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Commons Chamber

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2016

House of Commons

Tuesday 22 November 2016

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

UK-US: Future Relationship

15. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the result of the US election on the UK’s bilateral relationship with that country. (907416)

Britain and America have an enduring and strong special relationship, and as the Prime Minister said during her call with President-elect Trump on 10 November, we look forward to working with his Administration to ensure the security and the prosperity of both our countries and the world in the years ahead.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, now that a democratic process has taken place, the UK and the US need to focus on working ever more closely together on shared priorities?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the wisdom of his approach to this matter. The relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States was perhaps the single most important geopolitical fact of the last century, and I have no doubt that it will continue to prosper and thrive in the relationship we are building.

Just as he has on Turkey, the Foreign Secretary has U-turned in his opinion of President-elect Trump. Given the openly racist and Islamophobic opinions expressed by some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, does the Foreign Secretary maintain his belief that there is a lot to be positive about in the new Administration, and how does he intend to work with his new counterpart to uphold universal human rights such as racial and gender equality?

I think that Members on both sides of this House should be as positive as we possibly can be about working with the incoming US Administration. It is of massive importance to our country and, indeed, to the world. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he should judge the new Administration by their actions in office, which we of course hope to shape and to influence.

It is far too early for question 13. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask a question, it should be about the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, but that now requires a certain dexterity and fleetness of foot from him.

13. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will ask a question.Does my right hon. Friend agree that virtue signalling, while fashionable, is no basis for a productive international working relationship? (907414)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his characteristic verbal dexterity. I think he speaks for many people—many common-sensical people—in this House and in this country who want a thriving relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

What representations has the Foreign Secretary made to our American counterparts about Aleppo, where bombing this weekend has caused the last children’s hospital there to close?

As the hon. Lady knows—she has campaigned a great deal on this issue—we are working hand in glove with the United States to try to get a ceasefire in Aleppo. I last had a conversation with John Kerry on this matter very recently. Alas, it has proved impossible so far to persuade the Russians to drop their support for their Syrian client, but they have the opportunity to do just that. We need to reach out to the Russians and show that it is now up to them to demonstrate the leadership the world expects, to call for a ceasefire in Aleppo, to deliver a ceasefire in Aleppo, to let the humanitarian aid get through and to prevent a catastrophe for the people of that city over the winter months.

Although there is no vacancy, does not the Foreign Secretary think it is extremely generous of Donald Trump to suggest who should be our ambassador in the United States? In that spirit of fraternity, might he suggest that the best person to fill the vacancy for the ambassador to the United Kingdom next year would be Hillary Rodham Clinton, although I suspect the last thing she would want to do is to be associated with the incoming Administration?

You anticipate what I was about to say, Mr Speaker. Of course, my right hon. Friend would be a very good candidate. On the other hand, as the House knows full well, we have a first-rate ambassador in Washington doing a very good job of relating with the present Administration and the Administration to be. There is no vacancy for that position.

As regards ambassadors for either country, may I make a suggestion? An excellent choice for the unofficial ambassador from the United States to Britain—I emphasise the word unofficial—would be Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who spoke out to the Vice-President-elect about American values and was criticised by the future President. Mr Dixon is the sort of person who is associated with all that is best about the United States.

Of course, Mr Brandon Dixon, of whom, I am afraid, I was hitherto unaware is perfectly at liberty to come to this country, assuming that all visa requirements are met, and to spread his message. We look forward to having a new American ambassador in due course to follow in the footsteps, if I may say so, of one of the most distinguished US ambassadors we have seen in this country in recent years, Matthew Barzun.

I would have called the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who has a very similar question, if he were standing, but he wasn’t, so I won’t.

16. Diplomats require diplomacy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be no place for anyone who expresses inflammatory views and views that could sometimes be considered to be bordering on racist in representing this country in discussions with the United States? (907417)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who catches the mood of the House. We have already settled that question: we have an excellent ambassador in Washington who is doing a first-rate job and there is no vacancy.

12. Will the Foreign Secretary give a clear indication to the new US Administration that we value the Baltic states and their independence highly? As part of our responsibilities in NATO, will he support and encourage the new Administration to say the same things? (907413)

The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is one of our top priorities. As part of our global Britain campaign, we have an enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states and a battalion is being sent there. It is vital that we get over the message that NATO and article 5 of NATO have been the guarantor of peace and stability in our continent for the last 70 years. That is a point that is well understood in Washington, but which we will repeat.

I think we are all relieved that the Foreign Secretary has ruled out Mr Farage. In this post-truth world, we might have assumed that he would have been sympathetic, given that they campaigned together so remarkably on Brexit. Will the Foreign Secretary outline to the House his thinking on what he will say when he visits the United States of America about our future relations, given that we have always been the conduit between Europe and the United States of America?

My right hon. Friend asks a thoughtful and important question because, as I said to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), it is vital that we get our message across about the vital importance of NATO, of free trade and free enterprise, and of sticking up for the values that unite our two countries. That is the message that I know the Prime Minister will put across when she goes there, and it is certainly the message that will be delivered at all levels from the UK Government.

In a secret telegram, printed in The Sunday Times, our ambassador

“boasted that the UK is the best placed of any nation to steer the new president’s foreign policy and encourage his more extreme ideas to ‘evolve’.”

