House of Commons
Thursday 26 November 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Attorney General was asked—
Syria: Legality of Airstrikes
It is a long-standing convention that Law Officers’ advice is not published. However, as hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister is setting out today the case for taking further action in Syria, and he will also set out the legal basis for doing do.
I thank the Attorney General for that answer, and I hope that the Scottish media are listening on this issue of the publication of legal advice with respect to the Scottish Parliament. I welcome the fact that there will be some disclosure later on. I understand convention, but I still think full disclosure of legal advice should be given rather than made a part of the Prime Minister’s statement. We need to learn the lessons from Iraq, when the Government of the day went backwards and forwards on legal advice until they got the answer they wanted. I therefore ask again for full disclosure.
As I say, the hon. Gentleman will see that the legal basis for action is, in the Government’s view, set out in what the Prime Minister intends to say. Indeed, he has responded as he said he would to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, and that response has been published this morning for all Members to see. As for the legal advice that the Law Officers give, it can be argued that the convention is there for very good reason. There are essentially two reasons. The first is to enable legal advice to be given to Government in a frank and open way, which is best done when advice is not published; and secondly, of course, the legal advice the Law Officers give is part of the collective responsibility of Cabinet decision-making. Again, there are good reasons for not publishing it on those grounds.
Does the Attorney General not realise that in an open and transparent democracy, it is really not good enough to rely on convention? For the House to understand the legal basis on which bombing may begin, it is vital for Members to be trusted with this information, so I appeal to the Attorney General to reverse his decision.
As I say, Members on both sides will have the chance to understand what the legal basis for the Government’s proposals will be, but there is a distinction to be made between the Government’s legal basis for action and the precise advice that Law Officers give. For the reasons I have explained, I do not think it sensible in what is undoubtedly an open and transparent democracy to publish that advice.
In the absence of United Nations Security Council resolution 2249, there are still arguments that airstrikes are legal. Does the Attorney General agree that, in the light of that resolution, the legal case has been strengthened?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there were legal grounds for action in the absence of a Security Council resolution. Such a resolution is not necessary, in my view, to justify action of this kind. It is, of course, extremely useful that what the UN Security Council resolution clearly does is underline the logic for action in the way that we are setting out today. I agree with my hon. Friend.
The Attorney General may say it is not necessary, but does he think it would be better if a chapter 7 resolution explicitly endorsing military action against ISIS was passed at the United Nations? Have the Government made any attempts to achieve such a resolution, and which countries do the Government believe would block it?
My hon. Friend will realise, of course, that that particular resolution was secured with the unanimous support of the Security Council. What it indicates is that all necessary measures should be taken in order to counter ISIL. As I have said, it is important to recognise that the legal basis for action here, which the Prime Minister will set out today, is not dependent on the presence of a Security Council resolution, but I think that what has been agreed in the Security Council underlines the case that we are making, which is that action should be taken and that there is a lawful basis for doing so.
President Hollande has said that France is at war with Daesh, but my understanding is that no one has formally declared war on anyone. Will the Attorney General advise the House on the merits and demerits of a formal declaration of war?
I think we must be very careful not to dignify Daesh with a status it does not deserve. It seems to me very clear that what we are doing here is setting out a basis under which this country is entitled to defend itself from what constitutes an armed attack, or the threat of such, not just from other states, but from terrorist organisations. In my view, Daesh falls firmly into the latter camp.
Hate Crimes against Disabled People
The Crown Prosecution Service recently revised its disability hate crime legal guidance for prosecutors. As part of its ongoing commitment to achieving meaningful improvement in disability hate crime prosecutions, it has mandated that disability hate crime training for all prosecutors should be completed by the end of the year.
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that, along with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People and the Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation, I recently set up and took part in a ministerial round table with Government agencies and the third sector to deal with precisely that issue. We gave particular attention to issues such as victim support, the quality of reporting, and confidence among members of the disability community about the way in which the criminal justice system treats them.
In October, the Police Service of Northern Ireland launched an online campaign after 44 disability hate crimes were recorded over a six-month period. Two years ago, the PSNI contacted the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability—of which the Solicitor General will know—which has set up an advocacy scheme to help disabled people to gain access to the criminal justice system. Does the Solicitor General feel that he should consider similar action?
I commend the work of Leonard Cheshire Disability. In 2012, 65,000 cases involving a disability hate element in England and Wales were recorded in the national crime survey, but there is a big gap between that figure and the number of prosecutions, and I want that to change.
The sad reality is that hate crime is a growing problem. A young Muslim woman, Ruhi Rehman, was racially abused when travelling on the metro in my home town of Newcastle on Saturday. Thankfully, her attacker was chased off by outraged passengers, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have “Geordie angels”. More than 27% of prosecutions for hate crimes are currently failing because of victim issues, a significant rise since 2010. Do the Government share my concern that victims are being let down, and that serious crimes are going unpunished as a result?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that case. When I attended a hate crime training conference at the College of Policing a few weeks ago, not only disability hate crime but the type of hate crime to which she has referred was very much on the agenda. She will be glad to know that the CPS is enhancing training for all the leaders in their regions, which I think will result in a renewed emphasis on the need to make victims confident that the system will work for them rather than against them.
Communications Data (Use in Prosecutions)
Communications data are an essential form of evidence used in prosecutions across the full spectrum of criminal offences, including terrorism, serious and organised crime, child sexual abuse, murder and rape. It is important for that capability to be maintained and modernised, which is why the Government have published the draft Investigatory Powers Bill.
I do agree with my hon. and learned Friend. It is important to recognise that the cases in which evidence of this kind is very significant range well beyond terrorism cases. For example, some 95% of CPS investigations of serious and organised crime involve communications data.
Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that any agency of Government, or indeed Parliament, such as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, should not seek to protect its most senior management from legal action and/or prosecution by claiming that communications data are no longer available after 30 days, but instead should strive to be completely transparent and, when receiving requests for such data, make them available?
Mr Speaker, I am sure you would not want me to wade into the details of that case, and I am obviously not in a position to do so anyway, but I would say that all organisations should take very seriously their responsibilities under the Data Protection Act and all other legislation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a large range of offences to which this might be relevant—essentially, types of offending where whether someone communicated with another person and where they were when they did so is relevant. One can think of conspiracies of all kinds, cases involving paedophile rings or drug-smuggling operations, harassment, which he mentioned, witness intimidation or even something as diverse as insider trading. There is a huge range of offending that we need to deal with in this way.
12. The outrage on the streets of Paris and the seven foiled plots that have kept people safe in the UK show there should be no safe place online for terrorists and those who wish to do us harm. What additional measures can be taken to make sure that everyone in the UK remains safe from this threat? (902354)
Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not sustainable to have a situation where a terrorist atrocity plotted by telephone can be understood and intercepted but one plotted over WhatsApp cannot. The measures in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill are entirely necessary, therefore, to avoid the kinds of atrocities he describes.
Stalking and Harassment Cases
The CPS launched a joint stalking protocol with the police in September 2014, and has revised its legal guidance to prosecutors and delivered training on the new stalking offences, which led to a 15.1% rise in the level of prosecutions last year. The CPS continues to work closely with the police and voluntary sector to increase and improve prosecutions.
The national stalking helpline responded to 2,800 calls last year and frequently speaks to victims of stalking and harassment where restraining orders are not given or where ineffective restraining orders are given following a trial. It already takes the average victim 100 incidents of harassment before they go to the police. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that stalking and harassment are serious offences that can lead to serious sexual assault and violent offences, including murder? What more can be done to address this serious and often hidden problem?
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the seriousness of stalking—it is no joke—and I join her in commending the work of the organisation she mentioned. The CPS legal guidance on this crime urges prosecutors to apply for restraining orders on conviction and, where appropriate, on acquittal too. It is vital that we deal with this serious crime in a way that protects victims and deters perpetrators.
There is concern that the new stalking provisions are not being used and that harassment provisions are being used instead. Will my hon. and learned Friend indicate that the seriousness of the offence should be reflected in the use of stalking charges rather than harassment charges?
My hon. Friend speaks with experience from her practice in criminal law. I was a member of the all-party group on stalking and harassment, together with Mr Elfyn Llwyd, the former Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and we said then it was vital that the law be used to its full extent. There is a non-exhaustive list of types of stalking behaviour. This means that prosecutors and the police should be looking at such cases in a wide way and applying the full extent of the law wherever appropriate.
Human Rights Act 1998
I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. I cannot talk about the legal content of those discussions, because, as the House knows, by convention, whether Law Officers have given advice is not disclosed outside Government.
Does the Attorney General agree with his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who said that the European convention on human rights is
“the single most important legal and political instrument for promoting human rights on our planet”?
As I have said a number of times, I have no quarrel whatever with the wording of the European convention on human rights; what I disagree with is the way in which that document has subsequently been interpreted by the Strasbourg Court. That is what the Government want to do something about.
14. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), a former Justice Minister and, in the week, a resident of Acton, has said:“I would definitely not want Britain to withdraw from the Convention because it would appear as though the UK was no longer as committed to Human Rights as it in fact is. This would damage our country’s reputation.” Just how will the Attorney General ensure that the Government’s plans to scrap the convention will not weaken the rights of the ordinary British citizen? (902356)
Again, it is important to be clear about what we are talking about. There is a distinction to be made between the Human Rights Act, which we fully intend to get rid of, and the convention, which we do not intend to leave unless we have to. We must do something to ensure that decisions on, for example, who has the franchise in British elections are taken by this House and not by the Court in Strasbourg. Those are the decisions we need to do something about. Of course this country will remain committed to human rights, with or without the Human Rights Act.
I must also point out to the hon. Lady that the Conservative party, in government, has been responsible not only for reducing the length of pre-charge detention to 28 days and for abolishing identity cards—both in response to illiberal measures passed by a Labour Government—but for introducing the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and many other things that clearly demonstrate our commitment to human rights.
Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if we repealed the Human Rights Act—and even if we withdrew from the European convention on human rights—there is no provision whatever in the statute of the Council of Europe that would automatically force the United Kingdom to leave the Council of Europe?
We will be discussing with our fellow members of the Council of Europe how we might reach a better settlement in relation to the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence. In those discussions, I fully expect that other members of the Council of Europe will wish us to remain within the organisation.
Can the Attorney General reassure the House that a British Bill of Rights would not only protect our existing rights, which are essential in a modern democratic society, but protect us against abuse of the system and the misuse of human rights laws?
I do think that that is the objective. My hon. Friend is right to suggest that there is a real danger to support for human rights, which we wish to see as widespread and full-throated in this country, if it appears to many of our constituents that the concept is being abused through the sorts of cases that none of us fully believes to be genuine human rights cases. We must do something about that.
As part of developing these proposals, the question of whether the new British Bill of Rights will have legal application in Scotland is absolutely crucial to Scotland’s constitutional settlement. Can the Attorney General give me an indication of whether it will apply in Scotland, and if it will, does he agree that a legislative consent motion would be required from the Scottish Parliament to give it that legal application?
