegotiations there will be more than sufficient time before the referendum itself to air arguments both for and against remaining in the EU?
May I press the Minister a little further on the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds? The other place passed its amendment on this by a big majority on 18 November. There are rumours of disagreements within the Government and within the Cabinet on how to respond. The Prime Minister has so far left the door open to change in the questions he has been asked previously about this. We know that 16 and 17-year-olds are capable of understanding the issues and we know they are interested and want to take part, so why will the Minister not agree to the amendment and give 16 and 17-year-olds a proper say in the future of our country?
There are hon. Members in various parts of the House who champion the cause of reducing the voting age to 16, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the right time to debate that issue is during discussions on proposed legislation where such a change would apply to the franchise for all elections and referendums and not as a one-off tacked on to a Bill for a particular referendum.
As the hon. Lady can well imagine, I discuss the current migration crisis with my EU counterparts on a regular basis—for example at the Foreign Affairs Council last Monday in Brussels and when I met the Visegrad Group of EU countries in Prague the previous Friday. All of them agree now on the importance of a comprehensive approach to tackling the underlying causes of irregular migration, and the UK is playing a leading role in delivering this approach.
The refugees we are mainly discussing in relation to the hon. Lady’s question about discussions with my EU colleagues are those arriving within the Schengen area. As Britain is not in the Schengen area, clearly those people would not be able to access the UK in the normal course of events, so their future will be within the Schengen area unless and until at some point in the quite far-off future they obtain EU citizenship.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clearly there is agreement across the EU that we need to address these issues upstream, and one of the most pressing upstream challenges is the civil war in Syria. As I have already said once this afternoon, the Prime Minister will set out our comprehensive approach to that problem—military, political and humanitarian—on Thursday.
What part of the discussions at the EU Foreign Affairs Council has centred on the very real genocide that is happening, including in UNHCR refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the Kurdish autonomous region, by radicalised Islamists linked to Daesh who are killing people—killing Christians—in those camps and driving them out of them?
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman candidly that that has not been the focus of the discussion in the Foreign Affairs Council about the migration crisis, but I am aware of concerns about what is going on in the camps. The UK’s approach is to invest heavily in providing safe and appropriate facilities for refugees in the region so they can return to Syria in due course, and we will continue to advocate that approach and encourage our EU partners to put more money into that effort.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has had productive rounds of talks with every European leader and with the Presidents of the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission. The Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and I also maintain regular contact with our counterparts right across Europe.
We believe that our flexibility opt-out from the 48-hour week under the working time directive is important for keeping employment levels in this country high, compared with the tragic levels of unemployment in many other European nations, and we shall certainly be fighting very hard to ensure that we keep that opt-out.
The Government used to complain about Tony Blair giving the UK’s rebate back to the European Union, so why did the Prime Minister not ask for a reduction in our EU membership fee in his letter? Are the Government now happy that we gave up our rebate, or has the Prime Minister asked only for the things that he has already had agreed by the European Union, so that he can tell us that his negotiations have been a success—on the basis that if you ask for nothing and get nothing, it looks like a success?
My hon. Friend would do well to do as he has done before, and to applaud the Prime Minister’s success in getting the first-ever reduction in the EU’s multi-annual budget. I can assure my hon. Friend that the negotiations will be tough and, at times, difficult, but I am confident that they will end with a better set of relationships between this country and the EU.
But surely it is the case that the very modest proposals set out in that letter are the only ones that the Government believe the rest of the European Union are prepared to agree to. That is why an end to free movement, which so many British people want to see, is not even going to be discussed.
We have made it clear that we want the freedom of movement for workers to be just that, and not a freedom to select the best welfare system anywhere in Europe. In our approach to this subject, we must also take into account the fact that hundreds of thousands of British citizens are able to work, study and live elsewhere in Europe.
I have to ask the hon. Gentleman to re-read the letter that the Prime Minister sent to Donald Tusk last week. It makes it clear that, while we accept the principle of freedom of movement for workers, we want to secure changes to ensure that we can reduce the pull factors exerted by elements of our welfare system, which add to the migration into this country.
Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, if the bar is so high and so tough, what are the difficulties? What is the Prime Minister really going to fight for? What is the thing that is holding him back? Where is it? Come on! The bar is so low that this negotiation is just a joke.
I perhaps look forward to the day when my hon. Friend is able to join me at ministerial meetings in Europe, where he will see that the task of negotiating is not quite as easy as he made out in his question. I cannot give a running commentary on ongoing negotiations, but I remind him that President Tusk said that the British requests are tough and that it would be
“really difficult to find an agreement”.
That indicates that we have a real negotiation in front of us.
Britain has made its support for President Hadi in Yemen very clear and recognised his legitimate request for military assistance in deterring the Houthi-Saleh aggression, which has compounded an already dire humanitarian situation. We are aware of reports of alleged violations of international humanitarian law, and both the Foreign Secretary and I have received repeated assurances from Saudi Arabia of compliance.
These investigations must be concluded, they must be looked into and they will be ongoing. The situation on the ground is very difficult and, in many cases, we are unable to have access to verify what has happened. I am pleased to say that progress is being made by the UN envoy, Ismail Ahmed, in bringing the parties together in Geneva very shortly, and that is where we need to focus in terms of getting a ceasefire in place.
The humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Yemen, a country I know well, are heart-rending. Does the Minister agree that international peace talks leading to a political settlement are the best way to bring an end to the humanitarian suffering and any potential breaches of international law in Yemen?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we are discussing important challenges in the middle east, but unfortunately the scale of the situation in Yemen is dire; 20 million people are facing famine and starvation, as there is a lack of oil, water and the support that they need. There is no governance there and until we have a ceasefire, the port of Hodeidah will not be able to be opened up to allow that humanitarian support to come into the country.