Is the presidential edict—or tweet—to replace Sir Kim Darroch with Lord Farage a sign of the early success of that policy?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is too early with his verdicts. We will engage with the Administration-to-be at all levels; indeed, we are already doing so, and I had a very good conversation with Vice-President-elect Mike Pence. We see eye to eye on a great many matters. As I have said, there is no ambassadorial vacancy in Washington given our excellent ambassador.

In the space of the past few weeks, the Foreign Secretary has gone from not going to New York in case he is mistaken for Mr Trump to saying that Mr Trump is the opportunity for the western world, a political pirouette of which Ed Balls would be proud. Will the Foreign Secretary realise what we are dealing with in the new President of the United States, and would this country’s policy not be helped by coherence, consistency and a bit of common sense?

I think that what the world needs now is the UK to build on its relations with the United States, which, as most people in the House accept, are of fundamental importance for our security. As I have said very candidly to hon. Members, there are three central points we will be making to our friends: the vital importance of the transatlantic alliance of NATO, the importance of free trade and free enterprise, and the importance of jointly promulgating the values that unite our two countries. That is the message.

As we meet today on the 53rd anniversary of John F Kennedy’s death, we have the prospect of a very different president about to enter the White House in a matter of weeks. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State said last week, and has said again today, that this new president is “a liberal guy” with whom he shares many values. He does not end there; we have, he tells us,

“every reason to be positive”

about a Trump presidency. Will he tell us what reasons there are to be positive about the attitude of the new president to climate change?

It is vital that we are as positive as we can possibly be about the new Administration-elect. As I have said to the House before, I believe that the UK-US relationship is vital, and I think that President-elect Trump is a deal maker. The UK has led on climate change globally, and we have had outstanding success. I will be open with the House that we will be taking to the Administration-to-be the message that we believe that the issue of climate change is important; it is of importance to the United States and the world.

The reality is that we have a new president who says that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese, who has repeatedly promised to scrap the Paris treaty and whose top adviser on the environment calls global warming “nothing to worry about”. There is no doubt that that is a hugely dangerous development for the future of our planet, so let me ask the Secretary of State this: when the Prime Minister goes to see the new president in January, will she have the moral backbone to tell him that he is wrong on climate change and must not scrap the Paris treaty, and will she lead the world in condemning him if he does?

I really must say to the hon. Lady that she is being premature in her hostile judgments of the Administration-elect. Any such premature verdict could be damaging to the interests of this country. It is important that we in this country use our influence, which is very considerable, to help the United States to see its responsibilities, as I am sure it will.

Refugees

2. What discussions he has had with his counterparts in the EU, Africa and the middle east on tackling the refugee situation in Europe and the middle east. (907402)

Ministerial colleagues and I regularly discuss migration with our European and international partners. The UK will continue to play a leading role towards securing a co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to the migration crisis that tackles the causes as well as the consequences of unmanaged migration.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but what reassurance can he give me and my constituents that he and the Prime Minister are working with the international community to help resolve this terrible situation?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave exactly that reassurance when she set out, at the United Nations in September, three key principles to improve the international response to the mass movement of refugees and migrants: the protection in the first safe country of arrival; the right of states to maintain their borders; and a clearer distinction between refugees and economic migrants. We are pursuing this agenda vigorously with our international colleagues.

Is the Minister aware of the rising levels of violence directed towards those in refugee camps on the island of Chios, including volunteers? Is he aware that on 16 November the camp at Souda was attacked by about 60 members of the far-right group New Dawn? Boulders were thrown into containers containing refugee women and children. Following that, three volunteers, two of whom are UK citizens, were arrested by the Greek police. Can he assure me that every support will be given to UK citizens volunteering in that area to ensure that their rights are protected?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. I hope that everybody in this House fully condemns any such violence. Behind that bad news, however, there is some better news. Since the EU-Turkey agreement, the number of migrants arriving on Greek islands has reduced significantly from an average of about 1,500 in February to just over 100 a day now.

I believe that my right hon. Friend visited Turkey recently. Does he agree that Turkey plays an important role in helping refugees and managing the whole process, and that our relations with Turkey will become increasingly important in this regard?

My hon. Friend is right. I have been to Turkey twice and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been there, too. The UK is committed to the successful implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement, which started in March this year. For that to work well, we need to retain good and constructive diplomatic engagement with countries, including Turkey.

Has the Minister had any pause for thought about the commitment of the UK Government and EU member states to engage and fund President Bashir’s regime, as partners in the management of migration?

Iraq and Syria: Diplomatic Assistance

3. What role he plans that the UK will play in providing diplomatic assistance to help rebuild communities in Iraq and Syria. (907404)

We will continue to support the Government of Iraq to deliver the reforms and reconciliation needed to build public trust and unite all Iraq’s communities against extremism. In Syria, we continue to work in support of a lasting settlement based on transition away from Assad, and towards a stable and peaceful future for Syria.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but in light of what happened in Libya, when a failure to plan for the future plunged the country and the region into absolute chaos, will he tell me what lessons the UK learned from that experience and what his Department is doing to ensure a very different outcome in Iraq and Syria?