The hon. Gentleman and I have already discussed the question of consultation with the Scottish authorities, and I am fully in favour—as are colleagues in the Ministry of Justice—of ensuring that the devolved Administrations are fully engaged in that consultation process. As to whether a legislative consent motion would be required, that would depend entirely on the nature of the proposals. We have not yet seen them, and it is important that we should consider them properly when we do.
Crown Prosecution Service: Funding
Throughout the spending review process, I have been keen to ensure that, while saving money wherever possible, the CPS received sufficient funding to prosecute its current case load effectively. I believe that the settlement we have achieved does indeed do that, and I particularly welcome the £4.4 million that has been ring-fenced for the CPS counter-terrorism division, which will nearly double in size, and the extra funding provided to recruit 100 additional prosecutors to deal with serous sexual offences.
Should I need to declare an interest, I should tell the House that I was the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for five years, from 2008 to 2013.
One of the reasons that the CPS has coped well with the cuts in the past five years is that the case load of referrals from the police has gone down. What level of assurance can the Attorney General give me that if the case load goes up significantly or becomes more complex, further funding will be made available to enable the CPS to carry out its service?
As the hon. and learned Gentleman would expect, if circumstances change in that regard, we will speak to the Treasury again about money to be made available to deal with them. The settlement takes account of, and helps us to deal with, the substantial changes and significant shifts in the case load that took place over the time when he was Director of Public Prosecutions and subsequently.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that priority is given to dealing with the woeful state of the CPS IT system, which has been a long-running problem for many years? Secondly, will he ensure that all changes to CPS systems to ensure efficiency are aligned with the proposals that Sir Brian Leveson made in his report for overall efficiencies within the criminal justice system?
Yes, certainly. On my hon. Friend’s latter point, he will know that the CPS has been closely involved with the Leveson review, and a large number of Sir Brian’s conclusions come from what he has been told by the CPS. As my hon. Friend will have noticed, some £700 million was made available for digitalisation of the courts in the spending settlement announced yesterday, through the Ministry of Justice settlement. The CPS will benefit from and contribute to that process immensely.
At the beginning of the year, the DPP asked the Attorney General for an extra £50 million to plug the funding gap so that the CPS could properly prosecute complex matters, such as historical sex cases. He confirmed to this House that he was talking to the Treasury about this extra funding and that he thought it would understand the case he was making, but there was no mention in yesterday’s autumn statement of this extra, special funding for historical sex cases. What went wrong?
The hon. Gentleman should pay close attention to what the CPS is saying now, as much as to what it said then. Let me tell him what it said yesterday in response to the settlement. It said:
“This settlement will allow the CPS to respond to a changing caseload and the significant increase in complex and sensitive cases, such as terrorism, rape and serious sexual assaults and child sex abuse.”
The CPS is making the same point that I am making today about this settlement: it is a settlement that recognises the need to deal with precisely the type of increase in case load that he is talking about.
Crown Prosecution Service: Costs of Errors
10. What estimate he has made of the annual cost to the public purse of avoidable errors by the Crown Prosecution Service. (902351)
The CPS does not maintain a central record of the number or value of wasted costs orders, but I can tell my hon. and learned Friend that the total value of costs awarded against the CPS in the last financial year, of which wasted costs orders are a mere subset, amounted to just over £1 million, which was about 0.18% of overall expenditure.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Terry Boston, a solicitor in my constituency, said the following in an email to me last week:
“I am becoming more and more concerned about justice in this country. The reason for this is the blatant failure of the CPS and their one line cover all excuse, ‘We are short of staff.’”
I appreciate, as does Mr Boston, that savings have had to be made, but can my hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the CPS does have sufficient staff in place, both nationally and in Lincolnshire, to perform its functions?
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his question. I can assure him that the CPS does indeed have sufficient staff in place to properly do its work. The CPS conviction rate in his region last year was 84.2%, which is slightly higher than the national average.
Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes
New CPS legal guidance for prosecutors on anti-Semitic hate crimes was published in May, and in addition the CPS is implementing its religiously aggravated and anti-Semitic crime action plan, which seeks to raise awareness of these cases and to improve the reporting of such hate crimes. This has been welcomed by the all-party group against antisemitism.
My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the incidence of anti-Semitic hate crime is going up, particularly in Muslim areas, unfortunately. Can he expand a little further on his earlier answer about the role of the CPS in educating the police on these matters?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the consistent work that he has done over the years to highlight that obscene crime. I am sad to say that there are spikes in that type of offending when particular political events occur. The CPS is aware of it, as are the police, and that type of hate crime was very much on the agenda of the national training conference at Ryton.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Gender Pay Gap
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I could not be clearer: we want to consign the gender pay gap to the history books. We are therefore introducing new regulations that will require larger employers to publish their gender pay gap information. That will encourage companies to take action and to drive change on this important issue. Transparency is important, and we also want to tackle the underlying causes of the gap, which is why I want to see girls entering the broadest range of careers and reaching the top of their professions.
Will the Secretary of State, who I know cares about this issue, symbolically forgo her salary from 9 November until the end of the calendar year so that she knows from personal experience what it feels like to do the work of a male colleague but for 20% less salary? Does she not think that all Governments have failed in this field, and that now is the time not to have declarations about change over a generation, but to seize the legislative agenda, for which she would have massive support across the House, finally to bring pay equality to women in our country?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question, but I am not interested in tokenistic gestures. He can give up his salary if he feels so strongly about it and wants to make a statement. The important thing is that this Government are taking action on the issue, which his party did not do in 13 years of government. He is right to say that the matter now needs to be tackled by legislation, and the Government will publish regulations shortly to make that happen.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for her question, and I know her Committee will be considering this area. She may be interested to know that figures published earlier this month show a 1.6 percentage point drop in the gender pay gap for women aged between 40 and 49, and that is repeated in the over-50s and the over-60s. She is absolutely right to say that this matter needs to be tackled. I have mentioned the regulations, which will provide the necessary transparency. We are also doing a lot of work on how we can help women to juggle caring responsibilities, which come when they are older. Of course they can also request flexible working as introduced by this Government.
At the gender gap presentation the other evening we heard how gender diversity must not be an add-on to another role, and yet it seems that, as Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Lady has had her role added on. What action will she take to ensure that there is someone dedicated to the task in every Department to get rid of the gender gap?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was a Member of this House in the last Parliament when I was Minister for Women and Equalities. I was delighted to take the role with me into this Parliament. In fact, I have been Minister for Women and Equalities longer than I have been Secretary of State for Education. It is a role about which I feel passionate. Just by looking at the array of Ministers on the Front Bench today, he will see that this Government take very seriously their equalities responsibilities. Whether we are talking about the gender pay gap or any other matter, those responsibilities run right the way through all the Departments in this Government.
Will the Minister put in the Library the gender pay gap of all Government Departments and all Government quangos, because an awful lot of Government quangos have a gender pay gap? Perhaps the Government should sort out their own house first, before they go round lecturing everyone else.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me very much. He might be interested to know that the overall gender pay gap for all civil service employees fell from 13.6% in 2014 to 12.8% in March 2014. The gender pay gap in the Department for Education is 9% and it is 11% in the Ministry of Justice. The regulations that we are publishing will also apply to the public sector. As that information is public, I would be very happy to write to him with it.
According to figures published last week in the annual survey of hours and earnings, the gender pay gap in the UK fell by 0.8 percentage points to 9.5%. However, in Scotland, the gap dropped by 1.8 percentage points to 7.5%. Will the Minister learn lessons from the action taken by the Scottish Government who are cutting the gender pay gap further and faster?
The hon. Lady is right to say that the gender pay gap in Scotland is lower, and that is why I was delighted to visit Scotland recently to meet counterparts in the Scottish Government, successful female entrepreneurs and Professor Lesley Sawers, who has, at the request of the UK Government, been doing a lot of work in Scotland on women in enterprise. One reason we are stronger together is that we can all learn lessons from each other.
I am delighted to say that those sectors are already taking responsibility for tackling the issue. They are learning from the Government’s voluntary approach to women on boards, and I am pleased that Jayne-Anne Gadhia from the finance sector and others in the insurance sector have recently launched voluntary initiatives to ensure that companies publish their own gender pay gap. Larger companies will, of course, also be caught by the regulations that we are due to publish shortly.
The Minister has rightly highlighted the fact that the public sector is very good at closing the gender pay gap, in comparison with the private sector. The Resolution Foundation estimates that care workers are collectively paid £130 million below the national minimum wage because of employers’ failure to pay for travel time and deductions for essentials such as uniforms, mobile phones and petrol. What steps is the Minister taking to close the pay gap in that part of the private sector, in which 78% of workers are women?
The hon. Lady is right to point out that certain sectors—not only care, but clerical, secretarial and others—are very female dominated, which contributes to the ongoing gender pay gap. That is why I welcome the focus, which we will come to in later questions, on raising girls’ aspirations for their jobs and careers. The Government are committed to enforcing the national minimum wage, and only recently we published the names of employers who do not pay their employees the national minimum wage. That is unacceptable and we will continue to make that information public.
Body Confidence in Young People
2. What steps the Government are taking to encourage body confidence in young people. (902380)
The Government have continued the work started under the coalition Government to encourage body confidence with the aim of promoting young people’s media literacy and resilience, supporting good practice and raising awareness. For example, in March we started work with the PSHE Association to publish guidance on teaching about body image using accredited resources.
Next week, models, agents, academics and professionals are coming to Parliament to discuss what the fashion industry can do to lead the way in promoting positive healthy ideals for young people. Does my hon. Friend agree that a collaborative approach is essential if we are to tackle the issue of low body confidence and lack of self-esteem that affects too many young people?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fantastic work that she does as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on body image. She has been a fantastic champion on this important issue and she is absolutely right that effective change will be achieved only by co-operation and collaboration. I recently met the British Fashion Council and the campaign group All Walks Beyond the Catwalk to discuss how we can make this happen for the good of those who are in the fashion industry, those who aspire to it and, most importantly, those who are influenced by it.
I was very pleased that the Minister mentioned personal, social, health and economic education. Is it not the case that establishing good-quality PSHE on a statutory basis in all schools will help instil good body confidence in young people and also keep them safe from inappropriate relationships, which often happen when children and young people have low self-esteem?
The fact that a subject is a statutory requirement does not mean that it is taught well, and we want all schools to put high-quality PSHE education at the heart of their curriculum so that all young people leave school prepared for life in modern Britain. The majority of schools and teachers already recognise the importance of good PSHE education and naturally know that healthy, resilient and confident pupils are better placed to achieve academically and fulfil their potential in life.
As the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) will know, it is frequently thought that this problem only affects young women, but it affects boys and young men as well. Will my hon. Friend the Minister assure the House that she has not lost sight of that and tell us a little more about what the Government are doing in that regard?
My hon. and learned Friend makes an excellent point. There is even a name for the problem; it is called “manxiety”. We are not blind to the fact that this issue affects an increasing number of young men and boys, which is reflected in the worrying increase in the use of steroids. That is why the Government’s body confidence work is blind to gender and tackles the problem by dealing equally with boys and girls.
