House of Commons
Wednesday 16 December 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I would first like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) for all the work he did during his time in the Department, and to welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) who I know will continue in the footsteps of my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield.
The Department for International Development provides assistance and support to poor and vulnerable Palestinians, as well as supporting state building and economic development. Our operational plan for the Occupied Palestinian Territories contains a results framework that is monitored quarterly.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The Prime Minister has been clear that Palestinian incitement will not be tolerated. As many as 25 Palestinian Authority schools are named after Palestinian terrorists, including Dalal Mughrabi, who killed 37 Israeli citizens. Will the Secretary of State assure me that no British aid goes towards such schools or to support the glorification of terrorism?
The Prime Minister and I have been very clear that the UK deplores incitement on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We monitor any allegations of incitement closely and raise instances with both the Palestinian and the Israeli authorities. The UK’s direct financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority, which provides civil service salaries, goes only to approved individuals through a World Bank trust fund that has an independent audit.
Palestinian refugees from Syria are suffering enormously—both those within Syria and those who have fled the country. What more can we do and what more can DFID do to ensure that the vital work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has secure funding for the long term?
I had the chance to meet the head of UNRWA only last week with the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), and we discussed the need to ensure that its funding is sustained. UNRWA does critical work, and in the context of the need to improve the international response to more protracted crises, we can learn a great deal from its work with Palestinian refugees.
I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend that the agencies and organisations with which we work are ones in respect of which we know we can achieve value for money and results on the ground. He knows that I am passionate about being an aid disciplinarian and making sure that we get value for money. Critically, though, we have to work with the organisations that are there. We have a multilateral aid review under way to make sure that improvements in value for money continue progressively over time.
Surely the Secretary of State will be aware of the guidance on the Foreign Office website, which warns UK companies thinking of investing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the “legal and economic risks” if they engage in
“financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements and other economic activities in Israeli settlements or benefitting Israeli settlements”
because of the illegal nature of those settlements and their being an obstacle to peace. Does the right hon. Lady therefore agree that it is perfectly reasonable for both public and private institutions to pay due regard to that advice when they make their own investment and procurement decisions?
They should do that; that is good Foreign Office advice. We have been very clear that we deplore illegal settlements, because they take us further away from a two-state solution and peace in that part of the world, when we need to be taking what could be final steps and final chances to reach a two-state solution.
We welcome the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) to his new Front-Bench position, and on this side we will claim the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) as our first scalp.
Given the worsening situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, how does the Secretary of State justify the decreasing funding to organisations such as UNRWA?
I do not recognise that statement. The United Kingdom has played a leading role in making sure that we get support to vulnerable Palestinians, not only in Gaza but on the west bank. For example, the Materials Monitoring Unit has helped to support the Gaza reconstruction mechanism. I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware of all that, and it would be helpful to have her support for it.
Gaza: Youth Unemployment
Gaza has the highest unemployment in the world. The World Bank estimates that youth unemployment had reached 60% by the end of 2014. Extensive restrictions inhibit employment. The UK continues to promote economic development and private sector-led growth.
Gaza still faces restrictions on access to 35% of its agricultural land and 85% of its fishable waters, and Gazans are rarely allowed to travel outside their territory. Until such restrictions are removed, DFID will continue to work with one hand tied behind its back. Does the Minister not agree that the real problem is the blockade of Gaza?
May I make it absolutely clear that supporting the Palestinian people has nothing whatever to do with anti-Semitism? I wanted to clarify that at the outset.
Does the Minister not agree that the appalling situation in Gaza—and he has given us the figures—shows the need for the developed democracies to do far more? What hope can there be for the Palestinian people when they are faced with so little hope of obtaining jobs and having a decent life? Should we not be far more concerned with the Palestinian tragedy than we are?
May I place on record my personal respect for the work done by my predecessor and friend the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), not least his kick-starting of the Energy Africa campaign?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, small and medium-sized enterprises will play a critical role in creating and sustaining much-needed jobs in poor countries. We have a range of programmes that focus on providing support and finance for microbusinesses, SMEs and, I am delighted to say, social enterprises.
I know the Minister to be an innovator —he has that reputation—but will he consider carefully one way in which the United Kingdom can help? The UK is now the leading financial technology and crowdfunding centre of the world, and crowdfunding can deliver real opportunities to, in particular, women in the developing world to control their lives, finance start-ups, and do well in life. Will the Minister talk to other people, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the aim of getting some real movement behind this?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is a long-term, passionate supporter of the power of the crowd. If we get the regulation and the technology right, the arrangements will be very sustainable. The hon. Gentleman may not know this, but we have a manifesto commitment to develop crowdfunding, and that is exactly what we are doing. We are backing the Global Village Energy Partnership, which will support 10 to 15 crowdfunding platforms in the energy sector in sub-Saharan Africa, and that is just the start.
My party also welcomes the new Minister to his post. He has said that he will ensure that small local enterprises can flourish in developing countries, but what reassurances can he give us that funds intended for those purposes do not make their way into the hands of larger conglomerates or multinational companies when it comes to, for example, the building of schools or the provision of education?
What is important to us is the creation of jobs. Those jobs will be created by a range of companies, and we will work with them to create a better economic environment in the countries in which we work. However, we know that 90% of the jobs will come from the private sector, and we know that most of the sustainable jobs will come from small and medium-sized organisations. We therefore give those organisations priority in respect of a number of the programmes that we are developing.
As my hon. Friend will know, that issue is enormously important to the Department and the Secretary of State. Inclusive growth and support for women and girls as part of economic development is a central pillar of our strategic framework for the future. We expect our support over the next seven years to help to mobilise finance for more than 200,000 SMEs, at least a quarter of which will be headed by women.
Small businesses in Rwanda and Burundi face credit costs of up to 20%. I know that DFID’s TradeMark East Africa project is trying to deal with that, but small businesses in Burundi now face an upsurge in ethnic violence, with foreign fighters coming in from Rwanda. May I urge the Minister, as he undertakes the bilateral aid review, to look again at our decision to leave Burundi in 2011 and to look carefully at the potential need to go back in there and have a presence on the ground?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the situation. We do not have a bilateral programme there, but we do a lot in terms of humanitarian support. I take on board fully her remark about the costs of capital to small organisations. I refer to my earlier answer: technology can help us to reduce such costs.
I congratulate the people of Burma on their historic elections, which were supported by British-funded trained observers. The elections are an important step towards greater democracy. The UK will support inclusive growth in Burma. We will support improvements to the business climate, including the financial sector. We will help to increase agricultural productivity, diversify livelihoods and encourage more private sector investment in infrastructure.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Women face specific barriers to participation in Burma’s predominantly rural economy, and in access to finance, land skills and credit, so we are targeting those issues through programmes that have helped, for example, to provide affordable credit for over 140,000 women. We are also looking at how we can help women to move into other sectors, such as garments manufacture, where often conditions and pay are better.
In assisting the Burmese nation and the new regime with international development, will the Secretary of State ensure that that regime is aware of the ongoing persecution of minorities in Burma, which needs to be dealt with as the new nation state takes shape?
We will of course raise those issues. We know from so many other parts of the world that the Governments that are successful are the inclusive Governments with respect to minorities. One of the pieces of work that will be under way will be to double our support for a governance project that is taking place in the Burmese Parliament. That has seen our House of Commons Clerk go there in recent years. We will be doubling the number of Clerks there to help to ensure that the Burmese democracy can flourish, as ours has.
Gaza: Water and Sanitation
It is completely inadequate. Demand exceeds supply by a factor of four, and 96% of the extracted water fails World Health Organisation safety standards.
It is a terrible situation. Twenty-six per cent. of all diseases in Gaza, ranging from respiratory and gastric to skin and eye diseases, are directly associated with the poor water supply. Clean water is limited to 70 litres per person a day and that figure will fall drastically over the coming years. According to the UN, the underground coastal aquifer will become unusable by 2016. What can be done about that, or is it just a case of lifting the Israeli blockade and getting on with life?
We are currently spending some €600,000 on a project to assist with desalination. Funds are available through our climate change fund for a long-term solution to this problem, but the level of investment and the marshalling of the factors of production will require a long-term peace process to be viable.
7. What steps her Department is taking to tackle the humanitarian situation in Yemen. (902754)
This is one of the world’s worst human crises: 80% of Yemen’s 21 million people are in need of assistance. The UK is playing its part. We have committed £75 million and are the fourth largest donor.
We have invested £1.7 million in the UN vessel investigation mechanism. I hope that that will have a quantum effect on the number of vessels that are able to dock in the ports—60 last month, 55 the month before. It is getting better, but we are far, far short of what is necessary.
My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware of the recent report by Save the Children that highlighted the devastating impact of the conflict on medical facilities in Yemen, with some 69 hospitals destroyed or damaged by the end of October. While one wishes the peace talks well, what can the Government do in the interim to ensure the combatants are dissuaded from targeting medical facilities?
Following that reply, does the Minister agree that there is an overwhelming case for the United Nations Human Rights Council, which in the last year has referenced international humanitarian law 17 times, to call for an investigation into breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen?
The conflict in Yemen has seen 6,000 dead and 30,000 injured. The World Health Organisation says health services are on the brink of collapse. As it was world universal health coverage day yesterday, will the Minister today commit to help rebuild Yemen’s crippled system?
What discussions has the Minister had with the Foreign Office about concerning reports from Amnesty International and others that British-made weapons sold to Saudi Arabia are being used in the conflict, in breach of human rights laws?
Since the last session of DFID questions, the House will welcome the news that Sierra Leone’s Ebola outbreak is officially over, and my thanks go to all those across Government, our armed forces and British non-governmental organisations who helped save an estimated 56,000 lives.
In terms of my written ministerial statement in 2012, we are on track to end our traditional aid programme to India by the end of this year, shifting to a relationship based on technical assistance and investment, and last month I became the first Development Minister ever to chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, discussing the crisis in Syria and the importance of development to delivering peace and security.
Britain has a lot to be proud of in its international development spending, but does the Minister agree that some brutal states continue to undermine the UK’s good efforts in the third world? With this in mind, does she agree that Qatar should be stripped of the World cup because the number of migrant, third world workers slaughtered there in the run-up to the World cup will be greater than the number of professional footballers playing there?