As the hon. Gentleman can imagine, a huge amount of work is going on now, particularly with respect to Mosul as I told the House at the previous Foreign Office questions. We announced a commitment to invest £169 million in aid towards reconciliation and bringing communities together. The House must understand, however, that fundamentally it is up to the Government of Iraq to work in a way that brings communities together, and builds trust and confidence in the people of Mosul and other parts of the country.

What knowledge does the Foreign Secretary have of any plan for the political administration of Mosul after it is recaptured from Daesh, and what confidence does he have in any plan?

A huge body of work is being carried out at the moment, with the UN and the 68-nation coalition, to ensure that we have in place an administration that commands the confidence of all the people of Mosul. It will not be easy. The House understands perfectly well the problem—the forces set on liberating Mosul do not necessarily reflect the communities of that city. It will be a huge, huge challenge, but, as I said just now, that challenge must be met by the Government of Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqis.

20. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently warned that medical facilities, especially trauma capacity, were being overwhelmed by civilian casualties in Mosul. What support are the UK Government offering to people trapped on the ground in that city by fighting on all sides? (907421)

As the liberating forces progress through the suburbs, we are ensuring that there are avenues out of the city and camps available for those who need to take refuge, but clearly this is a very delicate matter, and we are investing considerable sums in ensuring adequate protection.

The Foreign Secretary rightly talks about the challenges of post-Daesh Mosul. I would like to mention on the record the excellent work that our ambassador, Frank Baker, is doing on politics beyond Daesh. Will my right hon. Friend make available to Frank and his team all the resources necessary to ensure we get the peace beyond Daesh right in Mosul?

My hon. Friend and I of course travelled to see Frank Baker a while ago, so we know what excellent work he does, and he has a very large team in Baghdad. It is a superb team and a real tribute to the work of the Foreign Office. As I say, they are working very hard to minimise the fallout from the liberation of Mosul and to ensure a peaceful and stable future for that city.

Leaving the EU: Bilateral Relations

4. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK’s decision to leave the EU on its bilateral relations with (a) EU and (b) non-EU countries. (907405)

We are committed to strengthening the UK’s bilateral relationships not just with the EU but across the world. We will deepen bilateral relationships with our natural partners, build new ones and work together to make the most of the opportunities ahead.

At the weekend, the Prime Minister stated that she intended to update Chancellor Merkel on our Brexit preparations, and we know that the Business Secretary has already revealed the Government’s plans to Nissan and that the Foreign Secretary himself was kind enough to brief the Czech press that we were leaving the customs unions. Why does everybody know more about the Government’s plans than the elected representatives in this House, people across the United Kingdom and businesses in our constituencies that need and want to plan for the future?

The best advice I can give to the hon. Lady is that she study more closely the speeches of the Prime Minister, who has set out very clearly the fact that the UK will not be governed by EU law and that we will get the best possible deal, in trade in goods and services, for the benefit not just of this country but of the rest of the EU. Conservative Members are united behind the Prime Minister in achieving that aim.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for many countries in the eastern part of the EU, the largest issue at the moment is not Brexit but the potential threat from a resurgent Putin-led Russia? They are extremely grateful that the UK is right at the forefront of delivering troops to support the Baltic states and Poland.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me, once again, to draw attention to global Britain’s role in delivering an enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states, as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has said. That presence is of massive importance to those countries—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are interjecting from a sedentary position. This is one of the central points that we will be making to the incoming American Administration, and I am sure it is one that they already readily accept.

I studied closely what the Prime Minister said yesterday at the CBI conference. She said:

“people don’t want a cliff edge”.

It is encouraging that the Government are now acknowledging that in March 2019 we risk falling back on World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs. Following the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government are looking at a transitional deal that will give us time to negotiate a trade deal with the rest of the EU and to arrange other matters, such as security?

I do not want to accuse the hon. Lady of unnecessary pessimism, but I have no doubt whatever that this country can achieve exactly what the Prime Minister has set out, which is the best possible deal in trade in goods and services; and it will be win-win for both the UK and the EU.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that bilateral relations with non-EU countries such as America, Australia and Canada are extremely good and that those within the EU are extremely good as well, and now we have the opportunity to do a number of trade deals with all these countries? I understand that Tony Blair would like to help. Do you believe that he could have a role by banging the drum for Brand Britain around the world and accepting the fact that we are going to leave the European Union?

My hon. Friend raises the issue of the support of the former Prime Minister. I am tempted to say “Nec tali auxilio, nec defensoribus istis” when it comes to our campaign. My hon. Friend is completely right: there is a huge opportunity not only for a deep and comprehensive deal with our friends and partners in the EU, but to seek new free trade deals around the world, and for this country to become once again the global champion and agitator for free trade.

In between insulting the Italian Foreign Minister last week, showing that he has no understanding of the treaty of Rome, saying that he would not pressure Turkey over the death penalty and having a major bust-up with the head of the European People’s party, the Foreign Secretary managed to make one serious announcement. He told the Czech media that Britain would retain free trade with Europe, while leaving the customs union. Is that now the Government’s proposed plan and how does the Foreign Secretary intend to achieve it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I must direct him to the answer that I have already given, which is that the Prime Minister has set out very clearly in her speeches and remarks what we hope to achieve, and I think it eminently achievable. Contrary to the impression that the hon. Gentleman sought to give, more and more of our friends and partners around the EU are seeing the merits of what is being proposed, and more and more are excited. The hon. Gentleman asked about relations, so let me tell him that relations are excellent and getting warmer—not just in the EU, but around the world.