It is up to schools to decide; we do not want to give them a prescriptive list or tell them how to teach PSHE. As I said, we want our young people to leave school prepared for life in modern Britain, with a resilient and healthy attitude to life, and breastfeeding is clearly a strong part of that.
Thanks to our reforms and the hard work of teachers across the country, more pupils—boys and girls—are getting the education they deserve. Girls outperform boys on average at both primary and secondary school, but while girls have higher attainment, they are less likely to pursue subjects such as physics and maths. As Education Secretary, I am aware of all those issues and determined to tackle them.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but the sad reality is that, in 2014, 10% fewer boys attained A* to C at GCSE, including maths and English. What steps will she take as Minister for Women and Equalities and Education Secretary to close this gender gap and help boys to achieve their full potential?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. There is certainly more that we need to do to tackle underachievement among boys, especially among white working-class boys, I am sorry to say. The Chancellor has committed to the pupil premium, worth £2.5 billion, for the rest of this Parliament; a quarter of white British boys are eligible for that funding. We need to do more to explain to young men the careers that are out there and why they will need skills such as maths, but we also need to think about parental engagement—a lot of the messages will come from home that education is very valuable and that boys as well as girls need to focus in school.
Addressing the education attainment gap is important, but equally important is addressing the gap in work. A recent event held in Northern Ireland by the STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—industries showed that men outnumber women three to one in the workforce. What steps have been taken to reduce the gender gap, not only in education, but in wider employment?
I am delighted to hear about that successful event. That illustrates the point I was making about needing to inspire young people—boys and girls—about the careers that are out there and the importance of STEM subjects. I am delighted to say that maths is now the most popular subject at A-level, and there have been 12,000 more STEM A-level entries from girls since the start of the last Parliament, but there is a long way to go.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Young people benefit from strong role models, and we have an excellent workforce in our primary schools, with 82% of teaching in those schools rated good or outstanding. I would like to see more male teachers; equally, I would like to see more female headteachers in our secondary schools.
Freedom to Donate Campaign
Making sure that the blood supply is safe is an absolute priority. Donor deferral for men who have sex with men was changed from lifetime to 12 months in 2011, but four years later it is time to look again at the question. Public Health England has just undertaken an anonymous survey of donors, and I am pleased to say that SaBTO—the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs—will review the issue in 2016.
The safety of blood is of course paramount, but the Minister will know that when I met her in December 2014 to discuss the issue, there were two matters about which I was very disturbed. One was someone from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs saying that the word of gay people was somehow less valuable than the word of straight people—that was disgraceful. Secondly, the Minister promised me that survey work would be available at the time of the general election, but when I put down a written question about it, she said that, in fact, such survey work was not being done—although she now says it is. I felt that she misled me at the time. Can she say more about how we are finally going to achieve equality in this matter? Many clinicians feel it is long overdue.
My hon. Friend and I did have a meeting, and I can confirm that the Public Health England survey has been undertaken and is currently being analysed. I do not recall that an official made that point. It is important to put it on the record that the blood service does not discriminate on sexual orientation: lesbians are free to give blood and their blood donations are much appreciated. The deferral period is based on sexual activity and it applies to a number of groups other than men who have sex with men. As I say, SaBTO will review the issue in the light of the PHE survey. I am always happy to discuss this with my hon. Friend.
Safety in Public Spaces
This Government are clear that women should be confident that they are safe in public spaces. We are bearing down on those whose criminal actions impinge on this right. We have made progress. Last year Crown Prosecution Service data showed the highest ever number of convictions for crimes of violence against women and girls. We are refreshing the cross-Government VAWG strategy, including providing more options on intervention to prevent harassment, assault and abuse.
I am very pleased to hear about the work taking place in Bristol. This Government are committed, as I have said, to making sure that violence against women and girls is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in society. I look forward to hear more about the work being done in Bristol.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to provide extra protection for victims of stalking—who are often also affected by domestic violence and who are sometimes targeted and followed from family courts—in order to bring more perpetrators to justice?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Testimony that I have heard from victims of stalking shows the incredibly invasive nature of this crime and how damaging it is psychologically and emotionally. We are determined to tackle it, including by introducing the domestic abuse coercive control offence, which we passed in the Serious Crime Act 2015 and which we will be commencing shortly, to make sure that all domestic abuse is an offence and that the police have the weapons they need.
19. Councillor Michael Pavey of Brent council organised a fantastic event recently on women’s safety, female genital mutilation and domestic violence. He was disappointed, however, that the audience was overwhelmingly female. Does the Minister have any ideas about how to increase awareness of these issues among men, especially young men? (902397)
The hon. Lady makes a very important point, and as the Minister with responsibility for preventing abuse and exploitation I know that far too often I go to events where the audience is predominantly, if not exclusively, female. Yesterday, however, I was pleased to support the white ribbon campaign, which is the campaign for men against violence against women. The more we can do with such campaigns and more awareness raising, the more we can encourage people to understand that this is an issue that affects all members of society, no matter what their gender.
We have seen some success with the stalking offences that my hon. Friend asks about. We are seeing more and more police forces using the stalking offences and making sure that victims are protected. It is so important that we protect victims and give them the support they need, and make sure that perpetrators are dealt with in such a way that they cannot get to those victims and that they suffer the right penalties.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic women face particularly high incidences of violence and abuse, and research the other day from the charity Tell MAMA showed that incidents of hate crime against Muslims had risen by more than 300% since the appalling attacks in Paris, and particularly against Muslim women. What steps can the Minister take to stamp out gender, faith and racially motivated violence against women and girls?
The hon. Lady will know that the Government recently announced that we are publishing new data sets to show racially motivated hate crime, particularly hate crime against Muslims, because we agree that we need to understand the scale of the problem and we need to make sure it is absolutely clear that it is not acceptable. There can be no excuse in any religious text for hatred and nobody should think they can get away with it.
I am grateful to the Minister. Does she recognise that the women’s sector is under enormous pressure, particularly specialist organisations that, for example, support black, Asian and minority ethnic women? The charity Eaves was forced to close earlier this month, Imkaan reports that 67% of its members are uncertain about the future sustainability of their funding, and generic providers are increasingly being commissioned to provide specialist services. Is it not time for a proper, sustainable funding strategy for services for victims of domestic and sexual violence, rather than gimmicky short-term fixes such as the tampon tax, which only women pay for?
It is a shame that the hon. Lady makes that comment. While we are in the position of having to pay that VAT, it is right that we use it to provide additional support for the services in question, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on coming up with the idea. The hon. Lady is quite right that we need those specialist services, but it is not that many weeks since the Labour party voted for a 10% cut in police funding. The Conservative party has maintained police funding, which will make sure that victims of these horrendous crimes get the support they need.
Gender Economic Inequality
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at our party conference last month, we cannot have true opportunity without real equality. I am very proud that we now have more women in work, more women on boards and the lowest pay gap on record across the UK, but we must continue to make progress. Women will be the main beneficiaries of the new national living wage and the rise in the personal allowance.
I thank the Minister for that response, but as she acknowledged in response to an earlier question, the overwhelming majority of care workers are women, and they face low pay, zero-hours contracts and non-payment of travel time as a consequence of financial pressures on the sector. Professor Martin Green, the chief executive of Care England, among others, is clear that yesterday’s announcement by the Chancellor will not plug the funding gap in the care sector. What will the Minister do to secure a fair deal for care workers?
I thank my hon. Friend, who puts it really well. I particularly want to answer that question in the context of transgender people, who often face discrimination in the workplace as well as in their day-to-day lives. That is why I am today publishing guidance for employers and service providers to improve knowledge and understanding about supporting those who are transgender. It is an important step, but I want us to continue to raise awareness of the issues and discrimination facing many transgender and non-binary people.
The Government are determined to increase the number of young people, particularly girls, studying science, technology, engineering and maths. There have been 12,000 more STEM A-level entries for girls over the last five years, but of course more needs to be done. That is why we are supporting schools through professional development and enrichment activities, including the Stimulating Physics Network, STEMNET and the inspiring Your Life campaign, which will transform perceptions of science and maths.
I thank the Minister for her reply. As a former engineer, I know at first hand the benefits of choosing STEM subjects in schools, and I am pleased that the Government are encouraging more girls into the area. Does the Minister agree that alongside the promotion of STEM in schools, it is vital that young people, particularly girls, receive good careers advice and guidance so that they can go on to succeed in the STEM-related industries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know that girls often outperform boys in STEM subjects at school but do not necessarily go on to study those subjects at A-level or go into STEM careers. That is why I am delighted that we have set up the new Careers & Enterprise Company, which will strengthen the links between employers and schools and hopefully inspire the next generation of engineers by showing them just how interesting and varied careers in engineering can be.
In September, Medway’s new engineering university technical college opened, and I am thrilled that many local girls chose to be part of the first intake. To what extent has industry been involved in the Your Life campaign to inspire more girls to consider a career in STEM?
As my hon. Friend outlines, Your Life is a fantastic industry-led and industry-funded campaign. Everyone is committed to inspiring the next generation of boys, but particularly girls, in the importance of STEM. I experienced that at first hand when I visited the Ford motor company in Dagenham—the spiritual home of the fight for equal pay—and saw a team of schoolgirls racing cars around its test track and really understanding the value and excitement of careers in STEM.
The Government have supported a range of initiatives aimed at inspiring young people, including many girls, to take up engineering. Since 2010 the number of women starting engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships has trebled to 4,800. I am pleased that at the National Physical Laboratory in my hon. Friend’s constituency over half the apprentices are female. By protecting the science budget we are ensuring a strong science and engineering base that will benefit the entire country.
I urge the Minister to come to the NPL with me, because there are exciting projects there with graduates. I also invite him to Jack and Jill nursery school in my constituency, which is promoting engineering for six and seven-year-olds by inviting our great inventor Trevor Baylis to show them what can be done with Meccano sets. Will the Minister join me in asking toy manufacturers to make these kits for five-year-olds and upwards, instead of eight-year-olds and upwards, because we start really young in Twickenham?
I am always delighted to go to Twickenham. I am delighted also to welcome this very successful initiative. Twickenham, in this respect, is part of a much bigger national story in which we have more women-led businesses than ever before—about 1 million. As of 2014, 20% of all small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK are now majority led by women—an increase of 170,000 on the number in 2010.
It is really important to show young girls and boys the fantastic careers that engineering provides. To do that specifically for girls, we need engineering companies to engage with schools. What discussions is the Minister having with other Ministers to ensure that there is a central point where engineering companies can find the schools they can engage with?
Immigration Detention of Pregnant Women
Published Home Office policy states that pregnant women should not usually be detained unless there is a prospect of early safe removal. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asked Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, to review the detention of vulnerable individuals. His report and the Government response will be published before the Immigration Bill completes its passage through Parliament.