T2. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given the vital importance of a rebuilding process for Syria after the conflict, what discussions is my right hon. Friend’s Department having with our international partners and what financial commitments have been made to develop a long-term plan for that process? (902739)
My hon. Friend will be aware that, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has signalled, the UK has pledged to commit at least £1 billion to Syria’s reconstruction. We are already updating our existing planning for reconstruction, working with donors, United Nations agencies and the World Bank. The expertise of the UN, international financial institutions and the private sector will be essential. [Interruption.]
How many Syrian refugees will the Government have resettled in this country by Christmas?
The Prime Minister will be giving an update on that shortly, but I think we can be proud of the role that the United Kingdom has played in leading the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis, and of all the support we have provided, right from day one, to the refugees affected by the crisis.
T4. What steps can the Secretary of State take to assist Syrians displaced in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, especially over the coming winter months? (902742)
In this financial year, we have provided nearly £13 million to 11 partners who are helping to prepare for and respond to the onset of winter across Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. That is going to help to provide warm clothing, blankets, fuel and cash to vulnerable families.
We are constantly working with United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations to try to improve our access within Syria. We estimate that there are probably around 500,000 people, including children, that we cannot reach, but we will try our level best to ensure that we maintain our existing network and to reach into those areas as the fighting stops.
Absolutely. In fact, DFID is scaling up our renewable energy work in Africa. We are expanding the provision of climate risk insurance in vulnerable countries, and we are also supporting increased investment in low-carbon technology and clean energy research.
T6. Given the increasing loss of life in Syria, Iraq and the Central African Republic and the escalating situation in Burundi, does the Secretary of State agree that the Government would benefit from applying a mass atrocity prevention lens in order better to focus their policy? (902744)
The hon. Lady might be aware that, in our recently published aid strategy, we committed to investing around 50% of our DFID investment in so-called fragile and conflict states, precisely because we need to recognise that this is not just a matter of dealing with conflict after it has happened, and that we need to work to prevent it and to deal with fragility prior to issues taking place and causing huge distress.
Over the course of the entire conflict, we have provided around £1.1 billion. That is our biggest-ever response to a humanitarian crisis. About half of that has been provided inside Syria, and around half has been used to support people in the region. There are now 4.4 million refugees outside Syria. It is vital that this work should continue, and we will continue to lead it.
T7. Following the report produced by the University of Sussex for the Department, what does the Minister consider to be the main risks posed to most favoured nation low-income countries from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership? (902745)
Not only is our aid policy helping to improve the prospects and the lives of millions of people in poverty around the world, but it is in our national interest. I have just talked about how what we are doing is important for UK security and international security, but it is also important in terms of prosperity. The international rules that the hon. Gentleman talks about can be a key way of enabling prosperity through allowing freer trade, which can help developing countries to trade their way out of aid dependence.
We have a range of programmes, including in Uganda, that have helped with the cheap intervention of providing bed nets. We have seen over the past 15 years that the number of deaths from malaria has fallen by two thirds, which is important because some countries spend 40% of their health budget purely on responding to malaria.
T9. Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent arrest in Malawi of two men for having consensual sex? Will the Government make urgent representations to the Malawian Government, echoing the calls of the US ambassador, calling on them to live up to their international human rights obligations and ensure that these charges are dropped? (902747)
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing Major Tim Peake well as he begins his six-month stay at the international space station. We all watched his exciting take-off yesterday and as he is the first Briton to visit the international space station it signals a landmark in this country’s involvement in space exploration. I am proud that the Government took the decision to fund it, and we wish him the best of luck.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I welcome today’s fall in unemployment to 5.2%, the lowest level in almost 10 years?
Stalking is a horrible crime. Dr Eleanor Aston, a GP in Gloucester and resident of Cheltenham, was harassed for several years by a stalker who slashed her tyres, hacked her water pipe, cut off her gas supply and put foul items in her letterbox. She and her family suffered dreadfully. The judge, in sentencing, said that if he could have given more than the maximum of five years, he certainly would have done. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has raised the issue of sentencing guidelines with the Justice Secretary. Will the Prime Minister today give his support for greater flexibility and longer sentencing where it is clear that a stalker is a real menace?
First, let me say how much I agree with my hon. Friend that stalking is a dreadful crime. That is why we have introduced two new stalking offences during this Parliament. I will certainly make sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has his meeting with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary. I cannot comment on the individual case without looking at it in more detail, but we are taking the action necessary and we will continue to do so.
On unemployment, I am sure that the whole House will want to welcome the fact that there are half a million more people in work in our country in the last year alone. We have had wages growing above inflation every month for a year and the claimant count is at its lowest level since 1975. I am sure that will have a welcome right across the House.
May I start, Mr Speaker, by wishing you, all Members of the House and all staff here, and Major Tim Peake, who is not on the planet at this time, a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year?
The number of days that patients are being kept in hospital because there is nowhere safe to discharge them to has doubled since the Prime Minister took office. On 4 November, I asked him if he could guarantee that there will be no winter crisis in the NHS this winter. He did not answer then, so I wonder whether he will be able to help us with an answer today.
First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman and be clear that I do not want to wish him the season’s greetings; I want a full happy Christmas for him and everyone in the House. He specifically asked about the NHS, so let me give him a specific answer. The average stay in hospital has actually fallen since I became Prime Minister from five and a half days to five days. One reason for that is that we kept our promises on the NHS. We put in an extra £12 billion in the last Parliament, and will be putting in £19 billion in cash terms in this Parliament.
For the record, I did say happy Christmas. Perhaps the Prime Minister was not listening at the time. If he is so happy about the national health service, will he explain why he has decided to cancel the publication of NHS performance data this winter? There was a time, not that long ago, when the Prime Minister was all in favour of transparency. It was in 2011 when he said:
“Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account, giving them the tools they need to take on politicians and bureaucrats.”
Is it because the number of people being kept waiting on trolleys in A&E has gone up more than fourfold that he does not want to publish those statistics?
First, the data that the right hon. Gentleman quoted in his first question were not published before this Government came into office. Let me quote some data about the NHS: on an average day, there are 4,400 more operations and 21,000 more outpatient appointments than there were five years ago when I became Prime Minister. Yes, there are challenges in A&E, but there are 2,100 more people being seen within four hours than there were five years ago, and there are more data published on our NHS than there ever were under Labour.
There are huge pressures on the NHS, and they are largely due to the pressures on the adult social care system, which is under enormous stress at the moment. Indeed, there have been huge cuts in adult social care because of cuts in local government funding. The NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, has called for a radical upgrade in prevention and public health. Does the Prime Minister agree that cutting these crucial services is a false economy?
We are increasing the money that councils can spend on social care through the 2% council tax precept. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Simon Stevens, but our NHS plan is Simon Stevens’s plan. For the first time, the NHS got together and wrote its plan. It asked for £8 billion, and it asked for the money up front. We committed to that plan, unlike Labour at the last election, and we funded it up front, which is why we see a bigger and better NHS. None of that would have been possible, including the action that we are taking on social care through the better care fund, without our having achieved a growing economy and an increase in jobs.
The problem is to do with adult social care. This morning on BBC Radio 4, the NHS Confederation said that
“cuts to social care and public health will continue to pile more pressure on hospitals and will worsen deficits in the acute sector.”
What was announced on social care in the autumn statement falls well short of what is needed. The Health Foundation estimates that there will be a funding shortfall of £6 billion by 2020. How will the Government meet that shortfall?
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman listens to the “Today” programme. Perhaps he might even bother to go on it one of these days. A bit of transparency and sunlight would be very welcome. If he wants to swap quotations, this is what the chairman of the Local Government Association says:
“The LGA has long called for further flexibility in the setting of council tax… Today’s announcement on council tax will go some way to allowing a number of councils to raise the money needed…The £1.5 billion increase in the Better Care Fund announced today is good news”.
It is this Government who funded the NHS; Labour did not. It is this Government who set up the better care fund; Labour opposed it. It is this Government who have the strong and growing economy. I note that we are on question four and there is still no welcome for the unemployment figures.
The issue of adult social care and cuts in local government spending is very much the responsibility of central Government. Will the Prime Minister confirm that NHS trusts are forecasting a deficit of £2.2 billion this year? I understand—and he, as part of the Oxford anti-austerity movement, will be concerned about this—that his own local healthcare trust is predicting a £1.7 million deficit. There is a problem of NHS funding. Has he forgotten the simple maxim that prevention is cheaper and better than cure?
How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly complain about NHS funding when his party did not commit to fund the Stevens plan? We are spending £19 billion more on the NHS—money that would not be available if we had listened to the Labour party. Now he says that social care is a responsibility of Government; everything is a responsibility of Government, but in fact, local councils decide how much to spend on social care, and with the better care fund, they have more to spend. But I challenge him again: how do we pay for the NHS? We pay for it by having more growth, more jobs, more people having a livelihood. Is he going to welcome that at Christmas time, or does he not care about the reduction in unemployment?
I have a question from Abby, who wants to train to be a midwife, and she says:
“I am 28 years old. This year I left my successful career to go back into university to re-train as a Midwife. I already have a debt of £25,000 from my first degree.
Well over half of my cohort have studied a first degree in another subject and many of my fellow colleagues have children and partners and elderly parents and mortgages.
Many people will be put off by the lack of financial support and massive debts.”
In the spirit of Christmas, will the Prime Minister have a word with his friend the Chancellor, who is sitting next to him—it can be done very quickly—to reverse the cuts in the nurse bursary scheme, so that we do get people like Abby training to be midwives, which will help all of us in the future?
First of all, I want Abby to train as a midwife, and I can guarantee that the funding will be there for her training, because there are thousands more midwives operating in the NHS today than when I became Prime Minister. Now the right hon. Gentleman mentions the question of nurse bursaries. The truth is that two out of three people who want to become nurses cannot do so because of the constraints on the system, and our new system will mean many more doctors and many more nurses. Since I became Prime Minister, we have already got 10,000 more doctors in the NHS and 4,500 more nurses. But all of this is happening because the economy is growing, the deficit is falling, unemployment is coming down, you can fill up a tank of gas at £1 a litre and wages are going up. Britain is getting stronger as we go into Christmas, because our economy is getting stronger, too.