Bangladesh

5. What recent assessment he has made of the strength of diplomatic and economic relations between Bangladesh and the UK. (907406)

The UK has strong diplomatic and economic relations with Bangladesh. We are the largest cumulative investor in the country and the largest bilateral grant donor. We also have close historical and cultural ties.

On Sunday, I attended the UK- Bangladesh catalysts of commerce and industry awards, which showcased the contribution that the Bangladeshi community makes to the economy here in Britain. As we look to strengthen our economic ties with countries outside the EU, does the Minister agree that we should continue to strengthen our trade relationships with countries such as Bangladesh?

There are half a million people of Bangladeshi heritage in the UK, and of course they make an immensely positive contribution to every aspect of British life. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that we should be doing even more to encourage bilateral trade and investment. She will be pleased to know that we are supporting the Government of Bangladesh to improve their business climate.

After the fatal collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013 and recent reports indicating that structural repairs remain incomplete and that buildings still lack fire exits and fire alarms, what discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts to ensure workplace safety measures for those working in global corporations in Bangladesh?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. My colleagues in the Department for International Development are working on precisely those issues. As a Government, we take these sorts of issues very seriously.

West Bank

6. What discussions he has had with his Israeli counterpart on steps being taken to maintain order in the west bank. (907407)

Responsibility for security in the west bank is shared between the Palestinian authorities and the Israeli security forces, depending on whether we are talking about areas designated A, B or C. In my discussions with the Israeli authorities, I have encouraged this area to be transferred from C to B and B to A.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue to work together closely to maintain security in the west bank. Last month, however, a Palestinian Authority police-officer-turned-terrorist shot and wounded Israeli soldiers. Does the Minister agree that security co-operation is vital to maintaining stability, and will he join me in condemning the wave of attacks against Israelis that we have seen over the past year?

I join my hon. Friend in condemning those attacks, and I would encourage President Abbas and others in the Palestinian Authority to do so as well. We should not forget that more than 30,000 Palestinian Authority security forces are working with Israeli defence forces to provide that security, and the Israeli defence forces rely on that to ensure that the west bank is kept as safe and secure as possible.

Does the Minister agree that the best way forward for both Israel and the Palestinian people would be a revival of the middle east peace process involving direct talks between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority, and does he agree that all efforts should be directed towards achieving that?

I entirely concur with the right hon. Gentleman. We have done our best to bring the parties back to the table, but, as he will know, there have been a number of difficult months. We need to ensure that there are confidence-building measures, and that people do not incite violence, which takes us further away than the direction of travel that he suggests.

In his lucid way, my right hon. Friend outlines the challenges that we face in Israel and, indeed, the west bank. It is important for us to ensure that the security measures of which we spoke in the context of the initial question are able to build that confidence so that we can bring people back to the table. I hope this is something that the American Administration will want to lean into.

As we approach the centenary of the Balfour declaration, we must renew our commitment to both aspects of that historic statement: the preservation of the state of Israel as a safe and stable national home for the Jewish people, but also the protection of the

“civil and religious rights of…non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

With that in mind, will the Minister make it clear today that the United Kingdom Government oppose proposals to legalise outposts in the west bank retrospectively, or to build new illegal settlements?

We had a very frank and thorough debate about the history and context of the Balfour declaration only last week. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that the role that the settlements are playing undermines the message that is coming from Israel, and leads people to ask whether Israel is serious about a two-state solution. The longer the settlements continue to be built, the more difficult it becomes to envisage the possibility of such a solution.

Iraq

7. What discussions he has had with his Iraqi and other international counterparts on the political situation in Iraq. (907408)

Post-conflict states are potential incubators enabling emerging and existing groups to flourish, so it is important for the international community to work with Baghdad to ensure that the complex and diverse make-up of Iraq is fully represented. I visited the country two weeks ago to see how governance was improving, but also to underline the United Kingdom’s support.

Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Bolton town hall will be lit up in red tomorrow to mark Red Wednesday, an Aid to the Church in Need initiative to highlight religious persecution in Iraq, in Syria, and around the world. Will the Minister join me in supporting Red Wednesday to raise awareness of those who are suffering injustice and risking their lives for their faith?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the Palace of Westminster will be lit up in red as well.

I shall be more than delighted to join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming and supporting that initiative.

We should not forget that the diverse make-up of Iraq, which I mentioned before, is part of its history, but so, unfortunately, is sectarian violence. After al-Qaeda was flushed out, the answer to allowing best representation in Baghdad in fact allowed Daesh to gain popularity and to dominate Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi and other places. We must not revisit that by failing to ensure that there is full representation across the piece in Baghdad.

What conversations have the Minister and the Foreign Secretary had with their counterparts in Iraq about a power-sharing agreement in the Mosul region, including Tal Afar, to ensure that we secure the peace after the liberation of the city and the region?

I think the Foreign Secretary touched on this, and it was very much the focus of my attention when I visited the country last week. The way the liberation will move is that the east side of the city, on the right-hand side of the Tigris, will be liberated first, and there are plans for ward breakdowns to make sure the necessary leaders come in to provide that security, improvised explosive devices are removed, the water supplies are working and the place itself safe. It will take time, and this needs to be an Iraqi-led process, but the international community, through the United Nations Development Programme, is working very hard to make sure it is a success.