Human Rights Watch has documented 27 air strikes since 26 March that appear to have violated the laws of war in Yemen. On 11 November, the Foreign Secretary that he supported “proper investigations” into human rights violations from all sides in the Yemen conflict. Can the Minister therefore explain why the UK failed to support the Dutch at the last meeting of the UN Human Rights Council when they called for a credible investigation into these violations?
The hon. Lady raises important points. I met non-governmental organisations and had a round-table discussion on policy, and many of these issues were raised. As she states, there was an international discussion on this matter in that process. We have been wanting to encourage Saudi Arabia and other parties that are involved—it is not just the Saudis in this coalition, but 10 other countries—and we want these cases looked into efficiently and properly by the country itself.
Since operations by the global coalition began last year, ISIL has lost more than 30% of the territory it once controlled in Iraq. Most recently, Kurdish forces retook Sinjar, and Iraqi security forces have taken Baiji and are preparing to take Ramadi. Slowly but surely, ISIL is being pushed back, and I am confident that it will be driven out of Iraq in time.
As chair of the all-party group on Islamo- phobia, I do wish we would formally refer to these people as Daesh. As they are steadily pushed back in Iraq, does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting their supply lines with Syria will hasten its defeat and, importantly, bring about the restoration of Iraq’s territorial integrity.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, the retaking of Sinjar is a very important step in that, as it sits astride the most important supply route from Raqqa into Iraq. Ultimately, we need not just to cut the supply lines, but to go to the heart and the head of the beast in Raqqa.
Does the Secretary of State regard Turkey as a reliable ally in the battle against ISIL, given that not only has it today shot down a Russian jet, even though the Russians are also trying to fight ISIL, but it is buying oil from ISIL to prop it up and it is bombing the Kurds, who are also fighting ISIL? This Syrian engagement is an almighty mess.
I see that old habits die hard, and that the hon. Gentleman remains an apologist for Russian actions. Turkey is an important NATO ally. It holds the key to a number of really very important questions, both in relation to the battle against ISIL and to the migration challenge that Europe faces, and it will remain a very important partner for this country and for the European Union.
Following my recent discussions in Vienna, an International Syria Support Group will now meet on a regular basis, in parallel with Syrian-led discussions between the opposition and the regime facilitated by the UN, to take forward a transition process for that country. The UK will work with our international partners to maintain momentum in this important endeavour.
Is it not clearer than ever that the presence of ISIS in Syria represents an immediate threat to our national security? Given that the UK has significant military assets that could make a significant contribution to the fight against ISIS, is it not incumbent on us in this House to support our allies, and our failure to do so would cause complete bewilderment on their part?
It is true that we do have military capabilities, in particular the precision weapons available on Tornado aircraft, that would make a difference to the military battle on the ground in Syria. It is incumbent on us—and we have accepted this challenge—not only to make the case for military intervention, but to set that case in a broader context of a comprehensive approach to the Syria problem. The Prime Minister has taken on himself the responsibility of delivering his comprehensive strategy to the House.
It is ever more apparent that, unless we deal with the biggest recruitment sergeant for Daesh in Syria, namely the aerial bombardments and other abuses of civilians by the Assad regime, we will not tackle the cancer that is Daesh. Will the Secretary of State say a little more on how he plans to sequence and prioritise strategic UK engagement in efforts to bring about a ceasefire and political transition alongside a comprehensive plan to tackle Daesh?
Yes, we will do it through the International Syria Support Group that we have set up. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we will not get a ceasefire or the opposition groups working with the rump of regime forces against Daesh unless and until they can be clear that Assad is going at a clear and defined point in the transition process. At the moment, we do not have agreement across the ISSG, particularly with the Russians and the Iranians, about that point. That is where we have to go, and the fundamental thrust of all our discussions is around trying to get agreement on a route for an exit by Assad so that the rest of the pieces of this jigsaw can drop into place.
Given Britain’s strong strategic, diplomatic and economic ties with Gulf nations and other states in the middle east, both the Foreign Secretary and I regularly meet our counterparts to discuss a range of issues including security. In recent weeks, the UK hosted the Egyptian President here in London. The Foreign Secretary has visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. I have returned from Oman, and will shortly be heading to Kuwait—I say that hopefully, looking at the Whip on duty.
As we face an epidemic of jihadist violence, can my hon. Friend assure the House that, in his extensive and close dialogue with our Gulf friends and partners, he will continue to press on them that the funding by some of them of these dangerous jihadi organisations really must stop?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the five key traits of the strategy is preventing the funding that is taking place that is keeping ISIL alive. It is important that all countries across the middle east in the coalition of 65 work hard to prevent that from happening.
18. Will the Minister raise in his discussions the current terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians? Some 108 Israelis have been killed or injured by shootings and stabbings on the streets in recent weeks. Will he also condemn the incitement that goes with that, including the statement from the Palestinian cleric in Gaza who said that Jews should be turned into body parts to stab “the myths of the Talmud” out of their heads? (902322)
The hon. Lady raises a very serious point. Thankfully, in the past couple of weeks there has been a reduction in violence in the west bank. Since the start of the current spate of violence, we have spoken regularly with both sides—the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority—and we urgently need to de-escalate tensions and get all parties back to the table.