I will make sure that the Home Office looks carefully at all the cases my right hon. Friend has raised. I repeat that pregnant women should not routinely be detained. The Home Office is currently considering Stephen Shaw’s review on detainee welfare, and we will publish his report before the Immigration Bill completes its passage.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman). This is a big problem, but it is about the providers. What discussions will the Minister have with Serco, Mitie, G4S and other providers about the detention of pregnant women?
Boards of Public Institutions: Representation of Women
We are making real progress in increasing the number of women on public boards, with 44% of new appointments going to women last year, up from 39% in the previous year. Steps to increase diversity include streamlining the application process and increasing awareness of opportunities via a central website and social media.
There has been success in non-executive roles on boards but much less success in decision-making, operational roles. Only 8% of FTSE directors are women in executive positions. Does the Minister agree that quotas that focus on the wrong metric could undermine progress in this key area, which is judge and jury of success in this regard?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that there is an abundance of talented women who have the right skills and experience for board positions. Government and business must work together to level the playing field and encourage those women to work their way up the executive pipeline. That is why the Government will establish a new review focusing on that all-important executive layer in FTSE 350 companies.
Mr Speaker, I said I would respond personally to the Foreign Affairs Committee report on extending British military operations to Syria. I have done so today, and copies of my response have been made available to every Member of the House.
The Committee produced a comprehensive report that asked a series of important questions. I have tried to listen very carefully to the questions and views expressed by Members on both sides of the House, and I want to answer all the relevant questions today. There are different ways of putting them, but they boil down to this: why? Why us? Why now? Is what we are contemplating legal? Where are the ground troops to help us achieve our objectives? What is the strategy that brings together everything we are doing, particularly in Syria? Is there an end to this conflict, and is there a plan for what follows?
Let me deal with each of those questions as directly as I can. First, why? The reason for acting is the very direct threat that ISIL poses to our country and to our way of life. ISIL has attacked Ankara, Beirut and, of course, Paris, as well as likely blowing up a Russian plane with 224 people on board. It has already taken the lives of British hostages, and inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7, on the beaches of Tunisia—and, crucially, it has repeatedly tried to attack us right here in Britain. In the last 12 months, our police and security services have disrupted no fewer than seven terrorist plots to attack the UK, every one of which was either linked to ISIL or inspired by its propaganda, so I am in no doubt that it is in our national interest for action to be taken to stop it—and stopping it means taking action in Syria, because Raqqa is its headquarters.
But why us? My first responsibility as Prime Minister—and our first job in this House—is to keep the British people safe. We have the assets to do that and we can significantly extend the capabilities of the international coalition forces. That is one reason why members of the international coalition, including President Obama and President Hollande, have made it clear to me that they want Britain to stand with them in joining in airstrikes in Syria, as well as Iraq. These are our closest allies, and they want our help.
Partly, this is about our capabilities. As we are showing in Iraq, the RAF can carry out what is called “dynamic targeting”, whereby our pilots can strike the most difficult targets at rapid pace and with extraordinary precision, and provide vital battle-winning close air support to local forces on the ground. We have the Brimstone precision missile system, which enables us to strike accurately, with minimal collateral damage—something that even the Americans do not have. RAPTOR—the reconnaissance airborne pod for our Tornado aircraft—has no rival; it currently gathers 60% of the coalition’s entire tactical reconnaissance in Iraq, and it is also equipped for strikes. In addition, our Reaper drones are providing up to 30% of the intelligence in Syria, but they are not currently able to use their low-collateral, high-precision missile systems. We also have the proven ability to sustain our operations—not just for weeks, but, if necessary, for months into the future.
Of course we have those capabilities, but the most important answer to the question, “Why us?”, is, I believe, even more fundamental: we should not be content with outsourcing our security to our allies. If we believe that action can help protect us, then, with our allies, we should be part of that action, not standing aside from it. From that moral point comes a fundamental question: if we will not act now, when our friend and ally France has been struck in this way, then our allies in the world can be forgiven for asking, “If not now, when?”
That leads to the next question: why now? The first answer to that is, of course, because of the grave danger that ISIL poses to our security—a danger that has clearly intensified in recent weeks—but there are additional reasons why action now is so important. Just look at what has changed—not just the attack in Paris, but the fact that the world has come together and agreed a UN Security Council resolution. There is a real political process under way. This could lead to a new Government in Syria, with whom we can work to defeat ISIL for good. But as I explained to the House yesterday, we cannot wait for that to be complete before we begin acting to degrade ISIL and reducing its capability to attack us.
Let us be clear about the military objectives that we are pursuing. Yes, we want to defeat the terrorists by dismantling their networks, stopping their funding, targeting their training camps and taking out those plotting terrorist attacks against the UK, but there is a broader objective. For as long as ISIL can pedal the myth of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it will be a rallying call for Islamist extremists all around the world, and that makes us less safe. Just as we have reduced the scale and size of the so-called caliphate in Iraq—increasingly pushing it out of Iraq—so we need to do the same thing in Syria.
Indeed, another reason for action now is that the success in Iraq in squeezing the so-called caliphate is put at risk by our failure to act in Syria. This border is not recognised by ISIL, and we seriously hamper our efforts if we stop acting when we reach the Syrian border, so when we come to the question, “Why now?”, we have to ask ourselves whether the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of taking action. Every day we fail to act is a day when ISIL can grow stronger and more plots can be undertaken. That is why all the advice I have received—the military advice, the diplomatic advice and the security advice—says, yes, the risks of inaction are greater.
Some have asked specifically whether taking action could make the UK more of a target for ISIL attacks. Let me tell the House that the judgment of the director general of the Security Service and the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee is that the UK is already in the top tier of countries that ISIL is targeting, so I am clear that the only way to deal with that reality is to address the threat we face, and to do so now.
Let me turn to the question of legality. It is a long-standing constitutional convention that we do not publish our formal legal advice, but the document I have published today shows in some detail the clear legal basis for military action against ISIL in Syria. It is founded on the right of self-defence as recognised in article 51 of the United Nations charter. The right of self-defence may be exercised individually where it is necessary to the UK’s own defence, and of course collectively in the defence of our friends and allies.
The main basis of the global coalition’s actions against ISIL in Syria is the collective self-defence of Iraq. Iraq has a legitimate Government—one that we support and help. There is a solid basis of evidence on which to conclude, first, that there is a direct link between the presence and activities of ISIL in Syria and its ongoing attack on Iraq, and secondly, that the Assad regime is unwilling and/or unable to take action necessary to prevent ISIL’s continuing attack on Iraq, or indeed attacks on us. It is also clear that ISIL’s campaign against the UK and our allies has reached the level of an “armed attack”, such that force may lawfully be used in self-defence to prevent further atrocities being committed by ISIL.
This is further underscored by the unanimous adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2249. We should be clear about what this resolution means and what it says. The whole world came together, including all five members of the Security Council, to agree this resolution unanimously. The resolution states that ISIL
“constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security”.
It calls for member states to take “all necessary measures” to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL and, crucially, it says that we should
“eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”.
Turning to the question of which ground forces will assist us, in Iraq the answer is clear. We have the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga. In Syria, the situation is more complex. However, as the report I am publishing today shows, we believe that there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters, principally of the Free Syrian Army, who do not belong to extremist groups, and with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on ISIL.
In addition, Kurdish armed groups have shown themselves capable of taking territory, holding it and administering it, and, crucially, of relieving the suffering that the civilian population had endured under ISIL control. The Syrian Kurds have successfully defended Kurdish areas in northern Syria and retaken territory around the city of Kobane.
Moderate armed Sunni Arabs have proved capable of defending territory north of Aleppo. They stopped ISIL’s attempts to capture the main humanitarian border crossing with Turkey and sweep into Idlib province. In the south, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army has consolidated its control over significant areas, and has worked to prevent terrorists from operating.
The people I have talked about are ground troops. They need our help; when they get it, they succeed, so in my view, we should do more to help from the air. Those who ask questions about ground troops are absolutely right to do so. The full answer cannot be achieved until there is a new Syrian Government who represent all the Syrian people—not just Sunni, Shi’a and Alawite, but Christian, Druze and others. It is this new Government who will be the natural partner for our forces in defeating ISIL for good. We cannot defeat ISIL simply from the air, or purely with military action alone. It requires a full political settlement. The question is: can we wait for that settlement before we take action? Again, my answer is no.
On the question of whether this action is part of an overall strategy, the answer is yes. Our approach has four pillars. First, our counter-extremism strategy means that we have a comprehensive plan to prevent and foil plots at home, and to address the poisonous extremist ideology that is the root cause of the threat we face. The second pillar is our support for the diplomatic and political process. We should be clear about that process. Many people across this House have rightly said how vital it is to have all the key regional players around the table, including Iran and Russia. We are now seeing Iran and Saudi Arabia sitting around the same table as America and Russia, as well as France, Turkey and Britain. All of us are working towards the transition to a new Government in Syria.
The third pillar is the military action that I am describing to degrade ISIL and reduce the threat it poses; it is working in Iraq, and I believe that it can work in Syria. The fourth pillar is immediate humanitarian support and, even more crucially, longer-term stabilisation. The House has heard many times that Britain has so far given over £1.1 billion—by far the largest commitment of any European country, and second only to the United States of America. That is helping to reduce the need for Syrians to attempt the perilous journey to Europe. The donor conference that I am hosting in February together with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN will help further.
The House is rightly asking more questions about whether there will be a proper post-conflict reconstruction effort to support a new Syrian Government when they emerge. Britain’s answer to that question is absolutely yes. I can tell the House that Britain would be prepared to contribute at least another £1 billion for that task.
All these elements—counter-terrorism, political and diplomatic, military and humanitarian—need to happen together to achieve a long-term solution in Syria. We know that peace is a process, not an event. I am clear that it cannot be achieved through a military assault on ISIL alone; it also requires the removal of Assad through a political transition. But I am also clear about the sequencing that needs to take place. This is an ISIL-first strategy.
What of the end goal? The initial objective is to damage ISIL and reduce its capacity to do us harm. I believe that that can, in time, lead to its eradication. No one predicted ISIL’s rise, and we should not accept that it is somehow impossible to bring it to an end. It is not what the people of Iraq and Syria want; it does not represent the true religion of Islam; and it is losing ground in Iraq, following losses in Sinjar and Baiji.
We are not naive about the complexity of the task. It will require patience and persistence, and our work will not be complete until we have reached our true end goal, which is having Governments in both Iraq and Syria who can command the confidence of all their peoples. In Syria, that ultimately means a Government without Assad. As Ban Ki-moon has said:
“Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism.”
That applies so clearly to both Iraq and Syria.
As we discuss all these things, people also want to know that we have learned the lessons of previous conflicts. Whatever anyone thought of the Iraq war, terrible mistakes were made in its aftermath in dismantling the state and the institutions of that country. We must never make those mistakes again. The political process in Syria will, in time, deliver new leadership, and we must support that transition. We are not in the business of dismantling the Syrian state or its institutions.