Q5. Yesterday, colleagues from both sides of the House formed a new all-party group on the armed forces covenant, which aims to scrutinise and support the fulfilment of the Government’s pledges to service personnel and their families. Will the Prime Minister join me in praising the incredible dedication of our armed forces and their families, especially those in my constituency at RAF Boulmer, at this festive time, when many are separated from their loved ones? Will he reaffirm his personal commitment to the House to delivering his armed forces covenant in practice and in full? (902727)
I thank my hon. Friend for her question; she is absolutely right. As all of us get ready hopefully to spend time with our families this Christmas, there will be many in our brave armed services who cannot because they are serving abroad or at home, so we wish them the very best as Christmas comes. On the military covenant, one of the things of which I am proudest in the last five years is that we put that into law, adding to it every year by giving veterans priority in healthcare, increasing funding for veterans’ mental health services and prioritising school places for children. Every year we have made progress on the armed forces covenant, and every year I stand at this Dispatch Box we will continue to do so.
The Prime Minister will shortly meet the Heads of State and of Government of the European Union. Will he heed the advice of former Prime Minister John Major and stop “flirting” with leaving the European Union, which would, in his words, be
“very dangerous and against our national interests”?
What I will be doing is getting the best deal for Britain. That is what we should be doing. This Government were the first to cut the EU budget, the first to veto a treaty, the first to bring back substantial powers to Britain. We have a great record on Europe and we will get a good deal for the British people.
We were reminded this week that there is a very strong majority in Scotland to remain within the European Union, and the Prime Minister has failed—[Interruption.] I know his side does not like to hear it, but the Prime Minister has failed to give any guarantees that Scotland will not be forced out of the EU by the rest of the UK. Does he have any idea of the consequences of taking Scotland out of the EU against the wishes of voters in Scotland?
This is a United Kingdom and this is a United Kingdom issue. Why is the right hon. Gentleman so frightened of listening to the people and holding this historic referendum, passed through both Houses of Parliament in the past week? I say get a good deal for Britain and then trust the people.
Q6. The Prime Minister has previously visited RAF Waddington in my constituency and I am sure he will, like me, wish all the service personnel and their families well as they carry out operations during the Christmas period. Given that the United Kingdom is now conducting airstrikes over Syria as well as over Iraq, and in the light of the Leytonstone attack, why is our country still not at the highest level of threat? (902728)
First, let me join my hon. Friend in praising those at RAF Waddington who work round the clock to keep us safe in our country and are doing such vital work. As he will know, the threat level in this country is set not by politicians but by the joint terrorism analysis centre, JTAC, which currently sets it at “severe”, the second highest level. I can confirm what I said to the House on 26 November: the UK is already in the top tier of countries that Daesh is targeting. I can also confirm that that part of my statement was cleared in advance by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The threat level today is “severe”, which means that a terrorist attack is highly likely; that has been the case since August. The highest level is “critical”, which means that an attack is believed to be imminent. Were we to go to that level, it would be for JTAC to advise, not for Ministers.
Q2. I am proud to represent a constituency that boasts seven synagogues, four mosques, over 35 churches and two temples. However, last night Donald Trump reiterated that members of one of those communities would not be allowed into America simply because of their religion, seemingly unaware how divisive this is. In our country we have legislation that stops people entering the country who are deemed not to be conducive to the public good. Does the Prime Minister agree that the law should be applied equally to everyone, or should we make exceptions for billionaire politicians? (902724)
Let me join the hon. Lady in being proud of representing a country which I think has some claim to say that we are one of the most successful multiracial, multi-faith, multi-ethnic countries anywhere in the world. There is more to do to build opportunity and fight discrimination. I agree with her that it is right that we exclude people when they are going to radicalise or encourage extremism. I happen to disagree with her about Donald Trump. I think his remarks are divisive, stupid and wrong, and if he came to visit our country I think he would unite us all against him.
Q7. By the time the House next meets for questions, many people will have started their new year’s resolutions. For many, one resolution will be to give up smoking. Given that Public Health England recently stated that e-cigarettes are 95% safer than tobacco and half the population is unaware of that fact, will the Prime Minister join me in highlighting the role that e-cigarettes can play in helping people give up tobacco for good? (902729)
Certainly, speaking as someone who has been through this battle a number of times, eventually relatively successfully, lots of people find different ways of doing it, and clearly for some people e-cigarettes are successful. We need to be guided by the experts, and we should look at the report from Public Health England, but it is promising that over 1 million people are estimated to have used e-cigarettes to help them quit or have replaced smoking with e-cigarettes completely. We should be making it clear that this a very legitimate path for many people to improve their health and therefore the health of the nation.
Q3. During the referendum the Prime Minister pledged to deliver carbon capture and storage at Peterhead, something he reiterated in the Tory party manifesto, yet on the eve of the Paris climate talks he pulled the plug. Which does he see as the greatest betrayal—that of Scotland, that of his manifesto, or that of the entire planet? (902725)
Of course the greatest success is the Paris climate change talks. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who was one of the key negotiators who helped to deliver this global goal, which is so much better than what happened at Copenhagen and better even than what happened at Kyoto.
Let me answer the hon. Gentleman directly on carbon capture and storage. In government you have to make tough choices. You have to make decisions about technology that works and technology that is not working. We are spending the money on innovation, on energy storage, on small nuclear reactors, and on other things such as energy heat systems for local communities that will make a difference. To govern is to choose, and we made the right choice.
Q10. This Friday sadly sees the closure of Britain’s last deep coal mine at Kellingley in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in thanking the hundreds of workers who will be working their last shift this Friday, and praise the thousands of workers whose bravery and hard graft over the past 50 years has helped warm our homes, power our factories, and keep our lights on? (902732)
My hon. Friend speaks very strongly for his constituents. I am very happy to join him in thanking people who have worked so hard at that mine and elsewhere. Obviously it is a difficult time. As part of the closure process, the Government have put in nearly £18 million to ensure that the workers receive the same package as the miners at recently closed Thoresby. That finance has allowed the mine—[Interruption.] It is all very well Opposition Members shouting, but may I just tell them something? This is the official policy of the Labour party:
“We must take action…to keep fossil fuels in the ground”.
That is their policy. They have also got a policy, by the way, of reopening coal mines, so presumably what they are going to do is dig a big hole in the ground and sit there and do nothing. What a metaphor for the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership of his party!
Q4. The Prime Minister promised during the election campaign that he would not restrict child benefits to two children. Since then, he has not only reneged on that but, as a result, brought in the rape clause for women in order for women to receive child benefits. Since July, I have asked a number of his Ministers a number of times, and nobody has been able to tell me how this will work. Will he now drop the two-child policy and the rape clause? (902726)
First of all, we have made it absolutely clear, and let me make it clear again, that there is no question of someone who is raped and has a child losing their child tax credits or their child benefit—no question at all. But is it right for future claimants on universal credit to get payments for their first two children? I think that it is.
Q12. Is my right hon. Friend aware that thanks to the Chancellor’s protection of the police budget, 108 more police officers are being recruited to protect the people of Hampshire? While there is more to do in tackling crime in more rural areas, does he agree that this is an important step in prioritising the frontline, and that the Home Office and the Hampshire constabulary have made real progress in making our police more effective, more efficient, and more resilient? (902734)
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in saying that it was the right decision to make sure we have this extra funding for the police. By the end of the spending settlement, it is actually an increase of £900 million in cash terms by 2019-20. I am delighted that there will be more officers on the streets in Hampshire. I come back to the same point: you cannot fund the NHS, you cannot fund the Home Office, and you cannot fund the police unless you have a growing economy with more jobs, people paying their taxes, and making sure you have got a strong and stable economy, and that is what is happening in Britain today.
Q8. In his farewell speech, the outgoing director of the British Museum said:“The British Museum is perhaps the noblest dream that parliament has ever dreamt. Parliament decided to make a place where the world could be under one roof, where the collection would be free to all native or foreign, where every citizen would have the right to information and where all inquiry would be outside political control.” Does the Prime Minister agree that the partnership working of the British Museum, such as that with the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for its multi-faith gallery next year, is important, but that such work will not happen unless our museums and galleries continue to be funded properly? (902730)
Let me join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute not only to the British Museum, which is an absolute jewel in the British cultural crown, but to Neil MacGregor, who gave it such extraordinary leadership. Given her heritage, perhaps she will be amused by the fact that I took Chancellor Merkel to the museum to show her the brilliant exhibition about Germany—it was fantastic—but the next thing I knew, the Germans had poached Neil MacGregor to run their cultural institute in Germany. None the less, in the spirit of European co-operation, which is going to be vital this week, I am happy to see that happen. I want to see the British Museum complete all its partnerships, not just across the United Kingdom but internationally. The right hon. Lady will have seen in the autumn statement that the British Museum got a funding settlement with which it was, rightly, very pleased.
Q13. According to Oxfam, the UK has donated a generous 229% of its fair share of aid in support of Syrian refugees —the highest percentage of the G8—yet worldwide only 44% of what is needed by those refugees has been donated. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is critical that other countries step up to the plate, as the UK has more than done, and will he update the House on progress in support of Syrian refugees? (902735)
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Britain is doing its moral duty in terms of funding the refugees and the refugee camps. We are going to hold a conference in February, bringing the world together to make sure there is more funding in future. That is going to be absolutely vital. In terms of the number of refugees that we have resettled, I made a promise that we would resettle 1,000 by Christmas and I can confirm today that we have met that commitment. The charter flights that arrived yesterday at Stansted and Belfast mean that over 1,000 have been settled. Another charter flight is coming today. The Government have provided funding so that all those refugees get housing, healthcare and education.
I thank all the local authorities and all those who have worked so hard, including the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who has led the process so ably. I said that Britain would do its duty, and with those 1,000 we have made a very good start.
I always find it hard to satisfy the hon. Gentleman: he joined the Conservative party when we were not committed to a referendum and he left the Conservative party after we committed to a referendum, so I am not surprised that he is giving his new boss as much trouble as he used to give me. With that, I wish them both a very festive Christmas.
Q15. The triumphant “Star Wars” saga began life at Elstree studios in my constituency, which continues to produce hits such as “The King’s Speech” and “Suffragette”—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman is banging on very eloquently about “Star Wars” and I want to hear him. Will the Prime Minister join me in pledging support for our thriving British film industry, which makes such a valuable social, cultural and economic contribution in Hertsmere and across the United Kingdom? (902737)
My hon. Friend raises an important point. This film is not only very exciting for children—I have to say that quite a lot of parents are looking forward to it, too—but it was made in Britain, with many British actors and some brilliant British technicians, showing the strength of the British film industry. I would say this, but it is also backed by the British Government and British taxpayers with the excellent resources we provide. As I have worked with my hon. Friend for so many years and in so many different ways, I know that he will never join the dark side.