I saw for myself in July the desperate plight of the Rohingya community. Alleviating that situation remains a priority for us. We take every opportunity to press the Burmese authorities to tackle the issue, and we will continue to press the incoming Government.
Last week, a key National League for Democracy official said that the plight of the Rohingya people is not a priority. What discussions has the Minister had with the new leadership about the refugee crisis—there are 140,000 people in internally displaced camps, to which humanitarian institutions do not have sufficient access—and about reform of the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law?
As I said in my written statement to the House on 20 November, the landmark elections on 8 November were
“a victory for the people of Burma”,—[Official Report, 20 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 25WS.]
notwithstanding the fact that the Rohingya were disfranchised from those elections. That is something that the incoming Government will have to deal with. I concur with what President Obama has said about the Rohingya in the past few days. Like him, we hope they will be
“treated fairly and justly in their own country”,
and we believe, as he does, that they are
“deserving of the world’s protection and the world’s support.”
The incoming Government in Burma are going to have an awful lot on their plate and will have to manage expectations. We stand ready to help them to do so, and addressing the grievances of the Rohingya people must be pretty near the top of that list.
I should tell the House that I have written to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I hope with the concurrence of the House, to congratulate her and the National League for Democracy on their magnificent victory on 8 November. I am very grateful to the Minister for what he has just said.
My priorities remain the struggle against violent extremist Islamism in all its forms, including our response to the recent despicable attacks in Paris and the middle east; the containment of Russian actions that threaten the international rules-based system; and the renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Decisions that have been taken in the strategic defence and security review will underpin the diplomacy that allows us to make effective progress in all of those areas, backing our undoubted soft power with hard power. Tomorrow I will travel to Malta for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and for the state visit of Her Majesty the Queen.
I have said to my colleagues across Government, long before the publication of the SDSR yesterday, that the most important reinforcement our diplomacy could have is clear statements about this country’s determination to back its armed forces. We have done that, first with the commitment to 2% and then, in the SDSR, turning that commitment into specific programmes and plans that will deliver to our armed forces the capability we need to back our soft power with hard power.
T6. I spent a lot of time over the weekend listening to people in Dudley tell me their views on Syria. On the whole, they said that they think there is a case for dealing with ISIL-Daesh, especially after the attacks in Tunisia and Paris, but they want to know exactly what practical difference Britain can make, how civilians will be protected, and whether there is a comprehensive plan to rebuild Syria afterwards, with a proper Government in place of Assad, who used chemical weapons on his people. (902297)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I am glad to hear that he is carefully taking the pulse of his constituents. On the last point, as I have said several times already today, the Prime Minister will set out a comprehensive strategy. That is not just about military intervention, but about how we use that military intervention to achieve the political solution we need in the wider conflict in Syria.
On the specific military point, the UK does have capabilities that will make a difference. The dual-mode Brimstone missile on our Tornado aircraft is a precision weapon unlike anything that any of the other coalition allies are able to deploy. That in itself, because of its precision and its low payload, will ensure minimisation of collateral damage and collateral casualties. That is one of the reasons our allies are so keen that we take part in this campaign.
T3. There has been another weekend of deadly terror attacks on Israeli citizens, including a brutal stabbing yesterday. Will the Foreign Secretary condemn those attacks, and does he agree that sanctioned incitement to commit terror must end? (902294)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I articulated in a previous answer, we need to get all parties back to the table. Unfortunately, it seems that the planets are misaligned at the moment. We need to reconfigure and ensure that all parties are able to come back and prevent the scale of violence from increasing.
T10. What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to ensure that genuine law-abiding refugees leaving Syria are not locked out of the asylum process as a result of border measures being introduced across the EU after the brutal attacks in Paris? (902301)
Clearly it is a matter for each member state of the European Union and other European countries to determine their own border controls. The way forward has to be for asylum seekers to be properly assessed and screened at the first safe country they go to and for us to tackle the problem in the camps in the near east, so that people get some assurance of a decent life and opportunities for education for their children there rather than hazarding this appallingly dangerous voyage to Europe.
T4. I gather that I have been successful in securing a debate next Monday on Britain’s role in the middle east. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that in order that we play a constructive role in dealing with ISIS and other instabilities in the region we need a comprehensive strategy towards the middle east as a whole, not just Syria? (902295)
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that defeating Daesh abroad requires rock-solid unity at home? Britain’s Muslim community are part of our pillar of strength. Will he join me in deploring yesterday’s headline in The Sun which sought to cast doubt on that unity of purpose? Britain’s Muslim community hate Daesh and want it defeated, and headlines like that in The Sun yesterday sow division when what we need is unity.
It is absolutely clear to me that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population here in the UK and indeed across the Muslim world deplore what is going on and are sickened by the fact that it is being done ostensibly in their name. They are very clear that their religion does not in any way support or authorise the actions being carried out by Daesh, and we should help them to reclaim their religion from the terrorists and the extremists.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that economic development is central to everything that we do. Ahead of the global African investment summit I will be meeting a collection of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers at Lancaster House, to look at economic development and at working with those countries to develop their businesses alongside British business, to grow Africa out of poverty.