In Libya, the state and its institutions had been hollowed out after 40 years of dictatorship. When the dictatorship went, the institutions rapidly collapsed. The big difference between Libya and Syria is that in Syria this time we have firm international commitment from all the backers of a future Syrian Government around the table at the Vienna talks. The commitment is clear: to preserve and develop the state in Syria, and allow a new representative Government to govern for all its people.
I have attempted to answer the main questions: why? Why now? Why us? Is it legal? What are the ground forces? Is there a strategy? What is the end point and plan for reconstruction? I know that this is a highly complex situation, and Members on all sides of the House will have other questions that I look forward to trying to answer this morning.
One question will be about the confused and confusing situation in Syria with regard to Russia’s intervention. Let me reassure the House that the American-led combined air operations centre has a memorandum of understanding with the Russians. That enables daily contact and pragmatic military planning to ensure the safety of all coalition forces, and that would include our brave RAF pilots. Another question will be about whether we are taking sides in a Sunni versus Shi’a conflict, but that is simply not the case. Yes, ISIL is a predominantly Sunni organisation, but it is killing Sunni and Shi’a alike. Our vision for the future of Syria, as with Iraq, is not a sectarian entity, but one that is governed in the interests of all its people. We therefore wholeheartedly welcome the presence of states with both Sunni and Shi’a majorities at the Vienna talks, and their support for international action both against ISIL and towards a diplomatic solution in Syria.
The House will also want to know what we are doing about the financing of ISIL. The document sets that out; it includes intercepting smugglers, sealing borders, and enforcing sanctions to stop people trading with ISIL. Ultimately, ISIL is able to generate income through its control of territory, so although we are working with international partners to squeeze the finances wherever we can, it is the rolling back of ISIL’s territory that will ultimately cut off its finances.
Two of the most complex questions in an undoubtedly complex situation are these. First, will acting against ISIL in Syria help to bring about transition? I believe the answer is yes, not least because there cannot be genuine transition without maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria. With its current actions, ISIL completely denies that integrity. Crucially, destroying ISIL helps the moderate forces, and those moderate forces will be crucial to Syria’s future. Secondly, does our view that Assad must go help in the fight against ISIL, or—as some claim—does that confuse the picture? The expert advice that I have could not be clearer: we will not beat ISIL if we waiver in our view that ultimately Assad must go. We cannot win over majority Sunni opinion, which is vital for the long-term stability of Syria, if we suddenly to change our position.
In the end it comes back to one main question: should we take action? All those who say that ultimately we need a diplomatic solution and a transition to a new Government in Syria are right. Working with a new representative Government is the way to eradicate ISIL in Syria in the long term, but can we wait for that to happen before we take military action? I say we cannot.
Let me be clear: there will not be a vote in this House unless there is a clear majority for action, because we will not hand a publicity coup to ISIL.
I am also clear that any motion we bring before this House will explicitly recognise that military action is not the whole answer. Proud as I am of our incredible servicemen and women, I will not pretend or overstate the significance of our potential contribution. I will not understate the complexity of this issue, nor the risks that are inevitably involved in any military action, but we do face a fundamental threat to our security. We cannot wait for a political transition. We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now: and we must not shirk our responsibility for security, or hand it to others.
Throughout our history, the United Kingdom has stood up to defend our values and our way of life. We can, and we must, do so again. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for providing an advance copy of his statement, which I received earlier today.
After the despicable and horrific attacks in Paris a fortnight ago, the whole House will I am sure agree that our first priority has to be the security of people in this country. So when we consider the Prime Minister’s case for military action, the issue of whether what he proposes strengthens or undermines our security must be front and centre stage of our minds. There is no doubt that the so-called Islamic State group has imposed a reign of terror on millions in Iraq, in Syria and now in Libya. All that ISIL stands for and does is contrary to everything those of us on these Benches have struggled for over many generations. There is no doubt that it poses a threat to our own people. The question must now be whether extending the UK bombing from Iraq to Syria is likely to reduce or increase that threat, and whether it will counter or spread the terror campaign ISIL is waging in the middle east. With that in mind, I would like to put seven questions to the Prime Minister.
First, does the Prime Minister believe that extending airstrikes to Syria, which is already being bombed by the United States, France, Russia and other powers, will make a significant military impact on the ground, which has so far seen ISIL gain, as well as lose, territory? Does he expect it will be a war-winning strategy, or does he think other members of the original coalition, including the Gulf states, Canada and Australia, have halted their participation?
Secondly, is the Prime Minister’s view that the air campaign against ISIL-held areas can be successful without ground forces? If not, does he believe that the Kurdish forces or the relatively marginal and remote Free Syrian Army would be in a position to take back ISIL-held territory if the air campaign were successful? Is it not more likely that other stronger, jihadist and radical Salafist forces would take over?
Thirdly, without credible or acceptable ground forces, is not the logic of an intensified air campaign mission creep and western boots on the ground? Can the Prime Minister today rule out the deployment of British ground forces to Syria?
Fourthly, does the Prime Minister believe that United Nations security resolution 2249 gives clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK airstrikes? What co-ordinated action with other United Nations member states has there been under the terms of the resolution to cut off funding, oil revenues and armed supplies from ISIL into the territory it currently holds? In the absence of any co-ordinated UN military or diplomatic strategy, does he believe that more military forces over Syria could increase the risks of dangerous incidents, such as the shooting down of a Russian military aircraft by Turkish forces this week?
Fifthly, how does the Prime Minister think an extension of UK bombing would contribute to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian civil war, which is widely believed to be the only way to ensure the defeat of ISIL in the country? The Vienna conference last weekend was a good step forward, but it has some way to go.
Sixthly, what assessment has the Prime Minister been given about the likely impact of British airstrikes in Syria on the threat of terrorist attacks in Britain? What impact does he believe an intensified air campaign will have on civilian casualties—civilian casualties—in the ISIS-held territory and the wider Syrian refugee crisis, which is so enormous and so appalling?
Finally, in the light of the record of western military intervention in recent years, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, does the Prime Minister accept that UK bombing of Syria could risk more of what President Obama called “unintended consequences”, and that a lasting defeat of ISIL can be secured only by Syrians and their forces within the region?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. I very much respect his long-held views about these issues and his quite correct caution before committing to any of these actions, but I do believe that there is a good answer to the seven absolutely legitimate questions he asks.
First, on whether extending airstrikes would have a significant military impact, I tried to give a flavour in my statement of the specific things we think we would be able to do. In many ways, it is worth listening to our closest allies, the Americans and the French, who want us to take part—not just for the cover it provides, but because of the capabilities we bring. It is worth listening very closely to what they say, so my answer is, yes, we would make a military difference.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of ground forces, which I tried to tackle as fully as I could in my statement. I would guide the House that there are obviously many who want to play down the existence and the role of the Free Syrian Army. Our information and intelligence is that at least 70,000 moderate Sunni forces are able to help. We can see the help they have given, and I provided some examples in my statement.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about boots on the ground. Let me give an assurance that we are not deploying British combat forces, and we are not going to deploy British combat forces. We think that the presence of western boots on the ground would be counter-productive. That is one thing that I think we have all, collectively across the House, learned from previous conflicts. We do not want to make that mistake again.
The fourth question was whether the UN resolution is unambiguous. I believe it is. I think the language in the resolution is very clear, which is why I quoted it in some detail. The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked what else the UN was doing on sanctions, embargoes and squeezing the finances of ISIL. There was a resolution back in February, and we should continue to support all those measures.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about dangerous incidents and the potential for them. As I explained in the statement, there is a deconfliction between what Russia is doing and what the coalition is doing. Obviously, as I said yesterday, we have to get to the bottom of what happened in Turkey, but we have permission to overfly Turkish airspace, and Turkey is our ally in this conflict.
The crucial question, the right hon. Gentleman’s fifth question, was whether what we are planning will help with transition. I think the answer is a very strong yes. The existence of ISIL, or Daesh as many call it, with its so-called caliphate, is to deny the territorial integrity of both Iraq and Syria, so we cannot have a future Syria with the existence of this caliphate taking over such a large amount of its territory. When we look to the future of Syria, we know that it is going to need the involvement of moderate Sunnis, so the more we can help them, the better the chance of transition.
The right hon. Gentleman asked another very important question about the impact of action on the threat level to this country. That is why I quoted—I had their permission to do so, having cleared my statement with them—the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the head of MI5. Their view is that we are already at the very highest level we could be when it comes to threats from ISIL. Again, this is about learning the lessons of Iraq. We now have this architecture of a Joint Intelligence Committee chaired by a very senior official who has that independent view. I cleared every word of my statement, as I say, with them.
On the important question of civilian casualties, I believe that the truth of the matter is that British capabilities provide one of the best ways to reduce civilian casualties. In a year and three months of the action we have taken in Iraq, there have been no reports of civilian casualties. We believe that we have some of the most accurate weapons known to man. I think extending our activities into Syria is likely to reduce civilian casualties rather than increase them.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about unintended consequences and the recent history we have faced. We can have a bigger debate, I am sure, about the action we have had to take around the world. We have to recognise, in my view, that this poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism is a battle for our generation. We see it in Nigeria, we see it in Somalia, and, frankly, we sometimes see it in our own country. Combating it with everything we have is not just combating it by military means; it is combating it with argument, and it is combating it by taking away grievances. It is all those things together.
I believe that we have thought through the consequences of this action. When people quote President Obama, as the right hon. Gentleman did, it is worth remembering that this American President, who saw that part of his role was withdrawing America from some of these foreign entanglements and trying to take a different approach to these actions, is not only firmly behind American action in Syria, but is asking America’s oldest friend, partner and ally to help out in this vital work.
I thank my right hon. Friend for responding so comprehensively to the Foreign Affairs Committee report. Let me also thank the Chancellor, since he is present, for responding positively to our first report on the Foreign Office budget yesterday.
Some of my colleagues on the Committee returned early from the region around ISIL to hear the statement, while others are completing visits to 10 capitals in the region over the week. Acquiring a regional perspective is part of our inquiry into the coalition against ISIL, as was our initial report, which addressed the narrow issue of British airstrikes over Syria. Behind that narrow issue sit the bigger questions of Britain’s full involvement in the coalition, and whether that coalition has a strategy to achieve the aim of defeating ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the senior leaders whom we met in the region that getting the politics right in both Iraq and Syria is the immediate and overriding priority, and that we must not lose focus on Baghdad?
The Committee will discuss its collective view early next week, and we will also want to report to the House on the prospects of success for the coalition strategy in the new year. Will my right hon. Friend come before the Committee in about two months’ time to give evidence to us on the implementation of the strategy he has set out today?
In the light of Vienna and my right hon. Friend’s response to the Committee, it is now my personal view that, on balance, the country would be best served by the House supporting his judgment that the United Kingdom should play a full role in the coalition in order best to support and shape the politics, thus enabling the earliest military and eventual ideological defeat of ISIL to take place.