West Bank

8. What recent representations he has made to his Israeli counterpart on the announcement by the Prime Minister of Israel of a new settlement at Shiloh in the west bank in October 2016. (907409)

On 5 October, I issued a press statement condemning the announcement of the proposed settlement in Shiloh. In September, I met Defence Minister Lieberman and raised our concerns about settlements, and made it clear that unless they form part of a land swap anyone living there must live with the knowledge that they will one day have to move. That was accepted by Defence Minister Lieberman, who is living in one of the settlements himself.

Does the Minister not therefore agree with me that a pillar of liberal democracy and the peace it brings is the rule of law, and that by reactively legalising illegal settlements on Palestinian land the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu continue to undermine democracy and progress to a lasting peace in the middle east?

The hon. Gentleman touches on a process in which these illegal settlements become legal, and we have raised concerns about this.

The settlement of Shiloh is significant because it allows an extension of the settlement area east of Ariel, which essentially, between Nablus and Ramallah, cuts off or breaks the west bank from the River Jordan all the way to green-line Israel. That means effectively ruling out the possibility of a two-state solution.

Will Her Majesty’s Government use the opportunity of the centenary next year of the Balfour declaration to be bold and launch a peace initiative of their own to solve all these issues of settlements, security and the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

As I mentioned in the Westminster Hall debate on the Balfour declaration, we will be announcing plans as to how we will mark the year. It is also the anniversary of the mandate for Israel and Palestine and the withdrawal of Britain from the area. Also, we should not forget that it is almost 25 years since the Oslo accords, and therefore there is more work to be done. This is an international effort; it is also an effort that requires the Palestinians and the Israelis to work together, and we stand ready to provide support and make this happen.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

9. What discussions he has had with the US Government on a UN Security Council resolution on the Israel-Palestine conflict. (907410)

The Foreign Secretary regularly discusses matters relating to the middle east peace process with the US Secretary of State. At the UN General Assembly in September, I attended the ministerial meeting with other foreign leaders, and this issue came up when I spoke to John Kerry this Sunday evening.

The US election result has created a new sense of urgency in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what he is doing to secure a new UN resolution before 20 January, and beyond that date how the Government will be seeking to ensure that genuine progress is made towards a two-state solution and real and lasting peace for Palestinians and Israelis?

For all the reasons I have spelled out before, there is a sense of urgency: the people of Palestine, and indeed the people of Israel, want this to happen. However, we have to wait for the new Trump Administration to embed itself, and we also make it clear that of course there is merit at the right moment in a balanced UN Security Council resolution which sets out the parameters for a workable, viable settlement leading to that two-state solution based on the clear and internationally agreed parameters, but it must command the full support of the Security Council.

17. Thed comments in the House make clear the anxiety felt by colleagues on all sides that the peace process should not be allowed to drift still further. The greatest danger is not to keep bringing it forward, and we must keep trying to make sure that the parties most closely involved understand that they have worse enemies than each other now in the region. That is why this time must be taken either to put forward a new resolution or to support the French initiative, but certainly not to give people the sense that somehow this can just be managed and will go away. (907418)

My right hon. Friend is wise in what he says. We need to ensure that we grasp this opportunity. President Abbas is actually somebody we can work with, and we should remember that he will not be there forever. What will happen after him is not clear, and we need to ensure that we can work towards a two-state solution, but I want to make it clear that as things stand at the moment, the situation looks very bleak indeed.

Does the Minister agree that a resolution can be helpful only if it leads to direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians? Does he agree that it is most unhelpful that the Palestinian Authority has recently named a fourth school after Salah Khalaf, the person who masterminded the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics?

I have commented on this matter before, and I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that this is just inciting hatred and taking us away from the direction we want to go in. It is important that we should be able to get back to the table. We touch on these matters, but they are highly complicated. The role of Hamas in relation to the Palestinian Authority needs to be observed and considered. The other Arab nations can help in that regard. The difficulty is that the position that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current coalition is working towards is also a consideration. The support of the United States is also critical. These are difficult matters, and I hope that, on the Balfour declaration anniversary next year, we will not be looking back 100 years. Instead, I hope that it will be a marker, and that we will be able to look forward to moving in a positive direction.

Does the Minister agree that the central principle in the middle east peace process has to be direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians in order to reach a two-state solution? Does he also agree that those negotiations need to take place on the basis of no preconditions?

I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. However, there are some Israelis who believe that the Palestinians will never accept the Israelis’ right to live in peace in a Jewish state and that they are teaching hate and glorifying terrorists. They think that the west bank will simply be turned into Gaza. On the other side, there are Palestinians who believe that the Israeli Government will never give them the state that they are working towards. We need to bury those myths. That is not what the people of Israel or the people of Palestinian actually want.

Ebrahim Sharif

10. What representations his Department has made to the Government of Bahrain on charges brought against Ebrahim Sharif for conducting an interview with Associated Press in November 2016. (907411)

I met my counterpart, the Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa, this weekend, and our ambassador in Manama raised the case of Ebrahim Sharif on 16 November. We will continue to monitor the case very carefully indeed.

The US State Department has defended freedom of expression and explicitly called for the charges against Ebrahim Sharif to be dropped, whereas the Foreign Office has merely expressed concern. Does the Minister believe that such prevarication will convince the Government of Bahrain to drop those charges?