The Foreign Secretary has several times today mentioned the need for a comprehensive strategy. We have heard before about financial sanctions. Will he update the House on what conversations he has had with counterparts in the US and the EU about stopping the supply of cash and financial services to Daesh?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the fight is not only on the battlefield but in cutting down on finances. At the working groups where we discuss these matters we are looking to freeze accounts. Huge amounts of work have been done through the financial services authorities to identify the flow of funds coming from large donations from individuals, but we are also looking at the money streams coming from Daesh itself as it sells exports, antiquities and oils. We are winning this, and that is reflected in the fact that the amount that foreign fighters get on a monthly basis has been reduced because the funding streams into Daesh are being reduced.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the situation in Burundi. It is important that there is a regional solution, and I have had discussions with the Rwandan Foreign Minister and the new Tanzanian Government, which have engaged the African Union and the EU. We got over a difficult moment a few weeks ago, but this is still a matter of grave concern, and I have had a number of frank and open conversations with the Burundian Foreign Minister. Indeed, I sent him an open letter, as did several members of the international community.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that Russian air strikes have killed 400 civilians, 97 of whom were children. When the Foreign Secretary meets Foreign Minister Lavrov in a couple of weeks will he urge him to refocus those air strikes away from the opposition armies that are fighting Assad’s reign of terror towards the terrorists who brought down that Russian airliner?
That is absolutely right. That is exactly what we have urged the Russians to do. If they want to fight ISIL we are happy to work with them, but at the moment a significant proportion—the majority, in fact—of their airstrikes are directed at the moderate opposition fighting Assad. In fairness, I should say that since the Russians acknowledged that it almost certainly was terrorist action that brought down that airliner they have directed a larger proportion of their strikes against ISIL-held territory.
T9. Can my hon. Friend provide any further detail on discussions that he has had with the Iraqi Government about ensuring that measures are taken to promote security and enhance Iraq’s economic regeneration in areas that have been liberated from ISIL’s control? (902300)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the focus should be on supporting Iraq. Unfortunately, many Sunnis in Iraq still believe that they are not properly represented in Baghdad. We are working with Prime Minister Abadi to encourage laws on the national guard and on financial services to go through so that Sunnis have a place and are represented properly in Baghdad.
I thank the Under-Secretary for writing to me about my Yemeni constituents. I read the Home Office advice to which he directed me, but does he agree that it does not inspire confidence that the Home Office managed to mis-translate “Médecins Sans Frontières”? Will he meet me and the Home Office to discuss that further?
The world’s attention is rightly on the middle east and Syria, but there is an ongoing situation in Ukraine. Has my right hon. Friend made a recent assessment of the situation in Ukraine, and has he had any conversations with his Russian counterparts?
Mr Lidington: We remain concerned about the situation in Ukraine. I was last there in early October, when I met the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and other Ukrainian leaders and parliamentarians. The latest situation is that there has been an upsurge of fighting in certain locations around Donetsk, and the key thing is to use all diplomatic energies to ensure that the Minsk process is followed through to the end, and that all parts of it are completed.
What France has done by invoking that article in the treaty is ask other member states—and crucially not the European institutions—to come to its assistance in all possible ways, to react to the terrorist onslaught on Paris the other week. It is important that we bear in mind that that treaty article refers to the need for the EU always to co-ordinate its work with that of NATO.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the former Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, was robust in his support of self-determination for the people of the Falkland Islands. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity when Mr Trudeau visits this week to emphasise how grateful we are for the Canadians’ support for the Falkland Islands, and to ask whether the policy will remain the same under this premiership?
My hon. Friend can be reassured that we expect the same from Prime Minister Trudeau, who is on his way to London to meet our Prime Minister and Her Majesty before travelling on to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Valetta. We expect exactly the same relationship—it is an ancient and potent relationship between ourselves and Canada. My hon. Friend will be aware that there has been an election in Argentina and we look forward to working with the new Government of Argentina who, we hope, will not demonstrate the bullying and bellicosity shown by the former Government of Argentina to the people of the Falkland Islands.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week at Prime Minister’s questions the Prime Minister told the House that
“we have seen an increase of 3,800 in the number of neighbourhood officers over the Parliament and a 31% cut in crime.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 665.]
On the 3,800 figure, in 2012 the Government lifted the ring-fencing of the neighbourhood policing budget, despite warnings from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that it would be the area most at risk from a cut of 25% in the last Parliament. Crucially, the Home Office figures prayed in aid by the Prime Minister are a consequence of the subsequent recategorisation of officers on response as having a neighbourhood function. It is not a genuine increase in neighbourhood policing. In truth, the Government’s own figures show 17,000 police officers gone—12,000 from the frontline—and 4,500 police community support officers gone.