I thank my hon. Friend for coming back from the region to be with us in the House today, and I thank him for the report, but above all I thank him for what he has said about the decision he has reached in relation to the difficult decision we all have to make. I think he is absolutely right that any action we take must be nested in an overall strategy, which I have tried to set out today. He is also absolutely right that the politics of the region are crucial to our understanding. Most important of all, he is right about trying to ensure that Iraq makes progress towards being a more pluralistic and solid country that does not face the risk of ISIL. As I have said, in my view the politics and the action go together.
My hon. Friend asked whether I would come back to his Committee, and indeed to the House, within two months. I am very happy to come back in any way that people want me to, whether—if we decide to go ahead with this action—to give regular updates to the House, or indeed to appear in front of his Committee to go through detailed questions. I am in this, as in all things, the House’s servant.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement, and for the briefing we received from his national security adviser and colleagues last night. Given the seriousness of the issues with which we are all grappling, that briefing was valuable, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and I expressed our thanks to those who are working so hard to keep us all safe.
We in the Scottish National party share the concerns of everyone in the House and the country about the terrorist threat from Daesh. We deplore the Assad regime, and have repeatedly raised the issue of refugees both in the region and in Europe. The SNP strongly supports the international initiative that was agreed in Vienna to secure a ceasefire in Syria and a transition to stable representative Government, and to counter terrorist groups including Daesh. We believe that these aims will be secured only through agreement and a serious, long-term commitment to Syria. How is the UK supporting the international Syria support initiative and other diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire, to ensure a political transition, to combat terrorists such as Daesh and to plan for long-term reconstruction, stability and support?
Yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, I asked two questions about Syria that the Prime Minister did not answer, so I would like to repeat them today. How will the UK plan to secure peace in Syria? As the FAC asked, “which ground forces will”—not can, but will—
“take, hold, and administer territories captured from ISIL in Syria”?
He has talked about 70,000 Free Syrian Army troops. How many of those are in the north-east of Syria, on the front line against Daesh, as opposed to countering Syrian regime forces? How will the UK plan to secure long-term stability and reconstruction in Syria? The UK spent 13 times more bombing Libya than on its post-conflict stability and reconstruction. As I asked yesterday, how much does he estimate the total cost of reconstruction will be, and does he think that the amount in his statement today will be sufficient?
Two years ago, the Prime Minister urged us to bomb Daesh’s opponents in Syria, which would probably have strengthened this terrorist organisation. Today, he wants us to launch a bombing campaign without effective ground support or a fully costed reconstruction and stability plan. He has asked us to consider his plan, and we have listened closely, but key questions posed by the FAC remain unanswered, and unless he answers them satisfactorily, the SNP will not vote for airstrikes in Syria.
First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to my national security adviser, Mark Lyall Grant, who has been working hard to provide factual briefings, on a Privy Council basis, to parties across the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we require political agreement and Syria’s long-term reconstruction. My argument is not that I disagree, but that we also need to act now to help protect ourselves against the terrorism we have seen on the streets of Paris and elsewhere. He asked a technical question about how we are supporting the negotiation initiative in Vienna. Obviously, we are playing a full part, through the Foreign Secretary, but we are also helping to fund the work of the UN envoys trying to bring the parties together.
The right hon. Gentleman asked who were the troops on the ground. As I have explained, there are the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish forces. That, of course, makes it a more complicated picture than Iraq, where there are the Iraq security forces, but we can help these forces to take and hold ground and to relieve suffering, as we have seen around Kobani and with the Yazidis. Important progress can be made. I was frank in my statement, however: of course, the true arrival of ground forces awaits a new Government in Syria. Having that partner is the best way to eradicate ISIL in the long-term, but again the question arises: can we wait for that to happen before we take some action that will degrade ISIL and its capabilities to do us harm?
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about Syria’s long-term reconstruction. As we debated yesterday on the autumn statement, we have one of the largest development budgets in the world, and I have already said we would be prepared to commit £1 billion to such reconstruction. I think the world would come together if there was a new Government in Syria, and the Syrian people, many of whom are currently outside their country and desperate to go home, would not be left wanting for support. They would get Britain’s support and, I believe, that of the whole developed world.
The Prime Minister has made a compelling case for playing a proper part with our allies on both sides of the meaningless international border and for the political process, in which we can have a voice, of bringing the Americans closer to the Russians, and the Saudis and Turks closer to the Iranians. Does he accept, however, that in the medium term we have to look for whatever agreement can produce stability and a more peaceful situation, and that we might have to prepare ourselves for something that falls far short of a liberal, western democracy? Is not the experience of the Arab spring that going straight to democratic elections does not produce a resolution, that any agreement will have to involve some rather unpleasant people, not just those who would naturally be our allies, and that Assad and others might have to be involved, because the big enemy is ISIL, which is dangerous and cannot be engaged in any political negotiations?
My right hon. and learned Friend speaks with great wisdom about these matters, and it is important to have his support. He has never been an unquestioning supporter of military action, and he thinks these things through very carefully. He talks about the future Government of Syria and the transition that needs to take place falling short of some of the democratic norms that we would want to see, and yes of course that is likely. When I say that I believe Assad cannot be part of the long-term government of Syria, in many ways that is not a political preference; in my view, it is a statement of fact. There will not be a Government of Syria that can command the support of the Syrian people if he is in charge of it, because of the blood that has been shed and because of what has happened in that country. But do I believe that a transition in Syria will produce some perfect Swiss-style democracy? No of course it will not, but it might give us a partner with which we can complete the obliteration of ISIL and therefore make us safer.
May I remind the Prime Minister that, two years ago, he was equally eloquent in telling us how essential it was to bomb the Assad regime? I believe that the decision taken by the House in 2013 was the correct one and that, had we followed his advice, the situation in Syria would now be even worse than it is. Does he agree that the crux of the issue for every Member of the House is this: would military action help to defeat ISIS? I happen to believe that the answer is no. I wonder how many Members really believe that it would make any difference at all in defeating this hated death cult.
I do not particularly want to re-enter all the arguments about chemical weapons use. All I will say is that I of course listen to the hon. Gentleman’s views, but I also think of the thousands of people, including children, who have been killed by Assad’s barrel bombs and chemical weapons since we held that vote. The hon. Gentleman asked the right question, however. Will this make us safer or not? Will it help to degrade ISIL or not? It is the view of our closest allies, our military, our intelligence experts and those responsible for our domestic security: all those people are saying that we should take this action, as part of a coalition, to help make us safer. That is why I am bringing forward this statement and, with the support of the House, I will bring forward a vote.
Following the limited but important progress on the political track in Vienna and the unanimous adoption by the United Nations of resolution 2249 on ISIL, is it not clear that the Prime Minister’s considered response today is absolutely compelling? Is this not the way in which we discharge our responsibility to protect innocent civilians, both here in the United Kingdom and in Syria?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s support. This is about discharging our responsibilities, chiefly to our own citizens. It is my considered view that this action will help, over time, to make us safer. We will never be safe while ISIL exists and while this so-called caliphate exists. We have demonstrated in Iraq that we can take its territory and destroy much of its infrastructure. We can make real progress, but we are hampered by not being able to do the same in Syria. If we agree that the eradication of ISIL is essential for our national security, we should not put off the decision.
I am sure that the Prime Minister is correct to say that the continued existence of the so-called caliphate is an inspiration to violence and to extremists not only in the middle east but even in our own country. I know that these things are still subject to negotiation, but can he give the House an indication of what the characteristics of a legitimate transitional Government might be?
First, let me agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the so-called caliphate. As I tried to set out in my statement, there are the military objectives of trying to break up the terrorist training camps and infrastructure, and the terrorists themselves, but there is a bigger picture, which is that while this so-called caliphate exists, I do not believe we are safe. We should therefore be part of its dismantling.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the characteristics of transition, this is what is being discussed in Vienna, but it should start with ceasefires. It should then proceed to the political work of drawing up what a transitional Government and institutions would look like, and then be followed, probably, by elections and, at some stage, a transition away from the current leadership. As I said in reply to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), this will not be a perfect or scientific process, but to me it is essential, because in the end it is political transition that will help us to complete the final destruction of ISIL—military force cannot do it on its own. I am not coming to this Dispatch Box saying that there is a purely military solution—there is not; there is a political, diplomatic and military solution, and we need to do all of the bits of that.
Many hon. and right hon. Members, including me, entirely agree with the Prime Minister that ISIL/Daesh must be crushed militarily in Syria—the crushing will indeed have to be military—but, as he acknowledged at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, airstrikes alone will not be effective; they have got to be in co-ordination with credible ground forces. I have to say that the suggestion that there are 70,000 non-Islamist, moderate, credible ground forces is a revelation to me and, I suspect, to most other Members in this House. Adequate ground forces, in my view, depend on the participation of the Syrian army, so if the dictator Assad refuses to resign, which is the greater danger to our national interest: Syria under him or the continued existence and expansion of ISIL/Daesh? We may have to choose between one and the other.
I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, who thinks about these things very carefully. There are a lot of grounds of agreement between us: we agree on the dangers of ISIL; we agree that it needs to be crushed; we agree that that will need the involvement of ground forces; and we also agree that, as I put in my response to the Foreign Affairs Committee, we need an ISIL-first strategy—ISIL is the greater threat to the United Kingdom. I think the only areas of disagreement between us are on a technical point and a slightly more profound but not unbridgeable one. The technical point is that what I have said about 70,000 moderate forces in Syria is not my figure; it is the considered opinion of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a Committee that was set up and given independence to avoid any of the mistakes we had in the past of the potential misuse of intelligence and other information. This is its considered view; that document has been entirely cleared by the Committee, as has my statement.
The other issue we have to come to is that of course my right hon. Friend and I agree that in time the best ground troops should be the Syrian army, but my view is that that will be more likely to happen after a political transition has taken place in Syria. My contention is that the problem of believing it can be done with Assad is that we will never get the ceasefire and we will never get the participation of the Sunni majority in Syria while Assad is still there. I think the area of disagreement between us is narrowing, as is the area of disagreement between Britain, America and France, and the Russians; we all now see the need for there to be both a military and a political solution.
The Prime Minister has made a strong moral and legal case for defeating what is a new totalitarianism in both Syria and Iraq, but the real question is, obviously, the practical one, and that is what the House will want to consider. May I therefore press him on the following issue? Given the different Russian objectives in Syria, how will he avoid giving support or appearing to give support to Assad forces and becoming dependent on them, and how will he avoid that giving succour to ISIL in its recruitment in the region?
That is the important issue. We have been very clear that our target is ISIL, not the regime. However, we will be helped, as I said in my statement, in our combating of ISIL if the Sunni majority in Syria continues to believe, rightly, that we think that Syria requires a transition away from Assad. Assad cannot, in the long term, run that country.