The hon. Lady touches on a matter on which I feel I am developing a relationship with the Scottish National party. The United Kingdom and the United States have different relationships with Bahrain in terms of the style, the approach and the strategy that we use to influence countries in the Gulf and to advance the democratic process. We have a closer relationship with Bahrain, in which we can have frank conversations. We might not have put out a press statement on this matter—we might not have made the headlines in that sense—but I can assure her that we are having frank conversations with the aim of improving policing, the rule of law and democratic rights. This is happening; the hon. Lady just does not see it all the time.

Incoming US Administration: NATO

11. What discussions he has had with the incoming US Administration on their policy on article 5 of the NATO treaty. (907412)

Let the little guy get a word in for once!

Throughout the election period, our embassy in Washington engaged both campaigns across the breadth of our policy interests, including NATO.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that we should encourage all NATO allies to spend 2% of their GDP on defence, but will the Minister take this opportunity to send a message to President-elect Trump and to President Putin that article 5 is sacrosanct and not in any way conditional on our allies’ spending levels?

I confirm that we strongly support the leaving in of article 5 as the bedrock of NATO and support NATO as the bedrock of European and wider defence interests.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Russians’ stationing of new ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad is curious given that it will probably unite NATO members, the United States in particular, around article 5?

NATO is taking necessary and proportionated steps—balanced with dialogue—to strengthen defence and deterrents in response to Russian belligerence. At Warsaw, NATO announced an enhanced forward presence, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already referenced today, in Poland and the Baltic states. The UK will lead in Estonia, providing an infantry battalion of 800 troops from May of next year.

May I come back to article 5? The principle that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all is the cornerstone on which the alliance is built. At a time when the Baltic states are rightly concerned about Russian expansionism, that principle is now more important than ever. Will the Minister make it clear today that article 5 is an inviolable right for all NATO members, not something that is contingent on how much they spend on defence?

I can repeat my having said just that. July’s NATO summit demonstrated the commitment of all allies to article 5, and I can confirm that again today.

Incoming US Administration: Iran Nuclear Agreement

14. What discussions he has had with the incoming US Administration on their policy on the nuclear agreement with Iran. (907415)

The Government remain committed to the nuclear deal with Iran, and we look forward to working with the new Administration in the United States to ensure that it is a success.

As the Foreign Secretary may know, people sometimes say things during election campaigns that are falsehoods or exaggerations in order to win. Can he provide any assurance that that was the case when President-elect Trump called the agreement with Iran

“the worst deal ever negotiated”?

I am not going to get into a commentary on the election campaign that has just taken place in the United States. All I can say is that we in this Government think that there is merit in the deal. There has been a considerable increase in trade with Iran since sanctions were lifted—a 40% increase in UK trade. Deals have recently been announced by Lotus and Vodafone, so we should be positive about our engagement and keep the thing on the road.

The agreement with Iran was hard won and hugely important both to remove the threat of Iran gaining nuclear weapons and to start a process of normalising relations with Tehran. Even those who originally opposed the deal, such as Prime Minister Netanyahu, now urge President-elect Trump not to tear it up. Can I press the Secretary of State to join those calls today and make it clear that the deal must continue to be honoured by all sides?

I repeat the point that I just made. We believe in this deal. We think it is good. We are making progress. As the hon. Lady will know, we recently reopened the UK embassy in Tehran. Ambassador Nicholas Hopton is now in post and doing a very good job—although if other people want to volunteer for that post, I suppose they are always welcome to do so. He is using that opportunity to develop our relations with Tehran, which will be of increasing importance in the years ahead. That is a point that we will make to our friends in Washington and worldwide.

Topical Questions

My immediate priority is to build a strong relationship with the incoming US Administration with the aim of making progress on our shared goals at every level of the international agenda. Foremost among them are vanquishing Daesh, responding to the crisis in Syria and standing firm against the challenge from Russia.

According to figures released last week, Scotland has taken over a third of the Syrian refugees in the UK to date. However, the UK Government plan to take only a third as many as Sweden by 2020. How does the Foreign Secretary explain to his counterparts in Europe the UK’s shirking of its responsibilities?

I must reject the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that this country is not doing enough to help the people of Syria or the region. As he will know fine well, this country is the second biggest global donor to the response to the humanitarian crisis in that region, and we can be proud of our record in giving humanitarian support there, and in offering sanctuary and refuge here in the UK.

T2. Israel is often criticised for its strict control of the border with Gaza, yet Egypt has closed its border completely. Will the Minister update me on any discussions he has had with Egypt about its border with Gaza? (907367)

This is an important point. President Sisi is very conscious of the challenges that Egypt is facing from its own extremists, and Britain is providing support on that. In the longer term, there will be plans for the border to reopen. Unfortunately, many of the tunnel systems were used to smuggle in to Hamas equipment that was being used against Israel, but the strength of the relationship between Israel and Egypt is allowing them to co-ordinate things to make sure that that is curtailed.