On the crime figures, I can do no better than quote from a Government exercise co-ordinated by the national fraud co-ordinator, in which he says that the results of the next crime survey of England and Wales will show a 40% increase in crime. I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that on matters such as the police, crime and national security, it is essential that the deliberations of this House are informed by the facts. Has the Prime Minister indicated his preparedness to come to the House and put the record straight?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his attempted point of order and for giving me advance notice of his intention to raise it. The short answer is that I have not received any indication that the Prime Minister proposes to come to the House to correct the record. It is, of course, the responsibility of every right hon. and hon. Member to ensure the veracity of what he or she says. In the event that any Member thinks that he or she has erred, that Member has the responsibility to put the record straight. More widely, I know the House will understand that disagreement about statistics is part of the currency of political debate, in which the hon. Gentleman is a practised and dextrous expert. If there is an Opposition day ere long, I have a hunch that we will hear the sonorous tones of the hon. Gentleman, very likely from his vantage point on the Opposition Front Bench. Meanwhile, he has had a bite of the cherry and I hope he was satisfied with the taste.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Mrs Anne Longfield, today published a report, “Protecting children from harm”, which outlines the prevalence of child sex abuse in this country, where only one in eight cases of child sex abuse is reported to the authorities. Would it be in order to ask a Minister from the Department for Education to respond urgently on the very important matter of the prevalence of child sex abuse, hopefully even before Education questions on Monday?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. The question of whether a Minister comes to the House to make a statement voluntarily is a matter for the Minister. I was conscious of this matter, which was courteously drawn to my attention by the hon. Gentleman. My understanding is that the Government have just received the report and have not yet penned a response. I had a sense that the House would benefit from an exchange on the matter at the point at which the Government had determined a response, but these matters, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are kept under review. It would be perfectly open to a Minister to come to the House before Education questions or, if not, to do so pretty soon. I dare say the hon. Gentleman has his back channels by which he keeps in touch with the Government’s thinking on this, and I feel sure that it will not be long before a very thorough exploration of the issues takes place on the Floor of the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Do you have it in your power to extend Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions? I know that a number of Members here would like to have raised an attack in Jhelum in Pakistan against the Ahmadi Muslim community, and to have heard from Ministers that they would call in the high commissioner for Pakistan to challenge him and to say to him that attacking people on the basis of faith is not acceptable.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He speaks with all the moral force of a former Deputy Leader of the House, no less. I note his inquiry in relation to my powers. The short answer is that I do not have the power to extend Foreign Office questions or any other Question Time session—[Interruption]—although I sometimes find myself doing so anyway, as those on the Treasury Bench were quick to point out, more or less good-naturedly. The truth of the matter is that we often overrun a bit because I want to hear Back Benchers. The right hon. Gentleman has very cheekily and inappropriately, but I think on this occasion forgivably, made his point in his own way, even though he did not really have a right to do so.
Protection of Family Homes (Enforcement and Permitted Development)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about guidance to local authorities on when to take enforcement action for breaches of planning law; to clarify guidance on the scope of permitted development rights; to make provision about rights and entitlements, including of appeal, for people whose homes are affected by such breaches; to make provision for the inspection and regulation of building under the permitted development regime; to establish financial penalties for developers who breach planning law in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.
The Selly Oak Village and Bournbrook parts of my constituency were once particularly attractive places, full of small terraced and other family homes on a series of quiet, interlocking, tree-lined streets. Nowadays, a walk down Hubert, Teignmouth or Dawlish Roads reveals a very different scene. One is visually assaulted by a series of “To Let” boards of all shapes and sizes, installed at all angles. The streets, pavements and small front gardens are littered with skips, builders’ rubble, sand and cement, and there is constant noise at all hours, including at weekends, of additional bedrooms being hammered and bolted on to dwellings. Where once we could expect to see rows of small family homes, we now witness architectural carbuncles jutting at odd angles, extending into adjacent houses and covering rear gardens. Additional bedrooms are variously described as sheds, games rooms and saunas.
My local authority seems powerless to arrest this destruction. It says that enforcement action is costly and the guidance from central Government is unclear. Enforcement action is discretionary and local authorities are required to act proportionately. Birmingham City Council has advised me that it has no policy of limiting the number of planning enforcement cases that it pursues, but I note that there has been a steady reduction in recent years. To be fair, it has initiated a limited article 4 direction covering a small part of my constituency, which means that planning permission is needed before a family house can be converted into a house in multiple occupation for up to six people—a change, as I understand it, from class 3 to class 4 use. However, the problems continue. The issue is not confined to one area of my constituency or to one part of Birmingham, but affects many towns and cities across the country, as is evidenced by the broad support for the Bill.
Examples of the problems include those of Mr and Mrs White, a retired couple, who I believe are in the Gallery. The developer who bought the house next door commenced an extension that in effect changed their detached home into a semi-detached property, as the roof extension expanded to sit on top of their roof and guttering. The council failed to take enforcement action, despite the fact that the work commenced without planning approval and was beyond the scope of permitted development. A surveyor’s report has indicated the damage done to the external wall of their home. This has cost them thousands of pounds in court fees, but as yet, the problem continues.
In Tiverton Road, Mrs O’Sullivan complained that work on an extension, which included digging up the foundations in a shared alleyway, had commenced without planning permission. The council agreed to investigate, but advised in advance that
“in deciding whether it would be expedient to take enforcement action, the council has to take into account whether any breach of planning control unacceptably affects public amenity or the use of land and buildings which should be protected in the public interest.”
In this case, the extension was not covered by permitted development regulations and needed planning approval. None the less, the council judged that the risk to Mrs O’Sullivan’s property constituted limited harm, and that her loss of light did not justify action.
In Bournbrook Road, a constituent complained about a landlord’s development that exceeded the dimensions on the plan available on the council website, but was told that officers had concluded that it was not expedient to take any action. In Gristhorpe Road, Miss Tempest complained that the Britannia Group continued to build extensions designed to convert homes into eight-bedroom properties, despite planning permission being refused. Elsewhere in Gristhorpe Road, cowboy builders demolished, without permission, the chimneys and gas flues that supported the gas fire of an elderly couple, putting them at serious risk. At another property, when a constituent complained, the council admitted that a three-level development overlooking his garden and those of his neighbours completely disregarded the article 4 direction and was without permission.
I could go on. I have case after case of rogue developers and cowboy builders doing as they please. All these cases are about ordinary people who have worked and saved for their family home, only to find that landlords and developers are working hand in glove with cowboy builders to buy up nearby properties and turning their road or street into a series of mini-hostels. It is no surprise that the value of the properties then plummets to the point at which the only person buying is yet another developer, and so the cycle begins again.