Q11. Despite the ongoing efforts of the Scottish steel taskforce, my constituents at the Dalzell steel plant and the neighbouring Clydebridge works are starting to receive redundancy notices. Given the urgency of the situation, will the Prime Minister put pressure on the EU now to reach a quicker decision on permitting the energy intensive industries compensation scheme? If such permission is granted, will he also commit to implementing the scheme as soon as possible to provide a much needed breathing space for our steel sector and to give some hope to my constituents this Christmas? (902733)
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this. We are working as hard as we can in Europe to try to get the energy intensive industries plan cleared. I can confirm to her that as soon as it is cleared, the money will be available for British steelmaking companies. We expect this to be in place no later than April 2017, but it should be much earlier than that, and we are working round the clock to try to get that done.
The tragic stabbing in Abingdon Poundland last week has shocked local residents. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our condolences to the family of father of two Justin Skrebowski, who was killed in the attack, and to honour the bravery of those who overpowered the attacker with no thought of the risk to themselves. In the light of this attack, does the Prime Minister agree that it is now time for the Government and retailers to work together to make it more difficult for offenders to get hold of offensive weapons in the first place?
As my hon. Friend’s constituency neighbour, I was very shocked by what happened in Abingdon, and my heart goes out to the family of those who have suffered. She is right to ask the question about offensive weapons and how available they are, and I am very happy to look at that. Given that attack and the, although unrelated, Leytonstone attack, it is right to look at the resources that our police have in terms of their equipment—there is a very different usage pattern for Tasers, for instance, across the country—and this is something that the Home Secretary, the Metropolitan police and I are discussing.
Q14. There is nothing I believe in more passionately than the Union. With Scottish nationalism, English votes for English laws, various powerhouses and city deals, and the creation of numerous other measures that may threaten the Union, what is the Prime Minister’s vision of that Union and holding the four countries together? Will he come to speak to the all-party group on the Union at some stage, and even more important, will he help with the campaign throughout the Union because we are better together? (902736)
Like the hon. Gentleman, I am passionate about our United Kingdom. I believe we can make it stronger by accepting that it is a partnership of nations, and a partnership of nations where we should treat each other with respect. [Interruption.] I do not want to listen to SNP Members: they do not want a partnership; they want a separation. Actually, one of the things that is so strong about the United Kingdom—I think other countries, frankly, are quite envious of this—is that we have demonstrated that you can have multiple identities: you can be proud of being an Ulsterman and a Brit; you can be proud of being a Hindu and a Scot; you can be proud of being both Welsh and British. We have solved one of the problems that the rest of the world is grappling with, and that is why we should keep our United Kingdom together.
As we approach the festival marking the birth of Jesus Christ, may I invite the Prime Minister to send a message of support to the millions of fellow Christians around the world who are suffering persecution? May I also invite him once again to remind the British people that we are a country fashioned by our Christian heritage, and which has resulted in our giving refuge to so many of other faiths over so many centuries, but that we will not tolerate those who abuse our freedom to try to inflict their alien and violent fashions upon us, particularly in the name of Islam?
I join my hon. Friend in saying that we should do everything we can to defend and protect the right of Christians to practise their faith the world over. That is an important part of our foreign policy. Let me commend Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the excellent work he does in that regard.
Yes, Britain is a Christian country. I believe that the fact that we have an established faith and that we understand the place of faith in our national life makes us a more tolerant nation and better able to accommodate other faith groups in our country. That is why, as I said earlier, we should be proud that this is one of the most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-religion democracies anywhere in the world. That is not in conflict with our status as a predominantly Christian country; that status is one of the reasons why we have done it.
I know that the Prime Minister is aware of the flooding that has taken place in my constituency and the damage to the town of Cockermouth. I had a call from a constituent this morning who said that insurance companies are refusing to help my constituents until they have paid the excess in full. Does he agree that that is absolutely outrageous? Some of the excesses are up to £10,000. What can be done to ensure that insurance companies fulfil their obligations to my constituents?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that matter. First, the Minister for Government Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), has had meetings with the insurance companies to make sure that that sort of practice does not happen. Secondly, we have announced that we are putting money into the community funds that will form hardship funds that will potentially help people who do not have insurance. The third vital thing is the establishment of Flood Re, which will mean that, in future, all homes are able to get that insurance. That was a decision made by the last Government and we are putting it in place.
Victims of Contaminated Blood: Support
I recognise that I committed in earlier debates to consulting on proposals to reform the current payment schemes before the end of the year. Despite our best efforts to meet that commitment, we are unfortunately not ready to publish the consultation before the recess. However, I confirm today that it will be published in January.
The delay will, I know, be disappointing for many who were anticipating the consultation before the end of the year. I apologise for the delay, in particular to Members of the House who have been campaigning tirelessly for a resolution on behalf of their constituents and to those who are directly affected, who continue to wait patiently for our proposals.
In the Westminster Hall debate in September, I explained that any consultation would happen within the context of the spending review and that payments for the reformed scheme would come from the Department of Health budget. The House will know that the outcome of the spending review was communicated to us only a few weeks ago.
The infected blood tragedy and reform of the payment schemes remain a priority for us. We are assessing what can be allocated above and beyond the additional £25 million to which we have already committed. That, of course, is in addition to the existing baseline spend on the payment schemes, which will remain.
Over my two years as public health Minister, I have heard regularly from those affected by this tragedy. Every week, I read a large number of letters, both to me and to the Prime Minister, from campaign groups, individuals and their families, all of whom have been affected by the tragedy in different ways. While considering our proposals for consultation, I want to ensure that all those views are reflected and that I do not miss the thoughts of those with the quieter voices.
We are currently working towards publication of the consultation, and, as part of that, we arranged an independently facilitated event with representatives of some of the leading campaign groups. The report from that event is available through those groups.
I have worked to keep Members of the House updated—you know how seriously I take my duties in that regard, Mr Speaker—and last month I invited members of the all-party group on haemophilia and contaminated blood to a meeting to discuss this issue. I told colleagues that my intention was to consult as soon as possible, but I said that that could be in January, given the timing of the comprehensive spending review.
As discussed with the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, I am also interested in the opportunities offered by the advent of simpler and more effective treatments that are able to cure some people of hepatitis C, and which present a welcome new opportunity to make some people well. I assure the House that that work continues to establish a way forward, and a consultation will be published in January. At that time I will seek to make an oral statement.
In conclusion, because my priority is to get this issue right, I have taken the decision to take a little more time and publish the consultation in January.
Mr Speaker, your decision to grant this urgent question is recognition of the long campaign for justice for this group of people, and it is appreciated by everyone who has been involved. I am, however, disappointed that I have had to ask for an urgent question. On three occasions, Ministers promised a statement before Christmas, and they should not have been forced to come to the Chamber for the second time this year. When the Minister speaks about a consultation in January, I assume that she means January 2016. I would like clarification on that, because dates always seem to slip, and such action from the Government fuels distrust and resentment among people who have been let down for too long.
I have four questions for the Minister. First, she proposes a consultation that will run for 12 weeks and that she will need to assess before launching a new scheme. Will she explain how that is feasible before the start of the next financial year? Secondly, she claimed that it will be the first full public consultation, but the APPG ran a full consultation—with the same consultees—earlier this year. Can she assure me that she has considered the APPG report and all the evidence presented in it? Thirdly, as she said, the Government delayed making a statement until after the comprehensive spending review, in order to determine the total “financial envelope” available. I understand that the Department of Health currently pays out about £14 million a year, with a total future financial commitment of £455 million. Will the Minister tell the House how much more is now available following the comprehensive spending review?
Fourthly, lump-sum payments were a key issue raised in response to the APPG inquiry, but it now appears that those are off the agenda. That is a major disappointment because lump-sum payments would allow those affected to make real choices about their own lives—something they have been denied for far too long. Will the Minister support a separate request to the Treasury to use funds equivalent to the £230 million raised from the sale of Plasma Resources UK to fund lump-sum payments to those who have been affected?
I thank the hon. Lady for her response. Of course I understand the disappointment that we are not able to consult before the end of the year, but I informed her and her colleagues who came to the meeting on, I think, 5 November, that it was unlikely that we would be able to do so. That was recorded in the note made at the meeting, and published through the all-party group. I have tried to keep colleagues informed, and only last night I spoke to a number of campaigners about this issue, including the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), and informed them personally about the delay. I would, of course, have informed the hon. Lady today or tomorrow, along with the other Members who attended that meeting. I have done my best to keep people informed.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point about the consultation. I will consider the issue she raises, but I have always been clear that the transition to a new scheme must be done in a way that does not compromise the safety of payments to people in schemes—again, we discussed that at the meeting in early November. I therefore see no problem with consulting and then moving towards a transition, because that transition will be a gradual process anyway for some people. I want to ensure a safe transfer from the current scheme to any reformed scheme, and I do not see a real problem in that regard.
This will be the first full consultation by the Government, and the hon. Lady is right to say that the all-party group—and others, including my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—garnered many views. All views, including those put to the all-party group in its very good report, can be reiterated as part of the response to the consultation.
I made a statement on the issue of money in my response to the urgent question. I understand the point the hon. Lady makes on lump sum payments, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment at this time. I can talk about that more when I make an oral statement at the time we launch the consultation. She reiterated in her questions the principle of individual choice and treating people as individuals. Many Members have stressed to me the importance of that principle. We will very much recognise it in what we bring forward in the new year.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), with whom I co-chaired the all-party group on haemophilia and contaminated blood in the previous Parliament, on securing the urgent question. May I, too, press the Minister to please use the valuable data in the all-party group’s report? It has real testimony from the victims on how the trusts and funds—whether the Macfarlane Trust, the Skipton Fund, the Eileen Trust or the Caxton Fund—just are not delivering the day-to-day support the victims need. Will she come back to the House as soon as possible in January and not on the last day, so we do not have to secure another urgent question?
My hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue, is right to reiterate the importance of the views given in that report. I confirm that they have already informed our thinking about how we go forward, as indeed have the views of many colleagues on all sides of the House expressed over many months and years. I can assure him that the report will be considered. I have previously committed, and I reiterate the commitment today, to conducting a root and branch reform of the current schemes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I pay tribute to all the Members of this House who have been a strong voice for the victims of contaminated blood, but in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) who has been tireless in her pursuit of answers.
This scandal saw thousands of people die and thousands of families destroyed through the negligence of public bodies. Over the years, the response of Governments of all colours just has not been good enough. It is a real shame that we are here yet again wondering why action has not been taken. I do not think anyone doubts the sincerity of the commitment that the Prime Minister made back in April, but does the Minister understand the disappointment that people have felt in recent months as promises to publish arrangements and to make statements have been broken repeatedly? Does she accept that that has only raised false hope among a community that already feels very betrayed?
Given the further delay that the Minister has announced today, what guarantees do we have that the January consultation date will be met? What redress—other than an urgent question through you, Mr Speaker—will there be if it is not? A consultation is fine, but will she say when any new scheme will be implemented? It is important that any new arrangements are properly scrutinised, so will she commit to a debate in Government time to allow that to happen? Finally, does the public health Minister appreciate that the longer this goes on, the longer we leave in place a system that is not working and leaves victims without adequate support?
No amount of money can ever fully make up for what happened, but we owe those still living with the consequences the dignity of a full, final, fair and lasting settlement. This injustice has gone on for far too long. The time for action is now.
As I have already said, I of course regret the delay. This is a very complex area. I appreciate the tone with which the shadow public health Minister responded, because, as he said, Governments of all colours have not turned to this issue. We have turned to the issue and we are addressing it in a great deal of detail. It is a complex area. There is a very diverse range of affected groups impacted by this tragedy and we must get the consultation on reform right for all of them. I have been clear, in my response to the urgent question, that we have been considering the funding issue. We are, of course, aware of potential litigation in relation to the scheme as it stands. I cannot comment further on that, but the House will appreciate that that adds a level of complexity to dealing with this matter.
I am always extremely happy to come to the House to explain. The scheduling of debates in Government time is not a matter for me, but it goes without saying not only that I would be delighted to debate the matter but that I am happy to talk to colleagues, including shadow Front-Bench colleagues, privately or otherwise, about this matter. That commitment remains.
I echo the spirit of these exchanges; we need to do this job fast and well. May I highlight the tragic circumstances of some of those affected, including a constituent of mine who has sadly got more ill as we have been debating the fine details of the scheme? There is no more time to lose.
The Penrose inquiry was held in Scotland—there has not been a UK inquiry—and, in response, the Prime Minister made his statement about the £25 million transitional payment. These people are awaiting a final settlement and compensation for what the NHS did to them, but their suffering goes on. We were told that the transitional payment would be made this financial year to help people get to that settlement. The consultation is on the final arrangement, but we need some action now and people need access to the new hep C drugs. The Scottish Government have written about support for fuel payments, but we need the transitional money now. It should not be kicked into the long grass.
This certainly has not been kicked into the long grass. As I have told the House, it is my intention to consult in January. I have said before, but it is worth repeating, that although we are working to establish a fair resolution, liability has not been established in the majority of cases, so it is not appropriate to talk about compensation payments, particularly on the scale that some campaigners and colleagues envisage. I have been open about that for many months. The hon. Lady is right to make the point about treatments, and all those things will be considered. I can confirm to the House that, although the £25 million was allocated to be spent in this financial year, it will be carried forward. The money that the Prime Minister announced in March was to support the transition of the scheme, which we envisaged beginning next spring, following the consultation. The money will support that, and it will be carried forward.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on securing the urgent question. I speak today on behalf of a constituent, a Mr Steve Dymond, who has hepatitis C as a result of contaminated blood products. Although he is in remission, a normal life for him is impossible. I know that new drugs and treatments are available. Will the Minister assure me that those advanced new treatments will be available to all sufferers without restrictions? I hope that, despite this delay, the closure we need will be delivered very shortly. This is a big subject in my part of Kent. It is trailed massively in the Kent on Sunday, which covers it regularly. We need closure and those affected need certainty in their lives. Can the Minister assure me of that?
I have corresponded directly with Mr Dymond’s partner, so I know the level of suffering he endures. On the new treatments, the drug landscape on hepatitis C infection, which is very different from even a couple of years ago, is uppermost in my mind as I consider how to reform the scheme and support those who suffer.
This announcement comes after the shambles of a meeting at the Department last month, when hon. Members from both sides of the House arrived for a stated time, only to be told, after waiting, that the meeting was over. We then received an apology from an official promising further information that was never supplied. Does the hon. Lady understand what being a Minister entails? It means being in charge and only making promises that can be kept. This has been a travesty, but it would not matter so much were it not for the sick people, including those in my constituency, who are living lives of hell and were looking to the Government, after the promises were made, for some kind of alleviation during their lifetimes. They have not got it.
I slightly regret the right hon. Gentleman’s tone, and I am totally mystified by his point about the meeting. A meeting was organised with the all-party group and his colleague the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North. I think the meeting might have been moved once, at the request of the all-party group, but the details and arrangements for the meeting with me were circulated by that group, and six right. hon. and hon. Members attended the meeting. I am sorry if there was some confusion, but I do not think it was on the part of me or my officials. A number of colleagues came to the meeting. We had a very useful discussion and I have sought to update others since.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that we need to move towards a conclusion, but it is also a matter of record that he was, at times, a member of the last Labour Government, who, for 13 years, did not move forward on this matter.
The Minister will be aware of my frustration in dealing, on behalf of a constituent, with the Macfarlane Trust, which she knows, from the weight of evidence in the consultation, is not fit for purpose. Will she confirm that any full and final settlement will not be administered by that trust?
I am well aware of the shortcomings of some of the schemes identified by colleagues and those affected by this tragedy, and I have obviously read the details from the all-party group and other Members’ communications. I have confirmed before that reducing the number of schemes will be part of the consultation on reforming the schemes, so my hon. Friend’s point is well made. For the record, though, I should add that I had a meeting recently with the staff of the schemes—the people who man the phones and deal on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis with sufferers—and I am clear that they, as distinct from the people who head up the trusts, are working hard to offer a service to people in difficult circumstances.
Is this not one of those situations where there is an absolute moral obligation on the Government to act and end the uncertainty and delay? Is the Minister reassured that the spending review gives her the ability to bring a lasting and fair settlement, and will she do everything she can to ensure it is in place by the start of the next financial year?
I am happy to assure my former colleague in the Department that the Secretary of State and my departmental colleagues take this matter extremely seriously. It is a matter on which we are seeking to move forward. It will be for those who respond to the consultation on the reformed scheme to give their views, but we are seeking to move towards a reformed scheme that responds to the criticisms of the existing schemes and offers sustainability for people who have suffered for so long. I hope I can satisfy the right hon. Gentleman in that regard, although I will be able to say more in the new year, when we publish the scheme details.
One of my constituents, Sue Wathen, is trying to access the Harvoni drug, but it is proving incredibly difficult, because she has not developed cirrhosis. She does, however, have an underlying medical condition that is being exacerbated by the contaminated blood. Much is being reported about greater access from February. Is that the case and will Mrs Wathen be able to access the treatment she so desperately needs? I would love a yes or no answer, because it is incredibly frustrating.
I would never give a yes or no answer to the individual health problems of a constituent I do not know, and I am not a clinician, but if my hon. Friend would like to write to me, I will certainly make sure I give an individualised response. Ultimately, however, the right clinical route for any one individual would come at the suggestion of their consultant hepatologist. Towards the end of November, NICE published new guidelines on three more drug treatments, so the drug landscape for hepatitis C is changing rapidly, but I am happy to ensure that hon. Members are kept fully informed. As I said in a previous debate, if people are concerned that their constituents are not aware of what is out there or do not feel they are getting the support they need to access treatment in line with the NICE guidance, we can offer advice to Members on how to make sure that happens. However, I am well aware of the general point he makes.
My officials have been giving considerable thought to how to do that. A number of people are members of the existing schemes, so we have a means to communicate with them, but it is clear from experience of following up previous inquiries’ recommendations—for example, the one recommendation of the Penrose inquiry—that we make exhaustive efforts to inform everybody. In particular, we will want to inform people who have had a lump sum payment but are not members of the current scheme. We will make exhaustive efforts to inform people by every means possible. Members of Parliament can of course be of great assistance in that regard.
Going back to the issue of medication, my constituents want to know the answer to this question: available drugs that have not yet been approved by NICE but that can be prescribed are not being prescribed locally on financial grounds. Is that not wholly unacceptable?
The NHS is looking at its response to the most recent NICE guideline—it was very recent, on 25 November, from memory. The NHS has commissioning arrangements in place for previous treatments that met NICE guidelines. It would be useful if my hon. Friend contacted me separately about the particular situation in which his constituents find themselves, and we might be able to provide some helpful support.
I thank the Minister for her response to the urgent question. Brian Carberry from County Down contracted hepatitis C from contaminated blood in July this year. Compensation is always important, but the really important issue for those affected is that it is not enough when a problem is health related. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Health Minister, Simon Hamilton, to tackle this issue?
My officials are working closely with their opposite numbers in all the devolved Administrations. As we move towards publication of the consultation, I will look to communicate directly with my opposite numbers in the devolved Administrations and pick up all these points.
I know from her statement that the Minister will appreciate the frustration that my constituents, some of whom have been waiting for an outcome for some decades, will feel at another delay. Given her comments on the carrying over of transitional funding, will she give me a clear idea of when she expects the new system to be in place?
We aim to consult, and we want to make sure that the final shape of the reformed scheme is informed by that consultation. As I have said, we look to start transitioning to a reformed scheme in the spring. At this stage, however, it is a little difficult to be more precise. We are working hard to ensure that aspects of the transition are being planned and thought about, and this will be informed by the final outcome of the consultation.
The Minister wrote to me on 6 November and stated:
“The shape and structure of a new scheme will be decided following the consultation process that will begin by the end of this year as previously committed”—
as it had been committed in an Adjournment debate on 9 September. I am deeply disappointed today that neither that scheme nor that consultation is in place. My constituent, Brian Carberry from Downpatrick in South Down, whom my Adjournment debate was about, has told me in the last few weeks that he now has a form of cancer, with four tumours identified, as a result of the connection with contaminated blood. Will the Minister give me and the House an undertaking today that a full and final settlement will be in place before the end of this financial year.