T4. It has been widely reported that the Foreign Secretary had to write to the Culture Secretary after she suggested that the UK should abandon hosting the 2023 European capital of culture. My constituency of Dundee has spent a huge amount of time and money preparing a leading bid for the title, which would bring a multi-million European boost to my city, as well as a major lift for tourism, and for social and economic development. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm whether he has had a reply to his letter? Will he today give me his personal commitment that the competition will go ahead as planned? (907369)

As I repeatedly told the House, we may be leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe, and we are certainly not leaving the EU for a small time to come. In that time, we are fully paid-up members and it is my view that we should take part to the full, including in such cultural co-operation as the hon. Gentleman describes—and we will do so. We will also continue to take part in such European cultural ventures beyond our exit from the EU.

T3. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that a radical free marketeer, admirer of Mrs Thatcher, opponent of Maastricht, Catholic, social conservative cannot be an entirely bad egg? So will he give his félicitations to François Fillon for his progress so far in the presidential elections—after all, he is a great anglophile—and in doing so underline that our priority must be good relations with our nearest and dearest ally? (907368)

It is wonderful to hear of a senior French politician, who is married to a British wife—[Interruption.] A Welsh wife, indeed. I hesitate to blight Monsieur Fillon’s chances by offering him my congratulations or my support at this stage.

T5. The Bedouin village in the Negev of Umm al-Hiran was due to be demolished today, despite the Bedouin having lived there since they were wrongfully displaced from their own land in 1956. That contrasts with the expansion of settlements in the west bank. I worked in Gaza 25 years ago, at the time of the Oslo accord. A quarter of a century on, what is the Minister doing to get us back on track? (907370)

It is. The rules are different, depending on whether or not Bedouin camps are in the west bank or in Israel proper. Nevertheless, the necessary support measures must be given to those people if they are going to be moved. I visited a Bedouin camp the last time I was there, and I will be looking at this particular announcement and making a statement on this later today.

T6. Following the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to the western Balkans, what assessment has he made of the UK role in providing stability to that area? (907371)

As hon. Members will know, the UK played a crucial role in bringing an end to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. As my hon. Friend knows well, there are people across that region who look to us for encouragement and support, and we will be hosting a western Balkans summit here in London in 2018 to try to encourage further stability and confidence building in that region.

T7. There are few things more patriotic than paying our taxes, but the Foreign Office governs a network of tax havens that shield some individuals and some companies from paying their fair share. Will the Foreign Secretary set a deadline for when UK-governed jurisdictions have at least to have the same transparency as here in the UK? (907372)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, this Government have done an enormous amount in tackling tax evasion, and, as a result, have collected enormous amounts of funds. Ultimately, these matters are for the Treasury, and I am sure that he will have the opportunity to put those questions at Treasury questions.

T9. Despite the fantastic efforts of campaigns such as the Great Big Rhinos project run by Paignton zoo, the decline in endangered species across the world is alarming, particularly in the African elephant and the rhino. Given the need for a more co-ordinated international effort to tackle this decline, can the Minister confirm the outcome of the recent Hanoi conference and what action the UK Government are taking in response? (907374)

As my hon. Friend will know, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been taking the lead in Hanoi in urging the international community to take tougher measures against elephant and rhino poachers. The figures are heartbreaking. In the late 1990s, there were 1.2 million elephants in the world. In Africa, the figure is now down to 300,000. In fact, it has gone down 120,000 since 2010. It is a catastrophic loss for Africa and for the world, and the UK is leading the fightback. We will be holding a summit on the conservation of endangered wildlife in London in the next couple of years.

T8. The Prime Minister will attend the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders’ summit next month as a guest of honour. Does she intend to use the opportunity to push for greater information-sharing with the UK from Saudi-led coalition operations in Yemen so that UK defence personnel are able to form a complete understanding of the coalition’s regard for international humanitarian law? (907373)

We are very honoured that our Prime Minister is the first female Prime Minister to be invited to attend the GCC in the Gulf. It emphasises the very strong relations that we have with that area. This Government are doing everything they can to satisfy themselves of the compliance of Gulf countries, notably of Saudi Arabia, with the principles of international humanitarian law.

Following the decision of the Indian Government to withdraw the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, what efforts has the Minister made to ensure that British citizens of Indian descent are able to exchange their money?

As my hon. Friend will know, it is for the Indian Government and the Reserve Bank of India to define what is Indian legal tender. However, I can say that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has updated its travel advice, advising British nationals travelling to India how to act in this matter, and we advise those nationals to monitor the situation closely.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Office is in regular contact with the Iranian Government at all levels. The matter has been raised by the Prime Minister with President Rouhani, and by me with Foreign Minister Zarif. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has only recently had meetings on that very subject. The matter is of the utmost priority for this Government, and we are doing our level best to resolve it.

Talks on the future of Cyprus have broken down without agreement. As one of the guarantor powers, can the Minister advise what the Government will do to try to influence the situation and to enable the talks to continue?

It is an exaggeration to say that the talks have totally broken down, but they have stalled for the moment, and we are giving every possible support that we can to enable the talks to continue in the hope that they can yet reach a successful conclusion for the reunification of the island.

Will the Minister assure us that the UK will continue to assist in the gathering of evidence for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, so that, eventually, those responsible for these terrible atrocities will be brought to book?

I can reassure the right hon. Lady, who I know has campaigned on this issue for many years, that the initiative that we started in September at the UN General Assembly with the Belgians and other countries continues to work well. We are gathering the evidence that we need, and I am confident that in due course we will bring Daesh operatives to justice.