As I have investigated the issue, I have become aware of an unintended consequence of the permitted development arrangements. I want to be clear that I have nothing against permitted development—I welcome the Government’s good intentions in trying to make it easier for people to make small alterations or additions to their home—but I am not sure that the Government ever intended this permission to be exploited by ruthless landlords and developers, who are destroying family homes and bringing misery to thousands of ordinary family and retired couples, such as the Whites. The local authority advises me that the changes in the law mean that many agents and owners are unclear about what they can and cannot build. Strangely, those who advise the rogue landlords always err on the side of ever-greater expansion.
My ten-minute rule Bill seeks to achieve four things. First, it calls on the Department for Communities and Local Government to produce clearer guidance for planning authorities on when enforcement action should be taken, and asks all local authorities to publish an enforcement plan so that there are fewer grey areas. Secondly, it calls for a simple right of appeal for the victims of rogue building when the local authority concludes that it is not expedient to act.
Thirdly, the Bill asks that extensions be checked independently against building regulations to make sure that they are safe. At present, there is nothing to stop a rogue developer employing his or her own inspector to sign off the dodgy work done by his or her team of cowboy builders. If we do not act on this, a tragedy will surely follow.
Finally, the Bill calls on the Government to consider the introduction of fixed-penalty fines to serve as a deterrent against the actions of rogue developers. The penalties would be modelled on those that the Government propose in clause 86 of the Housing and Planning Bill to deal with rogue landlords.
This ten-minute rule Bill calls for a modest number of changes that are designed to protect family homes, address the enforcement problems and ease the position on permitted development so that it once again fulfils the aspirations of Ministers, without giving a licence to ride roughshod over local people and destroy family homes and local communities. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Steve McCabe, Paul Blomfield, Mr Nigel Evans, Michael Fabricant, Diana Johnson, Norman Lamb, Shabana Mahmood, Greg Mulholland, Jess Phillips and Dr Alan Whitehead present the Bill.
Steve McCabe accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January, and to be printed (Bill 100).
[11th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House believes that Trident should not be renewed.
It is a pleasure to move the motion that stands in my name and the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and the Green party.
The SNP was elected to this place in such numbers in May on a promise to do three things: first, to argue that the maximum possible powers be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, via the full delivery of the vow; secondly, to fight tooth and nail against the failed and divisive policies of austerity, and to protect the poorest and most vulnerable in our society from the worst excesses of this Government; and thirdly, to oppose Trident. By bringing this matter to the Floor of the House today, the SNP can say that within the first six months of being here, we have done exactly what we promised to do. Of course, there is much more that we need to do on all those issues, but no one will ever be able to accuse us of not doing what we said we would do.
In recent months, Trident and the UK’s nuclear—
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will make some progress.
No one could deny that Trident and the nuclear deterrent have been at the forefront of public debate for many years, not only because this is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but because the United Kingdom will soon decide whether to commit to spending £167,000,000,000 over the lifetime of the Trident programme.
We had high hopes that we would not be a lone voice. When the rank and file of the British Labour party elected the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), an avowed unilateralist, as its leader, SNP Members hoped that there would be serious opposition to Trident. Of course, the mere thought of that caused palpitations among both the red and blue shades of the British establishment. I genuinely wish the right hon. Gentleman well in continuing his robust opposition to Trident.
While the hon. Gentleman is outlining the reasons behind the motion, will he explain the SNP’s apparent incoherence during the Scottish referendum campaign, when it pledged to scrap Trident on the one hand and to seek to join NATO, a nuclear alliance, on the other?
That is a matter of debate. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) has the floor. When it is clear that he is not taking an intervention, he must not be hollered at from a sedentary position by Members on either side of the House. He is free to develop his case.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I wish the right hon. Member for Islington North well. I say to Members of his party that being anti-Trident can be a vote winner. The fact that the SNP was returned in such great numbers on an explicitly anti-Trident platform is testimony to that.
In recent weeks, the Scottish Parliament, yet again, reaffirmed its outright and overwhelming opposition to Trident. The Scottish Government, the Scottish TUC, the Scottish Churches and great swathes of Scottish civic society have set their face against Trident.
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind us how the different political parties in the Scottish Parliament voted on Trident? What decision was reached at the annual conference of the Scottish Labour party? Does he not think it strange that the single Member of Parliament from the Scottish Labour party, who opposes Trident and whose party opposes Trident, is not even in the Chamber for this debate?
As my right hon. Friend points out, there is an established consensus among the Scottish political parties against Trident. The Scottish National party, the Scottish Greens, the Scottish Socialists and, as he says, the Scottish Labour party are all opposed to Trident. We have a Government in Westminster with just one elected Member of Parliament from Scotland, representing a party that failed to achieve even 15% of the vote in Scotland, yet they insist that they have the right to foist on Scotland weapons of mass destruction that Scotland has said it does not want.
Does my hon. Friend find it strange to see the contrast between the unified voice from Scotland and the confusion from the Welsh Labour party, which is for Trident and then against Trident, and that is quite apart from the First Minister, who wants to move it down to west Wales?
I will take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention in a moment.
I have always argued that there is no moral, economic or military case for Trident, and—let us be absolutely clear—there is no moral case for any state to possess weapons of mass destruction. Possessing the wherewithal to destroy the world and everything in it several times over is not something to be proud of; indeed, it is something to be deeply ashamed of. I know of no creed, belief system or article of faith that has ever said it is okay to hold the threat of annihilation over one’s neighbour, and to disguise it as peacekeeping.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the possession of nuclear weapons serves as a deterrent that has worked well for many years? In 1994 Ukraine unilaterally disarmed, relying on a treaty with Russia that meant it would not invade. That undertaking was broken and Ukraine is now suffering because of the absence of those weapons.