I have already made my comments about the timing of the consultation, and I cannot add to what I said in response to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who put the urgent question. I have often spoken to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about this and I responded to her Adjournment debate. I think that the language she uses is applicable to circumstances before this exchange. I have already explained the issue of compensation and the principles that we shall try to apply to the reformed scheme. I cannot really add to the comments I made in my response to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North.
Let me challenge the Minister on the phrase “quieter voices”, which I have heard her use several times. It seems to be a code for addressing the important but less costly issues of treatment and reform of the current scheme rather than a full and final settlement to what Lord Winston rightly called the
“worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS”.
We have a moral duty here, so simply saying “the Chancellor will not give me the money” will not wash.
Again, I have said here today and previously in Westminster Hall what I believe the position to be with compensation. I accept that the hon. Gentleman has a different view and we had an exchange when he contributed to the discussion in November. I think it would be wrong to dismiss the idea of listening to quieter voices, which I have had the opportunity to do over the last couple of years, and as a result it has become clear that a number of people want a number of different things from a reformed scheme. It will not be possible to do everything that everyone wants. We are going to try to respond as best we can with a scheme that is sustainable, fair to all and responds to many of the points made here today.
I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for tabling the urgent question. Only this Friday a constituent raised a number of issues about this very topic at my surgery and she will be most disappointed at this further delay. If the Minister has not done so already, will she take up the issue of continuing assessments by the Department for Work and Pensions? My constituent feels it is extremely strenuous that she has to continue to prove her case to qualify for benefits. She also found—she cannot be unique in the country—that the NHS treatment she received was not the most sensitive, and she would like to see some guidance issued for healthcare professionals.
I thank the hon. Lady for those comments and I will reflect on them. The DWP matters are outside the remit of the Department of Health, but I will take on board the general issues she raises and refer them to colleagues. As I have said, we continue to work with the devolved Administrations on NHS matters; if her constituent is being treated in Scotland, it is a devolved matter for the Scottish NHS.
I appreciate the contrite tone of this question, but this is so very disappointing. My affected constituent simply wants to be able to buy a home and provide security to his family, but that is not available to him at present. Can I tell my constituent that next year a new scheme will be in place and that he will be eligible to receive support from it?
It is clearly my intention to have a reformed scheme in place next year. I do not know the circumstances of his constituent, so I cannot make that individual commitment. I have said that we want to move to a reformed scheme next year. I understand the frustration of Opposition Members, but, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) acknowledged, Governments of all shades and descriptions have not stood up to tackle this issue. We are going to try to do something; it will not satisfy everyone, but I hope we will be able to come forward with a scheme that will respond to many people’s concerns.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for raising this question. The Minister will recall a meeting I attended on 5 November, in which two main issues were discussed. The first was the setting up of a contingency fund, rather than having to rely on the spending review every year. Will the Minister confirm that she has written to the Treasury about that? Secondly, will the consultation consider the issue of family members who have lost loved ones as a result of contaminated blood?
I covered the issue of funding in my response. The hon. Gentleman attended the meeting, at which a number of matters were discussed. I do not think I can add much to what I have already said. This is a priority for the Department of Health, and we are seeking to identify the amount of money, on top of the transitional £25 million and the baseline spend on the current scheme, that we can use to support the reformed scheme.
Six thousand infected, 2,000 dead, a 30-year struggle—this delay is just one part of the continuing nightmare that victims face. Can the Minister tell my constituents Fred Bates and Peter Mossman when the nightmare will come to an end?
I cannot right the wrongs of 30 years; I can only try to do what I can in the circumstances, and with the money that we will allocate. We will present plans for a reformed scheme, and I invite the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to respond to them. In developing those plans, I must look to the future, and ask what we can do to support people with a reformed scheme. In particular, I must ask how we can respond to some of the ways in which the circumstances in which we address this terrible, difficult tragedy have changed, and ensure that our response reflects those new circumstances.
The Minister may recall that when the all-party group met her in early November we warned her that any slippage would be greeted as slipperiness by people who had suffered delays for too long. Does she appreciate that people will worry about the possibility that the extra time has been taken to ensure that the consultation is more controlled and options are sealed off? Will she also address the underlying question that people want to ask? Why, if liability could be admitted by the Irish health service on the basis that the risk was known, can liability not be admitted by the NHS, and why cannot compensation be forthcoming?
Payments made by the Republic of Ireland are a matter for the Republic, and they were made in response to circumstances in Ireland relating to the use of blood products. We have covered that before, in debates.
Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration—I spoke to him informally last night to alert him to the fact that there was some delay—but I reiterate that it is better for us to produce a scheme into which we have had a chance to put more effort and a little more detail than, for the sake of a few weeks, to rush out something that would not give people any real sense of what was being consulted on. Although the delay is frustrating, as I have acknowledged a number of times, I think that it will give rise to a better and more meaningful consultation.
The victims are clearly identified, and a final settlement is well overdue. Weeks ago, in the Chamber, I asked the Government whether they would provide additional support for victims during the coming winter. It may be mild here, but it is not mild everywhere, and many of them are suffering from fuel poverty. It is Christmas. Given the ever-stretching time that it is taking to resolve this matter, will the Minister commit herself to providing the additional support? The Scottish Government have already asked her to do so, but will she make that commitment now?
The matter has been raised with me by Shona Robison, the Scottish Health Secretary, and I intend to respond to her in the next few days. The Northern Ireland and Wales Administrations are still considering the matter, and have not fed anything back to me about Shona Robison’s proposals. I did raise them with the Members who attended the all-party parliamentary group meeting in early November, but there was relatively limited interest at that time.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement updating the House on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Two weeks ago, the House voted for the extension of UK airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq into Daesh’s heartland in Syria. As the Prime Minister and I explained during the debate that preceded the vote, the extension of military strikes is just one part of our strategy to bring stability to Syria and Iraq by defeating Daesh, working towards a political transition in Syria, and supporting humanitarian efforts in the region. It has been welcomed by our international partners, including the United States, France, and other partners in Europe and the Gulf. During that debate, we committed ourselves to giving the House quarterly updates on the progress of our strategy, but, given the high level of interest expressed by Members during the debate, I decided to offer an early first update before the House rises this week.
Let me deal first with the military strand of our strategy. As is well known, the first RAF airstrikes against Daesh in Syria were conducted just a few hours after the vote in the House, successfully targeting oil facilities in eastern Syria which provide Daesh with an important source of illicit income. Since then, RAF aircraft have conducted further strikes against Daesh in Syria, targeting wellheads in the extensive Omar oil field, as well as conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions. To make that increased tempo of activity possible, a further two RAF Tornados and six Typhoons have been deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, bringing the total number of manned aircraft conducting strikes from Akrotiri to 16—in addition to our RAF Reaper unmanned aircraft which are also deployed in the region.
During the debate on 2 December, a number of right hon. and hon. Members expressed concern about the possibility of civilian casualties resulting from British military action. Of course there is a risk involved in any kind of combat strike activity, but I am pleased to inform the House that it continues to be the case that we have had no reports of civilian casualties as a result of UK airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria, and I pay tribute to the precision and professionalism of our RAF pilots in conducting those operations.
In Iraq, Government forces continue to make progress against Daesh. The coalition began operations in Iraq in the autumn of 2014, and since then the strategically significant towns of Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar have all been retaken. Ramadi, to the west of Baghdad, is now surrounded by Iraqi forces supported by US mentors, and its Daesh occupiers are being steadily squeezed, including by RAF close support operations. Importantly, work is well advanced in the building of a Sunni local police force, supported by local tribal forces, to hold and police the city once it is liberated. In total, RAF Tornados and Reaper drones have flown more than 1,600 missions over Iraq, conducting over 400 strikes.
In Syria, the situation is more complicated. The majority of Russian air strikes continue to target Syrian opposition forces rather than Daesh. In the last two weeks, the Russians have attacked opposition forces between Homs and Aleppo and in the far north of Syria, and in doing so have allowed Daesh to seek advantage on the ground. Along with our coalition partners, including the United States, we will continue to urge the Russians at every opportunity to focus their fire solely on Daesh. It is unacceptable that Russian action is weakening the opposition, and thus giving advantage to the very Daesh forces against which they claim to be engaged.
Let me now turn to the campaign to disrupt Daesh’s finances and stop the flow of foreign fighters. Experts estimate that the oil assets that have been targeted account for about 40% of Daesh revenues, and tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will attend the first ever meeting of Finance Ministers at the Security Council in New York to agree a further strengthening of the UN’s sanctions regime against Daesh. It is, of course, also crucial that countries enforce sanctions strictly with appropriate investigations and prosecutions. To ensure that we have our own house in order, we have begun the review of funding of Islamist extremist activity in the UK which was ordered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and which will report to him in the spring. We continue to work with Turkey and others to build an increasingly sophisticated network to interdict foreign fighters seeking to enter Syria.
As well as relying on money, Daesh relies heavily on propaganda to attract financial support and new recruits, so we have stepped up our effort to counter its messaging. The UK has created a coalition communications cell which is working to combat and undermine the Daesh “brand”, ensuring that no communications space currently exploited by Daesh is left uncontested. The coalition cell will generate a full range of communications at the pace and scale that will be necessary to highlight Daesh’s cruel and inhumane treatment of individuals under its control, its failures on the battlefield, and its perversion of Islam. The cell has already received staffing and financial contributions from coalition partners, and others have expressed strong support and an intention to contribute.
At the heart of our comprehensive strategy is a recognition that, to defeat Daesh in its heartland, we need a political track to bring an end to the civil war and to have in place a transitional Government in Syria. The world could then, once again, support a legitimate Syrian Government so that the Syrian army, Syrian opposition forces and Kurdish peshmerga could concentrate their efforts against Daesh, liberating their own country from this evil organisation.