On Russian objectives, the gap between us has narrowed. Russia sees the danger of ISIL and is attacking them. We see the danger of ISIL and are attacking them. The difference is that Russia is still attacking the moderate Syrian forces that we believe, in time, could be part of a genuine transition in Syria that would have the support of all the Syrian people. We do have ways of deconflicting, and we are having discussions. I met President Putin at the G20. I think that the horrific attack on the Russian airliner flying from Sharm el-Sheikh will bring home to everyone in Russia again that this needs an ISIL-first strategy. That is where the greatest threat comes from and that is where we should focus.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on setting out such a comprehensive approach and on stressing that it is an ISIL-first strategy. Does he accept that for the United Kingdom not to act is in itself a policy position that will have consequences, because the jihadists hate us not for what we do, but for who we are and what we stand for? Does he agree that we do not have the luxury of not confronting ISIL, because they have chosen to confront us? The question is whether we confront them over there or, increasingly, take the risk of having to confront them over here.
My right hon. Friend brings great clarity to this matter. Not taking action is itself a choice, and that choice has consequences. It is my judgment, and the judgment of those independent, impartial, highly trained advisers on security and military issues who take the same view, that inaction is the greater risk.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and for early sight of it. There are understandable knee-jerk reactions on both sides to the horror of Paris and of Beirut. There will be those who say, “Intervene”; those who say, “Intervene at all costs”; and also those who say, “Do not intervene no matter what the evidence points to.” The Prime Minister knows that the Liberal Democrats have set out five criteria against which we can judge this statement. On that basis, may I press him on two particular points? The Prime Minister recognises that airstrikes alone will not defeat ISIL. He has already heard that he will need to give much more evidence to this House to convince it that the ground operations that are there are sufficient and have the capability and the credibility to deliver on the ground, which is what he knows needs to be delivered. What role will Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and the other Gulf states play in delivering this victory, if that is the direction in which we choose to go as a country and as a House? There is also a reference to humanitarian aid in this statement. He will know that no amount of aid can help an innocent family dodge a bomb. There is no reference in this statement to establishing no-bomb zones or safe havens to protect innocent civilians if this action takes place. Will he answer that question?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and for the fact that his party wants to engage with the arguments, think very carefully and consider the key national security arguments before making its judgment. I know that the national security adviser was pleased to brief its members last night and stands ready to brief them and answer any detailed questions that they might have. I am determined that there should be no knee-jerk reaction. I take very seriously what happened in Paris. I know absolutely that that could just as well happen in the UK, as it could happen in Belgium or elsewhere in Europe, and that the threat that we face is very, very severe. I want us to consider this and to think it through. I do not want anyone to feel that a good process has not been followed, so that if people agree with the case being put, they can in all conscience vote to support it.
The hon. Gentleman asked two specific questions. On humanitarian aid, we will continue to deliver that. On no-bomb zones, the dangers and difficulties with no-bomb zones and safe zones are that they have to be enforced, and that can require the taking out of air defences, which would spread the conflict wider and which, in many cases, requires the presence of ground troops. We will not be putting in ground troops for those purposes. I do not want to declare a safe zone unless it is genuinely safe. Of course what we want is a growing part of Iraq and a growing part of Syria to be no-bomb zones because there will no bombing taking place as we will have a political agreement that will deliver the ceasefires that we need, and we will have taken action to reduce ISIL.
On the question of ground troops and the role of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, they on the whole have been helping to fund the moderate Syrian opposition which, in my view, needs to play a part in the future of that country, and they strongly support the action that Britain proposes to take.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that boots on the ground are ultimately essential if bombing is to be relevant. I would like him to convince me that what he refers to as the Free Syrian Army actually exists and is not a label that we apply to a rag-bag group of clans and tribal forces with no coherent force. I would like him to convince me that there is a moderate group that we can back, whereas in times of constitutional dissolution it is almost a law of human nature that people rally to the most extreme and forceful advocate of their group; there are no moderates. I would like my right hon. Friend to believe that these forces, if they exist, can this time can be persuaded to act against the Islamists, whereas last time he wanted and expected them to act against Assad.
I very much respect my right hon. Friend’s point of view because he is absolutely asking the right question about what troops there are on the ground to help us, and the truth is that there are moderate forces—the forces of the Free Syrian Army. They have a particular role in the south of the country abutting the Jordan border. They have taken the fight to ISIL, and they have, as I said in my statement, prevented ISIL from taking vital ground. When we work either with them or with Kurdish forces, we can see the effect of them taking ground, holding ground and, indeed, administering territory, as I set out in my reply to the Foreign Affairs Committee. Let me add that there is one way to ensure that the only choice for Syrians who do not back Assad is to join ISIL, and that is if we do not support the moderate forces. Most people in Syria are neither massive fans of Assad or psychopathic Islamist extremist killers. Most people in Syria want to have a pluralistic country where they can get on with their lives. That is who the Free Syrian Army and other moderate groups are fighting for, and that is why they deserve our support.
The Prime Minister makes a strong case to the House today but he will be aware that Members on both sides want reassuring that he and his Government will indeed show the persistence and patience required over many months to get agreement on both the political strategy and reconstruction in Syria and Iraq. What reassurance can he give that his Government will provide that commitment today?
The commitment that I can give to the hon. Lady is that this is the No. 1 issue that we face, not only for national security but in terms of the migration crisis in Europe, which is a massive question for all European countries, Britain included. It deserves the maximum amount of attention and resources that we can give it. We will have to be patient and persistent, and not just on the political, diplomatic and humanitarian angles, where I think we have a good track record. We did not suddenly respond to the Syrian refugee crisis; we have been giving that £1 billion over the last four years. I say to the House that we will require persistence in terms of the military action that we take, just as we have in Iraq, where persistent action has led to a 30% reduction in ISIL-held territory. Those gains will not be won quickly. The strategy that we are pursuing is one that takes time because we are working with the Government on the ground in Iraq and with the legitimate forces on the ground in Syria, so we cannot expect immediate results, but over time it will make us safer.
If the attack, God forbid, had happened in London and not in Paris, I believe that today the British people would be outraged, dismayed and upset that our allies did not have our back and that their politicians were procrastinating for so long about whether to come to their aid. We know that the Prime Minister needs a vote in this House to give him support. Given his statement today and his declaration about what the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the head of MI5 have stated in their opinion, will he ask our Chief Whip to gain an assurance from the Opposition Chief Whip that the good men and women on the Opposition Benches will come to the aid of our allies sooner rather than later?
In putting the question of what we would be feeling if there were an attack on London rather than Paris, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Let us be frank: this attack could just as well have been in London as in Paris. We should recognise what a close alliance we have with France and with the United States and how together we can make our world safer.
As for the vote, which I hope will be held, I said that we cannot hold it if there is a danger of losing it. That is not because of Government pride or anything like that—all politicians are ultimately expendable. It is about the importance of our national security and the message it would send to our enemies. I am trying to make sure that we draw together the biggest possible coalition of Members of Parliament from all parts of the House to support what I promise will be a motion that stresses the importance of a strategy and every element of that strategy, and of post-conflict reconstruction. I think there are many points in the motion passed at the Labour party conference on this issue that either have been addressed, such as the need for a UN resolution, or can be addressed through the action that we are taking. Of course everyone has to come to their own decision, but I do not want to give anyone a way out of making that decision through some mistake over process; that would not be right.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, for the national security briefings we have received and for the discussions we have had in recent days. At times like this, it is right again to thank our brave and precious servicemen and women, who stand ready to do their duty. We on these Benches know from long experience the consequences of appeasing and indulging terrorism for too long. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, unlike last time, the action foreshadowed today is against ISIL terrorists and nobody else? I confirm that, for us, the important issues are an effective overall strategy, the targeting of terrorists, and that there is an end point. We stand ready to do what is in the best interests of our national security. If it protects our people, here and abroad, we must act. I commend the Prime Minister for his statement.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the whole country in thanking our armed forces for the work they are already doing to combat ISIL. I can give him the absolute assurance that what we are talking about here is action against ISIL, not action against anybody else. I completely agree with him on being clear about strategy, clear about targeting and, as I was today, clear about the end point of what we are trying to achieve. They are all very much part of our approach.
Having just returned from the middle east, I know that regional powers and allies believe that, in the absence of a realistic long-term strategy and proper local knowledge, we risk repeating the errors we made in our interventions in Iraq, in Afghanistan post-2006 and in Libya. Key questions remain unanswered, including how best to combat the sectarianism, the extremism, and the ideology that all extremist groups, not just Daesh, feed off; and how best to disrupt the business flows—we have been talking about this in relation to Daesh for over a year now, with no effect. Also, I ask him to look again at his figure of 70,000 for Free Syrian Army forces, because we have been told very directly in recent contact that there are very few moderates remaining on either side of this civil war. Without answers to these questions, airstrikes will only reinforce the west’s failure in the region generally, at a time when already there are too many aircraft chasing too few targets.
I believe that what there are too many of is terrorists threatening our country, but I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to combat the ideology, and that is a very big part of our strategy. It is a very big part of our domestic strategy—the Prevent duty: what we are saying all our schools and universities must do, and what our communities must do together. I think that more action on that has been taken by this country than by many others in Europe and around the world.
On starving ISIL of money and resources, I could not agree more. If there are more UN resolutions, more action, more that can be done, I will be first to push for that, but let us be frank about where ISIL get their money from: they got their money out of the banks in Mosul; they get their money from selling oil to Assad; they get their money from owning and occupying such a large amount of territory.
The 70,000 figure is not mine. I have not produced any of these figures; they come directly from the security and intelligence experts who advise me, now filtered through a proper Joint Intelligence Committee process set up under the Butler inquiry after the Iraq war. I am determined that we learn the lessons of that conflict, but surely the lesson cannot be that when we are threatened and we can make a difference, we should somehow stand back.
The Prime Minister was commended, rightly, for not lashing out militarily after the provocation of the atrocities of Tunisia, but he is wrong now to ignore the real threat—the ISIL plan—which is to escalate a regional war into a world war between Christians and Muslims. Would not our action now repeat what we did in 2003, when we deepened the divide between Muslims and Christians, which is ISIL’s strategy? The great threat is home-grown terrorism, and is it not likely that the Prime Minister’s action will increase recruits to jihadism, here and elsewhere in the world?
I know the hon. Gentleman deeply wants to have the peaceful world that we all dream of. In that we have something in common, but ISIL have taken action against us already. They were behind the murder of the people on the beach in Tunisia. They are behind the plots in our country. They butchered our friends and allies and our citizens in Paris. As for the battle between Muslims and Christians, that is what we want to avoid. It is by working with Muslim allies to stop this radicalisation, stop this extremism and stop ISIL that we prevent that clash from taking place. ISIL butcher Muslims in vast numbers, and that is why they have to be stopped. We cannot subcontract that work out to everybody else; we should be part of it.
For those of us who were in this House and saw another Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box and felt that we voted at that time to take military action on a false premise, may I thank the Prime Minister for coming to the House and for his approach and openness over what I believe is a real and present threat to citizens in the UK? There can be no doubt that we would bring a specific military capability through our precision guided missiles, Paveway IV and Brimstone. If and when—I believe when—we join in the military action in Syria, is the Prime Minister satisfied that we have sufficient stocks and manufacturing capability to sustain and fulfil our military objectives there?