I will pick up the hon. Gentleman’s point later in my speech. The idea of a deterrent is important and I will address that issue.
Not only is Trident morally questionable, but I believe it is economic madness. In 2006 when the Successor programme was first discussed, the likely cost of building new submarines was put at between £15 billion and £20 billion. Yesterday’s strategic defence and security review put that cost at £31 billion, with £10 billion of contingency on top of that. That is £41 billion set aside to build submarines—the cost has doubled in the last decade, and I shudder to think what it will be in the next decade. Based on the Government’s own figures, the lifetime cost of Trident will be in the region of £167,000,000,000. That is real, taxpayers’ money, and there is no escaping that fact. It may—indeed, it should—embarrass the Labour party that that money has been made on the backs of the poor and the most vulnerable in our society.
The Chancellor appeared at Faslane, appearing out of nowhere like Mr Benn—I mean the cartoon character, not the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)—to announce £500 million of extensions to jetties. On the same day, the United Nations announced that it would be investigating whether the Government’s policy of cutting welfare support to the disabled was a violation of their human rights.
I know that the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) is anxious to get involved in the debate, but as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute I represent Faslane and Coulport, and I live roughly six miles from the base. For decades, my constituents have been told that their jobs and prosperity depend totally on that base.
My hon. Friend’s constituency is next to mine. Does he have the same grave concerns that I have about the alarming number of nuclear safety incidents that have been reported at Faslane naval base? There was a 54% increase in the number of incidents reported in 2013-14 compared with 2012-13. Such incidents threaten the safety not only of the workers at Faslane nuclear base—a large proportion of whom live in my constituency —but the communities that surround it.
I agree with my hon. Friend that safety is paramount, and I raised that issue last week in a debate in Westminster Hall. There are huge safety concerns among workers at Faslane about the cuts being made within the nuclear operations department.
I hope my hon. Friends realise that my election in Argyll and Bute suggests that we do not have to put all our eggs in one basket. Let me make it clear that by saying no to Trident, we are not saying no to Faslane—far from it. [Interruption.] The SNP has never, and will never, consider closing the Faslane base. Whether as part of the United Kingdom or—hopefully sooner rather than later—as part of an independent Scotland, Faslane will have a bright, non-nuclear future as a conventional naval base. Faslane is a fantastic facility, and its proximity to the north Atlantic means that its prospects are not dependent on having nuclear submarines based there. [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. As I understood it, he said that without nuclear submarines at Faslane, and with the separation of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, he would seek to have a naval base with ships at Faslane. He also said that he considered it a waste of money to build new hardware for the Navy because that money could be better spent on welfare. Those points do not seem to marry up.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but at no point have we said that we will double-spend that money. Scotland’s share of the money that we would save by not renewing Trident would be in the region of £15 billion over the lifetime of Trident, and that money could be invested in conventional defence and in turning Faslane from a nuclear submarine port to a state-of-the-art conventional naval base.
I will make progress. I have taken a lot of interventions and been very generous.
I have always argued that there is no military case for Trident because it is not a military weapon. Trident is a political weapon that can never, and will never, be used. Nevertheless, it is set to consume between 30% and 50% of the UK defence procurement budget.
I will make progress. I have been very generous up to now.
The money spent on Trident is put into keeping Britain at the top table of the United Nations Security Council. Money that should be doing good—whether through peacekeeping, reacting to emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak, or relieving the humanitarian crises that are currently unfolding in the middle east and north Africa—is being sacrificed on a collective military and political ego trip that has more to do with status than with defence.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will make some progress.
Indeed, Members should not just take my word for it. In a Defence Committee evidence session last week, General Sir Richard Shirreff, referring to finding money for Trident, said:
“you either go down the line of nuclear capability at the expense of conventional capability or conventional capability at the expense of nuclear. It seems to be that sort of zero-sum game”.
The problem with Trident is that it puts pressure on the rest of the defence budget to the detriment of our overall security. Even Tony Blair, not someone I seek to quote often in this place, wrote in his memoir about Trident renewal that
“The expense is huge and the utility…non-existent in terms of military use.”
He decided to go down the road of Trident renewal, however, because it would be
“too big a downgrading of our status as a nation.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that nuclear weapons are actually making us less, not more, safe? They give out a signal to the rest of the world that the only way to guarantee security is by acquiring nuclear weapons, therefore driving proliferation rather than countering it.
I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree.
Tony Blair summed it up: the UK’s obsession with having an independent nuclear deterrent is little more than a former imperial power indulging in a desperate search for a better yesterday. Possessing Trident is not about defence; it is about the illusion of continuing past glories regardless of cost. The fact is that we cannot afford it. Pride, it seems, will not let us back down. We would rather cut benefits from the disabled. We would rather take tax credits away from the working poor, as long as the bottomless pit of Trident is fed.
I am exceptionally grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have written to the former First Minister about these issues on a number of occasions and have not yet received any answers. In the event of decommissioning the nuclear fleet and the warheads at Faslane, where in Scotland would the nuclear materials be stored and disposed of, and how much would it cost the Scottish taxpayer?
I will make some progress.
The possession of top-end military capabilities without the ability to exercise them effectively is known in strategic parlance as a hollow force. To put that in a more colloquial way, we are acting as though we have a fur coat and nae knickers. Trident is a military and political ego trip paid for on the backs of the poor.
The UK independent nuclear deterrent is not all that independent. I refer hon. Members to the Defence Committee report of 30 June 2006, which states that the fact that
“in theory, the British Prime Minister could give the order to fire Trident missiles without getting prior approval from the White House has allowed the UK to maintain the façade of being a global military power. In practice, though, it is difficult to conceive of any situation in which a Prime Minister would fire Trident without prior US approval.”