Diplomatic efforts to deliver a negotiated end to the civil war and a transitional Government are continuing apace. The International Syria Support Group, bringing together all the major international players, has agreed the need for a ceasefire, humanitarian access and an end to attacks on civilians. In its communiqué of 14 November, the ISSG set out its goals: a transitional Government within six months, a new constitution and new, internationally supervised elections within 18 months. A further meeting of the support group is expected to take place in New York on Friday, which I shall attend. In preparation for that meeting, I met the Foreign Ministers of like-minded members of the ISSG in Paris on Monday, including the US, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Separately, in Riyadh last week, Saudi Arabia brought together well over 100 representatives from a wide range of Syrian opposition groups to agree an opposition negotiating commission and a negotiating policy statement ahead of talks between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime, convened by the UN, which we hope will begin in January. The conference committed to Syria’s territorial integrity, to the continuity of the Syrian state and to negotiations under the framework of the Geneva communiqué. The participants also committed themselves to a
“democratic mechanism through a pluralistic system, representing all spectrums of the Syrian people, men and women, without discrimination or exclusion on a religious, sectarian or ethnic basis, and based on the principles of citizenship, human rights, transparency, and accountability, and the rule of law over everyone.”
Given the diversity of the Syrian opposition, I regard that as a significant achievement and I congratulate Saudi Arabia on it. The UK will continue to provide full support to intra-Syrian negotiations.
In Iraq, we continue to support Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deliver the reform and reconciliation needed to unite all Iraq’s communities in the fight against Daesh. I also welcome the recent announcement of the formation of an Islamic military coalition to fight terrorism, bringing together 34 Muslim countries to partner with the rest of the international community. I have discussed that initiative in detail with my Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir. Its clear intention is to create a coalition that is flexible, contributing on a case-by-case basis and defending moderate Islam from the forces of extremism.
On the need for continued humanitarian support and post-conflict stabilisation in both Syria and Iraq, as the Prime Minister outlined to the House again today at Prime Minister’s questions, the end of the civil war in Syria and the defeat of Daesh in both Iraq and Syria will present the international community with an enormous and urgent stabilisation challenge. Building on our humanitarian support during the Syria crisis—we remain the second largest bilateral donor—we have committed a minimum of £1 billion to Syria’s reconstruction in the long term. In February, the Prime Minister will co-host, with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN, an international conference in London, focused on meeting both the UN 2016 appeal to support refugees from the civil war, as well as longer-term financial commitments for Syria and its neighbours.
Since the House took the decision two weeks ago to extend our military effort into Syria, the Government have taken forward, with our coalition partners, our comprehensive strategy to degrade—and ultimately to defeat—Daesh. We are making steady progress in both Iraq and Syria. We are targeting Daesh’s finances through military action and through action with international partners. We are disrupting the flow of foreign fighters. We are fighting Daesh’s ideology and propaganda. We are a leading player in the diplomatic effort to deliver a political settlement to end the Syrian civil war, and we are preparing for the day after that settlement and the defeat of Daesh so that we can ensure the long-term future stability and security of Iraq and Syria.
The fight against Daesh will not be won overnight but, however long it takes, it is in our vital national interest to defeat that terrorist organisation and the direct threat it poses to our national security. Failure is not an option. I commend this statement to the House.
I begin by passing on the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is unable to respond to the statement because he is visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. On behalf of the Opposition, I thank the Foreign Secretary for the courtesy extended to me by his office, for advance sight of his statement and for updating the House before the recess.
The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe stemming from the civil war in Syria is almost too great to comprehend. The death toll is well over 250,000 people. Millions of men, women and children will spend this Christmas as refugees living in tents in Lebanon and Turkey, and in Europe in Greece, Serbia and Calais. Even after all the brutality we have seen over the past four years, the situation continues to deteriorate. This week there were the appalling reports that Daesh will murder children who have Down’s syndrome. The international community has failed the people of Syria and we must now do everything we can to address the situation.
On the military aspect of the UK’s strategy, I note that UK military action up to now has focused, first, on economic infrastructure, particularly oil, which is so key to financing Daesh and, secondly, on alleviating the pressure on Kurdish peshmerga forces operating in Syria. It is notable, however, that the Foreign Secretary did not mention action to support other moderate forces in Syria. Can he update the House on what progress the Government have made in identifying and co-ordinating with such forces?
I note that the Foreign Secretary stated that there had been no civilian casualties resulting from UK military action in Iraq and Syria. Can he outline to the House the steps taken before a strike is authorised to minimise civilian casualties and then after a strike has occurred to ensure any possible civilian casualties are investigated?
I pay tribute to the outstanding bravery and professionalism of the British military personnel who have carried out these early missions. When we all return to our constituencies over the Christmas break, and return to our families, these very brave men and women will be continuing to serve our country in difficult and dangerous circumstances. For this, they deserve our unflinching admiration and respect.
Of course, as the Opposition have consistently argued, military action could only ever be a part of the package of measures needed to defeat Daesh and end the Syrian civil war. The UK’s overriding priority has to be supporting a diplomatic agreement that unites the elements opposed to Daesh within Syria and paves the way for the departure of Assad. The first step to this is an agreement between the Sunni factions opposed to both Assad and Daesh.
I note the progress towards that achieved in Riyadh. There has been a lot of speculation about those talks, so can the Foreign Secretary inform the House how the groups that were invited to attend the talks were selected? Did the UK make representations to the Saudis as to who should be invited? In particular, were key Kurdish groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Democratic Union party present at the talks?
It was reported that the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the Riyadh talks last week and was opposed to any peace talks with Assad. It was later reported that it had signed the agreement, so will the Foreign Secretary confirm the correct position? That group has an estimated 20,000 fighters. Will he also confirm whether those 20,000 formed part of the 70,000 figure the Government cited as being moderate forces opposed to Assad and Daesh?
The key test for the Riyadh agreement will be whether it facilitates meaningful peace talks and a ceasefire, as outlined at the second Vienna conference. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary is optimistic about the possibilities for these talks. Will he confirm whether, following the Riyadh agreement, the Syrian opposition will have a common position and a single representative at these talks, or whether there will be distinct factions represented at the talks?
The original timetable was for a possible cessation of hostilities to coincide with the start of peace talks from 1 January. Does the Foreign Secretary still think this is achievable? Was there a clear commitment to this timetable from all the parties present at the Syria talks in Paris on Monday?
With so many different parties to the Syrian civil war, maintaining a ceasefire will be extremely complex. Have the Government explored the possibility of a UN resolution reinforcing the outline agreement, including the ceasefire, agreed at the second Vienna conference? Can the Government confirm whether they will seek a UN resolution to support any agreement that is reached between Syrian opposition forces and Assad?
Finally, I want to return to the humanitarian response and the millions of refugees in tents this Christmas. In Lebanon, nearly one in four of the population is a recent refugee from Syria. Jordan is hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Around 340,000 refugees have been resettled in Germany. Just this week we saw Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming the first of 35,000 refugees to be resettled in Canada by next October. And I was pleased to hear in Prime Minister’s questions today that the 1,000 refugees the Government had promised to resettle will be here in the UK by Christmas.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and she is right to highlight yet another recent example of Daesh’s cruelty. I do not think there is anything that this organisation is not capable of.
The hon. Lady asked about the focus of UK military activity. It is important that I emphasise that we do not do this independently as a national contingent. We are operating as part of a coalition. Our aircraft are assigned to CAOC—the combined air operations centre—which tasks them with whatever needs doing at the time, and this can literally be aircraft in the air being diverted to provide close air support to forces on the ground who are engaged in an action.
The hon. Lady asked about UK support for moderate forces. I am slightly confused by her question because the proposition put before this House two weeks ago was clear and narrow: it was about conducting airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. It was not about intervening in the civil war between the moderate opposition and regime forces. Different Members may have different views about the wisdom of taking such action, but at the moment we are very clear that that is not what the UK is engaged in doing.
I should also just clarify: the hon. Lady said I had said in my statement that there had been no civilian casualties. I cannot, of course, make that statement. What I said was that we have had no reports of civilian casualties arising from UK airstrikes.
The hon. Lady asked what steps we take to minimise the risk of casualties. The RAF has, of course, very strict rules of engagement—among the strictest of any air force in the world. The Defence Secretary explained to the House that he has created structures that give a high degree of direct control over targeting decisions, and we use standard NATO procedures for analysing battle damage and dealing with any allegations of civilian casualties or collateral damage.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her acknowledgement of the commitment of our 800 military personnel in theatre and her recognition of the sacrifice that their families in particular will be making this Christmas, spending it without their loved ones who are on active service.
Of course, this military action is part of a comprehensive strategy. I think we all understand in this House that we are not going to resolve this problem by military action alone. The Riyadh talks were an important step forward. It was the Saudi Arabians who brought the opposition together, using their convening power—the convening power of the King of Saudi Arabia as the guardian of the two holy mosques. No one else could have done that. What we have now is a new opposition grouping that includes a large number of representatives of the armed opposition on the ground, and it is a significantly more legitimate body than previous representatives of the opposition, which have tended to represent oppositionists who are outside the country and not directly engaged in the fighting.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s direct question: yes, the UK and other coalition partners provided the Saudis with lists of suggestions about who should be included. Ultimately, who was included in the invitation was their decision.
The hon. Lady asked me about the curious question of Ahrar al-Sham, and she is right to do so because there is a little ambiguity about its position. It attended the conference, it signed the declaration, but it did leave the conference before the end of it. But it has signed the declaration and we take it as bound by the commitments made in that declaration. For clarity, the figure of 70,000 opposition fighters that we have used does not include the Ahrar al-Sham forces. While not extremists like al-Nusra or Daesh, they are clearly not democrats in the sense that Free Syrian Army supporters are, so we do not include them in that figure.
The hon. Lady said I was optimistic about talks. I have to tell her that I am under no illusion that we still have a huge distance to go. We still have a chasm to bridge between ourselves on the one hand and the Russians and the Iranians on the other about the future of Bashar al-Assad, and that will be an issue for many of the oppositionists who are now engaging in this process.
In terms of Syrian opposition unity, the convening power of Saudi Arabia can do a great deal to deliver that. The conference last week was a great step forward, but I do not think anyone should imagine that there will not be disagreements within the Syrian opposition even as they confront the Syrian regime in face-to-face talks, and it will not be a single negotiator; a negotiating panel will be selected.
The hon. Lady asked about the ceasefire. It remains the clear intention of US Secretary of State John Kerry to try to get agreement on Friday in New York to a ceasefire. Frankly, that will be highly challenging, but I commend him for his ambition.