I can confirm that we have sufficient stocks, but let me respond to my right hon. Friend’s wider point. It is true that what happened in 2003 over Iraq poisoned the well in many ways in the debate about these issues. I have tried to go about this in as different a way as possible—no rush, clear legal advice, the publication of as much of it as possible, the widest possible international coalition, strong Arab and Muslim partners, and trying to take the House through this every step of the way. The one thing I would say to colleagues is that we must not let 2003 and decisions about Iraq hold us back from taking correct decisions after proper consideration. That would be not just letting down our allies, but letting down ourselves and the people we are here to represent.
Is it not essential in any prelude to a war to be sure of our allies and to be sure of the objectives? Is it not a fact that Turkey has been buying oil from ISIL? They used Turkey’s trucks to store it. Turkey has been bombing the Kurds, and the Kurds are fighting ISIL. Turkey shot down a Russian jet, even though Russia wants to fight ISIL. The Prime Minister has the objective of getting rid of Assad. A Russian ally has the opposite objective. What a crazy war—enemies to the right of us, enemies to the left of us. Keep out.
The one thing I agree with the hon. Gentleman about is that we should be clear about our allies and our objectives. Our allies include not just the United States of America and France but Gulf states and others in the region, which are all now coming together in an alliance to get rid of ISIL. We also need to be clear about our objectives, which are the military targets that I spoke about but also the deflating and destruction of this caliphate that is such a risk to our world.
As for Turkey and oil smuggling, it has taken action to try to stop the smuggling across its border by confiscating the oil, taking forward prosecutions and trying to seal its border. Should it do more? Yes, of course it should do more, and that is very much part of our strategy.
Last night, two senior French military officers told me how much their country would appreciate our joining fully in taking the fight to the accursed Daesh in Syria. Pinpoint-accurate bombing by the RAF would demonstrate our determination to destroy the scourge of Daesh. I applaud the Prime Minister for trying to get parliamentary approval for co-ordinated offensive action in Syria, and I ask that we bring that highly potent gesture to a vote of this House as soon as next week. Our allies want us to prove that we are fully with them.
I thank the Prime Minister for the statement and for sight of it beforehand.
I was on the same Bench in 2003 when Tony Blair presented the case for war in Iraq with his customary sincerity. Plaid Cymru MPs voted against that war. For us, it was a matter of integrity. Before the Prime Minister comes to this House again to put the case for more war to the vote, I ask him to examine his conscience and examine all choices short of bombing, as we all must. It is a case of life and death, and eventually, for all of us, it is a matter of integrity.
I agree that this is a matter of integrity, and there is no part of me that wants to take part in any military action that I do not believe is 100% necessary for our own safety and security. That is what this is about.
The hon. Gentleman refers back to the Iraq vote. I know that was a time of great difficulty for the House and the country and has become hugely controversial, but as I said earlier, we must not let that hold us back from making correct and thought-through decisions when we are under such threat. And we are—that bomb in Paris could have been in London. If ISIL had their way, it would be in London. I cannot stand here and say we are safe from all these threats. We are not. I cannot stand here and say, either, that we will remove the threat through the action that we take, but do I stand here with advice behind me that taking action will degrade and reduce that threat over time? Absolutely. I have examined my conscience and that is what it is telling me.
Given Britain’s historical connections with the region, may I strongly endorse my right hon. Friend’s view expressed in his memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Committee this morning that
“now is the time to scale up British diplomatic, defence and humanitarian efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict and to defeat ISIL”?
May I urge him to intensify his discussions with President Putin, who clearly has the ear of President Assad and will be key to any resolution of the conflict? May I also remind him that it was thanks to the intervention of the Royal Air Force and other air forces that Iraq was prevented from falling into the hands of ISIL completely, which would have been catastrophic for the region? It makes no sense to stop at the Iraqi border today.
I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. The point he makes about Iraq is particularly potent because there was a danger of ISIL overrunning Iraq, and that was stopped through the combination of action from the sky, including by us, and legitimate ground forces. He is also right to talk about the importance of discussing these issues with President Putin, as I have done and will continue to do. There is a gap between us, but I believe it is reducing.
I agree with the Prime Minister that the diplomatic and political process must play a key part in our approach to the hugely complex situation in Syria, and credit should be given to the part it has played so far. But with some limited progress now being seen to come out of Vienna, will he directly address the vital concerns that come through very strongly in the evidence to the Select Committee report that our ability to continue that key political and diplomatic role will be compromised fundamentally if we join the bombing?
The hon. Lady asks a very important question, which is whether taking action against ISIL in Syria makes a political agreement more likely or less likely. In my view, it makes it more likely, first of all because we need to have a Syria with territorial integrity, and unless we deal with ISIL and the caliphate we will not have a Syria to have a transition in. Secondly, while she and I may disagree about many things, surely moderate Sunni forces in Syria need to play a part in the future of that country, so we should be helping them, including through what we do with ISIL, rather than seeing them being wasted away.
The comprehensive yet, if I may say so, moderate, cautious and wise way in which the Prime Minister has answered many of the concerns this morning will, I think, have led opinion in the House and throughout the country to favour taking the right move, which is striking against ISIS wherever it may be. Does he not agree that the big decision we took was in the House last September, when by 548 votes to 43 we decided to attack ISIS? That decision remains today. Does he not agree that surely some of these current decisions must be taken by him, by the generals and by the intelligence chiefs, and not necessarily taking account of the twists and turns of political fortune in this House?
I thank my hon. Friend for his support. The point he makes about looking back at the decision we made with respect to ISIL in Iraq and reaching a judgment is an important one, because the judgment was the right one and ISIL has been pushed back in quite a large way since that decision. As for coming in front of this House, I have been very clear that I reserve the right to take action in Britain’s national interest, when I need to, immediately, as I did over the terrorists in Syria, but we now have the convention, which I am happy to apply, that there should be a vote in the House before premeditated action.
I am rather anxious that we seem to be responding on the basis of “something must be done”, which is not always the basis for the best decisions. I wonder whether the Prime Minister has received information about the strikes in Raqqa that have definitely hit civilian areas and the fact that there is an increase in the number of refugees because they do not know which way to run. I think we do need to be conscious of the risk of recruitment. The people who bombed London in 2005 lived here and the people who bombed Paris lived there. We will not bomb them out of existence, and we know that this may well increase recruitment of extremists here.
I would say to the hon. Lady that this absolutely is not a “something must be done” strategy; it is about careful consideration, bringing together all the parts of a plan—diplomatic, political, humanitarian, reconstruction, and military action. Doing nothing, which is the opposite of what the hon. Lady would say, also has consequences, which we have to consider very carefully. In my view, we are at greater risk in terms of the dangerous recruitment of Islamist extremists in our own country for as long as this so-called caliphate exists.
I commend my right hon. Friend’s approach as set out in his statement, particularly that he is working with our allies. May I urge him to talk to President Obama to ask him when the United States is going to show more resolve? Is it not strange that during the Bosnia conflict it mounted perhaps 130 sorties a day and every aircraft was cleared to drop or shoot, whereas in Syria it is perhaps doing an average of seven sorties a day and only one or two aircraft are cleared to drop or shoot? Should we not expect more from the United States if this alliance is going to be successful?
I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. He is right to say how important it is always to have a clear strategy—to have a set of goals and clear means to achieve those goals, which is what I believe I have set out today. The Americans are bearing a lot of the burden of attacking ISIL in Syria, but with other allies, including moderate Arab states. Obviously the greater the part that we play in response to their requests, the greater influence we can have on the course of the campaign, and, in answer to questions from Opposition Members, the greater accuracy we can insist on in terms of targeting.
The Prime Minister has made a very powerful case this morning. On Tuesday, the head of counter-terrorism said in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee that the threat of Daesh in this country is very real. May I press the Prime Minister on two points? First, an inevitable consequence of our intervention will be that the migration crisis will get much worse. I know that we are ready for that, but is the rest of the European Union ready for it? Secondly, the Prime Minister says that he is the servant of the House. We are all servants of the people. Could I invite him to invite leaders of the Muslim community to meet him at Downing Street, so that he can put the case to them as eloquently as he has put it to us?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support, and for what he has said about his Select Committee and the evidence it received from counter-terrorism experts. I believe they are all speaking with the same voice about the risks we face from this so-called caliphate. The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of migration. In the end, the only way to stop the migration crisis is a political solution in Syria, and as I have argued, this action goes together with the political solution we need. He is right to say how important it is to discuss all the issues with members of the Muslim community. I have set up a new engagement forum, and I will look very closely at the specific idea he has suggested.
I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. It is right to have, as I have set out, an ISIL-first strategy. I think what we are seeing from others involved in this process is a growing understanding that the true enemy is ISIL. If we look at what happened with the hideous bombing in Ankara, which has now been laid firmly at the door of ISIL, we will see that there is a growing understanding from Turkey’s leaders that ISIL is an enormous threat to their country—which it is.
It might have been helpful if the Prime Minister had said more about how robust the intelligence is in support of some of the facts he has provided today, particularly with regard to the 70,000 Syrian fighters because the issue of ground forces, which has been raised by other Members, is key, and today’s statement was weak in that regard. I have asked him this question twice before: what efforts is he continuing to make to persuade the Iraqi Government to do more to arm and support the Sunnis in Iraq, because they will be crucial to defeating ISIL?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Prime Minister al-Abadi is a great improvement on his predecessor in wanting a genuinely plural society in Iraq, but we need more progress on hiring Sunnis—and indeed Kurds—into the Iraqi security forces, so that there are troops who will be trusted by local people when they clear and hold territory that is occupied by Sunni tribes. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that. We are doing everything we can. We already have forces training the Iraqi security forces, at their request, on countering improvised explosive devices; I am sure they would like us to do more. We will keep looking at their requests and see what more we can do. The hon. Gentleman is completely right about that.
On the robustness of the intelligence case regarding the Free Syrian Army, as I have said, that is all cleared through the authorities in a way that never existed properly before the Iraq war. Those changes were put in place. If the House wants, through its Select Committees, to invite some of those senior officials to give detailed evidence, I am very happy for that to happen. In no way do I want to be accused of inventing or overstating intelligence information; I am trying to understate everything. The only thing I am absolutely clear about is that we face a threat and we should deal with it.
The Prime Minister has made a compelling and considered case today. Having voted against action last time this subject came to the House, I would like to say that I will join him in standing with not only our allies, but the countless thousands of Muslims across the region who have been enslaved, massacred and tortured. What reassurance can he give our forces who are supporting Kurds and other local forces on the ground that they will not be bombed by Russia?
May I thank my hon. Friend for her support? This is a different question that the House is considering, and I do not want to go back over past ground. This is a new question, and I would appeal to colleagues right across the House to respond in the way that she has done.
In terms of the moderate forces, this is the remaining disagreement between us and Russia. So far, Russia has done more to inflict damage on the moderate forces than on ISIL. There are some signs of that changing, and we need to encourage that to change more, not least because in the processes we have had in the past, including the Geneva processes, the Russians have accepted that people such as the Free Syrian Army and their civilian representatives should play a part in the future of Syria.