In reality, it will be a US commander-in-chief who will ultimately decide. In 18 months’ time, that commander-in-chief could be President Donald Trump. Does anyone seriously think that Trident makes the world a safer place?
I have already given way once to the hon. Gentleman. Let me press on.
Everyone accepts that the world has never been a more uncertain place. The world is changing and the threats are changing. They are most certainly not as they were 30 or 40 years ago. Many military strategists recognise that the changes have to be prepared for accordingly. They have identified important threats. There is mass migration into mega cities; by 2040, it is thought that 70% of the world will be urbanised. The great movement of people because of climate change and the search for natural resources, such as water and energy, will cause huge global problems too.
We are increasingly engaged in an ideological war with terrorism. Hybrid warfare and cyber-attacks will be among our enemies’ main weapons. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself said that Daesh was an existential threat to the United Kingdom. We have to assume, sadly, that after the evil of Daesh is destroyed other ideologically driven groups will emerge. Looking ahead, in many ways the traditional nation state will not be the main enemy. Why then, given the radical changes happening in the world, is the UK’s response exactly as it was 30 or 40 years ago—nuclear-armed submarines at sea 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with nuclear missiles pointed at and designed to obliterate European cities?
The hon. Gentleman makes the case for Britain’s unilateral nuclear disarmament, a case we have heard many times in this Chamber over the years. How does he address the inescapable fact that the only nation that has ever had nuclear weapons used against it, namely Japan, did not have any?
The hon. Gentleman is clearly satisfied that the Russian state is no longer a threat to western security and the security of the UK. Perhaps he could give us his reasons for thinking that. Why is he so confident that Russia is no longer a threat to the security of the UK?
The hon. Lady is advocating that every country in the world—Germany, Poland, Norway and Sweden—should arm itself to the teeth. Is she honestly arguing for that? Does she believe that Russia is going to come sweeping across the plains and invade the United Kingdom? Is that what she is honestly advocating? If she wants to argue that every country in the world should possess its own nuclear weapons, I advise her to take that to the Labour party. From the sound of it, she may well get some support.
As I mentioned at the start of my speech, there was a genuine, though forlorn, hope that, with the election of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) as leader of the Labour party, there would at least be a debate on Trident in this place. I fear that the right hon. Gentleman has not managed to take his party with him. The paltry attendance of Labour Members today suggests exactly that.
The Labour party’s refusal to debate Trident will disappoint many in their own rank and file. I have no doubt that when the Prime Minister promises a vote on the maingate decision, as he did yesterday, I will see the right hon. Member for Islington North voting with the Scottish National party against Trident renewal. I fear he will have to swim through a tide of his own MPs going through the Lobby with the Conservative party again to support Trident renewal at a cost of £167,000 million. Labour loves to talk about being a multilateral party, but it cannot hide behind the fig leaf of multilateralism while committing the United Kingdom to this massive increase in nuclear weaponry. If the Labour party decides to support the Government in renewing the Trident missile programme, it will be as morally bankrupt as the Conservative party.
If Trident was ever an answer, it was an answer to a 20th-century problem, not to the problems we face in the 21st century. Trident is a purely political not a military weapon. It does not make us any more safe than nations that do not possess weapons of mass destruction. Trident is all about the UK projecting power. It is a desperate attempt to cling to the remnants of a fading imperial past, and is being paid for on the backs of the poor. Trident is diminishing the rest of the UK’s capability, and therefore there is no moral, economic or military case for renewing it.
The Government welcome the opportunity to discuss our nuclear deterrent, so I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) for tabling the motion.
In his statement yesterday, the Prime Minister set out the growing scale, diversity and complexity of the threats we face, and to tackle them we must have an array of weapons, up to and including the nuclear deterrent. It is worrying that, in a more dangerous world, the cross-party consensus we used to enjoy on our deterrent appears to be weakening. I remind Opposition Members that it was Labour Ministers—Attlee and Bevin—who in the 1940s argued for a nuclear deterrent with “a Union Jack” on the top of it, yet today the leader of the Labour party opposes his party’s official policy. He wants to scrap Trident and has said he is not prepared to use it.
Equally worrying is the non-attendance of the shadow Secretary of State, who has been admirably clear in opposing her leader while agreeing to lead a review of the policy. I can well understand her anger at the decision to appoint as co-chair of that review Mr Ken Livingstone, who wants not to review Trident but to abolish it. Indeed, he declared London to be a nuclear-free zone. This is like appointing an arsonist as the co-chief fire officer.
Our international allies look on with dismay at this shambles opposite, which can only be of comfort to adversaries. I appeal again to the tradition in the Labour party that proudly supports our independent nuclear deterrent to renew the consensus, to put aside party politics in the national interest, as the shadow Chancellor said on television on Sunday, and to join us in remaking the case for the deterrent.
The decision had to await the publication of the SDSR yesterday, but I hope we can now take it in 2016. We will then have to get on and start building the Successor submarines, as I shall explain.
Successive Labour and Conservative Governments have judged that a minimum credible nuclear deterrent is critical to our national security—that a nuclear deterrent is the only assured way of deterring nuclear threats and blackmail by nuclear states. For more than 60 years, it has done that job. Whatever side of the argument we are on, let us pay tribute to the crews of HMS Vanguard, Vengeance, Victorious and Vigilant, their families and all those who ensure, and have ensured, that one of those boats is on patrol 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.