We are also holding this meeting on Friday in New York rather than Vienna specifically to be able to go immediately to the United Nations Security Council if it becomes clear during the morning that it is possible to reach an agreement that the Russians will not veto in the UN Security Council. So there is a possibility—I put it no higher than that—that Friday’s meeting will end with a UN Security Council resolution.
Finally, may I join the hon. Lady in commending the extraordinary effort and sacrifice of the people of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey in providing refuge to so many of those fleeing the chaos in Syria, and taking this burden on unasked and without fanfare not just over the past few months, but for many, many years?
May I join the Opposition in welcoming the Foreign Secretary’s update to the House, and join him in congratulating the Saudi Arabians on success last week in assembling that opposition group?
In relation to Ahrar al-Sham, what progress is there on the Jordanian task of identifying those Islamist groups that are going to stand outside the whole negotiation process between the Syrian Government and opposition forces? There have been long-standing disturbing reports of Turkish action, or inaction, on the Turkish-Syrian border that has served to aid Daesh. Now that the Foreign Secretary has identified Turkey as a like-minded member of the coalition, what reports does he have that action on that border is now firmly not in the interests of Daesh? Finally, turning to Iraq, he referred to the preparation of a Sunni police force for Ramadi; what progress is there on a Sunni national guard force around Anbar and on the national guard Bill in the Iraqi Parliament?
On the Jordanian process, and the strand that is attempting to identify who should be considered terrorists, I spoke with my Jordanian counterpart on Monday evening. That work is progressing and all parties have fed in their views on the vast number of different groups. The Jordanians are currently seeking to distinguish those groups that have a significant number of fighters from those that comprise only one or two dozen people, and cross-referencing the views of the different coalition partners. That is work in progress.
On the question of the Turkish-Syrian border, I had a meeting yesterday with the US President’s special envoy, Brett McGurk, the successor to General John Allen, and we talked about this issue. He told me that there were clear signs on the ground that the Turks were moving to close the border along the 60-odd mile gap that remains open. That is very good news. On the question of the Iraqi national guard, the legislation to create a national guard, which we regard as important, is bogged down in the Iraqi Parliament. It is precisely for that reason that the rather pragmatic approach of creating an armed local police as a ground-holding mechanism in the absence of the ability to create a national guard has been taken.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving me early sight of his statement. UK forces in theatre carry the admiration and support of those on these Benches.
I would like the Foreign Secretary to tell us more about three aspects of this issue. First, I welcome the new initiatives on finance and on information and propaganda. He said that the Chancellor would be going to the first ever meeting of Finance Ministers in the Security Council to pursue the Security Council resolutions. Does it not speak volumes that that is the first meeting to tackle the flows of finance, the financial institutions and the arms dealers without whom Daesh could not move a muscle or fire a shot? Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, after waiting so long for initiatives in this direction, these will be pursued as vigorously as are other elements of the tactics?
Secondly, the Foreign Secretary announced that a communications cell had been established. Can he tell us how many people—and how much money—have been devoted to intercepting, interrupting and counteracting Daesh propaganda? Given the extraordinary financial cost of military action, it would be of interest to the House to have that comparison between what is spent militarily and what is spent on countering Daesh’s poisonous propaganda.
Finally, on the subject of civilian casualties, I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary said that there had been no reported casualties as a result of UK action in Syria. However, he also knows that the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported in the last few days that 26 civilian casualties have resulted from the action of the coalition of which we are part, including the reported deaths of seven children and four women. As the bombing moves into urban areas and city centres such as Raqqa, where I understand there has been no bombing by UK forces as yet, will he tell us by what means we will take forward the NATO protocols on investigating reports of civilian casualties, and how that will be reported timeously to this House and elsewhere?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, particularly for his comment on the commitment of UK forces to their task. This will be the first meeting of Finance Ministers in the Security Council, and I think that sends a very clear signal about the importance with which we regard the issue. It does not mean that no steps have been taken; many measures have been taken already. Financial sanctions are in place, and a financial flows working group, led by Bahrain, has been operating for a year now, but the fact that Finance Ministers of the key countries in the world are going to New York tomorrow to sit in the forum of the Security Council to pass further sanctions measures is an important symbol of our commitment to shutting down this channel of Daesh’s lifeblood. We regard it as extremely important. We saw, in relation to sanctions on Iran, that getting the financial sanctions right was at least as important as getting the sanctions on flows of physical goods right.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the communications cell. The operation of the cell necessarily encroaches into the area of the secret intelligence agencies’ work, so I cannot give him details of the resources available to it or of the number of people deployed in it, but I can tell him that it is already having a visible and measurable effect on Daesh’s communication channels. He also asked me about deaths resulting from coalition action. Of course, any civilian death is deeply regrettable. I was referring to deaths attributable to RAF action, and I believe that while the House will obviously be concerned about civilian deaths more widely, it will be on the question of RAF-caused civilian casualties that hon. Members will want to focus, and I intend to ensure that the House remains updated if the situation changes in respect of any reports of any RAF-caused civilian casualties.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about the protocols for investigating civilian casualty reports as the campaign moves on. NATO has well-established protocols for investigating any incidents where CIVCAS are estimated to have occurred or where imagery suggests that there could have been collateral damage to civilian buildings, and it routinely publishes the outcome of those investigations.
Recent discussions with Government officials on a visit to countries in the region confirmed that key questions remain unanswered about the Government’s strategy on combating Daesh, which remains the best-funded terrorist group in history. On the non-military side, why are hard questions not being asked of regional allies about the funding of donations to Daesh from within those countries? When it comes to oil, why are we not asking our regional allies not only to disrupt the flow of stolen oil heading north but to combat the end customers of that oil? Without a market, there can be no cash flow.
My hon. Friend is right. We are focusing on all channels of funding to Daesh. He asserts again that it is receiving funding from within the region, and of course I cannot be certain that there are no channels of funding remaining open to Daesh from the region, but I am confident that none of the Governments in the region either contribute to or condone any such funding. On the question of the flow of oil, he well knows that that oil is being sold into a black market, and I am afraid that black markets are an inevitable consequence of any kind of embargo on the sale of goods. We are doing everything we can to interdict and disrupt the flow of oil and indeed to disrupt the flow of the proceeds of the sale of that oil. He will know that the scale of that production is small and that the means of transport are crude and sometimes even primitive, so it is difficult to disrupt that process to the extent that we would like. Bombing the wellheads so that the stuff cannot be produced in the first place is likely to be the most efficient way to do it.
Following on from the comments of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), is not the crucial difference that the RAF goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties, while Daesh goes out of its way to destroy, kill and maim as many innocent civilians as it possibly can? As well as commending the professionalism and dedication of the RAF staff on the mission in the field, will the House also remember their families back home at RAF Marham, and at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, who will be without their loved ones this Christmas?
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. The training and doctrine of the RAF and other NATO air forces are built around minimising the risk of civilian casualties. I am afraid that that is not the case with all air forces in the world and it is certainly not the case with Daesh.
I warmly welcome the broad-spectrum initiatives that the Foreign Secretary has announced, all of which are designed to degrade and eventually destroy Daesh. Outstanding among them is the Saudi Arabian initiative relating to an Islamic military coalition, which seems to me to be the basis for a very good ground force for the future. It is quite right that we should not be involved in that in any shape or form, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we have some capabilities to offer, perhaps in the form of command and control, training or other things which would not involve British troops being on the ground in Syria but which could none the less make a useful military contribution to the success of that coalition?
We have ruled out the use of UK combat forces in Syria, and indeed in Iraq, but we have not ruled out the provision of UK capabilities in support of combat forces provided by others. UK command and control, logistics, surveillance, and intelligence gathering and analysis could all provide a very substantial reinforcement to any troops that were deployed on the ground.
Yesterday, I met people from the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques to discuss Daesh. They share the concern to tackle the threat it poses, but do have questions about the strategy. The Secretary of State said that failure was not an option, but will he set out for my constituents a bit more about what he means by either failure or success in our operations in Syria?
For me, success is the destruction of Daesh. As I have said many times in this House, I do not delude myself into thinking that destroying Daesh will end the threat of Islamist extremism, but this particular iteration of it as a military force occupying territory has to be ended. The struggle to defeat the perversion of Islam that the Daesh ideology—the extreme Islamist ideology—represents will take much longer. It will be the struggle of a generation, and it is a struggle that must be led by Muslims themselves, reclaiming their religion from the extremists.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s briefing and look forward to similar such briefings in the new year. As chairman of the all-party group on Kurdistan, I was wondering what feedback or briefings the Foreign Secretary has had, and what effect there has been on the morale and military capability of Kurdish peshmerga forces following these targeted UK airstrikes on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), was in Kurdistan yesterday and he reports that our action has boosted morale among Kurdish forces, as we would expect. In particular, what has been happening around Sinjar has considerably boosted morale and the strategic position of Kurdish forces. They are extremely delighted—there is no other word for it—about the decision this House made two weeks ago.
In his statement, the Secretary of State said, “The majority of Russian air strikes continue to target Syrian opposition forces rather than Daesh.” Is it not clear that Russia’s priority is to protect the Assad regime? Does it remain the position of the British Government that Assad cannot be part of any solution to the Syrian crisis?
I long since gave up using the word “clear” to describe anything about Russian policy, because it is anything but clear—it is always opaque. We simply do not know what the Russian strategy is. We do not know what Russia’s objectives are, and my assessment is that most people in the Russian system do not either; perhaps Mr Putin has in his head an idea about what the end game is. What I do know is that some 75% of Russian airstrikes are being conducted against people whom we believe have to be part of the solution to the Syrian problem, not against Daesh, which we are very clear is the enemy.
I welcome the emphasis on a political solution and possible ceasefire in Syria. Given the growing strength of Daesh in Libya, can my right hon. Friend tell us how we might get political progress in Libya? Are there military consequences of that growing concentration?
As they say, I am glad that my right hon. Friend asked me that question, because it just so happens that a signing ceremony is planned for tomorrow in Morocco, at which it is hoped by the UN special representative, Mr Martin Kobler, that a majority of the House of Representatives and a significant number of members of the General National Congress will sign an agreement creating a Government of national accord. If that happens tomorrow, the western countries and the Gulf countries will swing behind that Government of national accord and will look to build their capability as soon and as quickly as possible, so that we can start to work in Libya to contain t