All countries of the EU, with the exception of the United Kingdom, have resumed direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, which are so vital to the Egyptian economy. What more do the Egyptian Government have to do to persuade the Government to resume direct flights?

This has been a very difficult matter. As the House will know, the Egyptian Government are strongly desirous of our resuming flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. Unfortunately, we are not yet able to do so. Perhaps the best I can say is that consultations and work are still going on between our two Governments and between our security services to give the UK Government the reassurance that they need.

In South Africa, black people were not able to vote, all political opposition was outlawed, and different races could not even get married. In Israel, there is freedom of movement, assembly and speech, all governmental institutions are integrated, and all citizens can vote, so is it not a disgrace and an insult to the middle east’s only democracy and to the black people who suffered under apartheid to hear Israel described as that, as we have heard a former Minister do this afternoon?

The hon. Gentleman makes two separate points, and we need to consider both distinctively. I will be visiting South Africa in the new year and I will be looking at some of the election processes that take place. We are supportive of both countries, but in the case of Israel, it is a democratic country in a very tough neighbourhood and Britain stands by our friendship. We are an ally of Israel and long may that continue.

What discussions have the Government had with their counterparts about the very dangerous political crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

I visited the DRC during the summer, and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in that regard. As in other parts of Africa, there is a president who does not want to honour the constitution and wants to stay on longer. We request that he recognises the constitution and stands back. We need the electoral commission to complete its work so that there is an updated electoral register and fresh elections can take place. We hope that happens soon.

My constituent, Helen Veevers, faces allegations in Kenya that she conspired to poison her father. She is concerned that she could be the victim of police corruption in that country. Can the Minister reassure me that the Foreign Office is making representations and will keep a close eye on the situation?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is a very delicate case indeed. We are providing consular support. I do not believe it is in anyone’s best interests for us to expand any further on the details. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman directly after Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions to say what more is happening.

I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but demand today has been exceptionally high. We must now move on.

Organ Donors (Leave)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No.23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend Part 8 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to make provision about leave for persons donating body organs for transplant; and for connected purposes.

I start by sending my thanks and, I am sure, the thanks of the whole House to the nurses and medical staff who make up the NHS Blood and Transplant service and the staff who run the NHS organ donation register. It is a relatively small team in the grand scheme of things, but it is thanks to their effort and their utter brilliance that thousands of lives are saved each year which may otherwise have been lost, and it is thanks to their ingenuity and dedication that last year organ donations in the UK reached a record high. The difference they are making to families whose loved ones have been given a new chance at life often goes unsaid.

I would also like to take this opportunity to note the work of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who have put the issue of organ donation firmly on the parliamentary agenda in recent years.

Organ donation is improving year on year, in part due to small changes such as the option for someone to sign up when they renew their driving licence. Last year alone, that method saw an extra half a million people register to become potentially life-saving donors. These are small changes that are making a huge difference. However, as the NHS Blood and Transplant service has said, there is an awful lot of work to be done not only to raise consent figures—currently at 62%, despite evidence suggesting that over 90% of the public would give their organs in death—but to encourage families to have that difficult conversation about what they would do if the unthinkable happened.

Family refusal after the death of a loved one is, sadly, the single biggest barrier to organ donation. Of course, it is completely understandable and natural that, in the aftermath of a life-changing loss, all that people want to do is to preserve what is left behind, but if 80% of families consented 1,000 more lives a year could be saved and 1,000 more families kept together. So I would like to take this opportunity gently to urge families to have that conversation, to find out their loved one’s wishes and to tell them theirs, because the chances are that, if the unthinkable happened, their loved one would want to save a life.

While much of the focus is rightly dedicated to those brave families who have made that difficult decision, living donors should also be hailed for their selflessness in giving a kidney, part of their liver or bone marrow to save the life of someone they may never even have met. It is living donors for whom my Bill would guarantee legal rights they have so far not enjoyed.

Six thousand people nationwide are currently going through the utter agony of waiting for the call that could save their lives, but, year in, year out, the availability of those organs never matches need. Living organ donors are playing their very significant part in bridging that heart-breaking gap. Last year alone, over 1,000 of them donated part of their liver or a kidney, and many more donated their bone marrow.

The criteria for organ donors mean many are often of working age and in work. It hardly needs saying, but giving an organ is an enormous commitment, and if someone is an employee, the time needed off work may give them pause for thought. The NHS advises that living donors can expect to need up to 12 weeks’ recovery time. This will vary from person to person, and depending on what job they do, but the point is that this is a very serious commitment for any would-be donor.

People have to weigh up whether they can afford to take that time off if their boss insists they take it unpaid and if they have to wait for any compensation to come through from the relevant NHS trust. They have to weigh up whether they can make the commitment to be out of work for that length of time. They are also always worrying in case their position or their terms and conditions are not quite the same on their return as when they left. That uncertainty is unacceptable. It is putting barriers in the path of people becoming life-saving donors. Currently, the law has nothing to say.

The issue was brought to my attention by a man who told me he had donated bone marrow to an anonymous blood cancer patient. He was allowed just three days off work—unpaid—to cover the time in hospital. He felt pressured to return, and he was accused of “making himself sick” by his employer. That is just one example, but it tells us of the pressures faced by workers who may want to donate.

Any and all barriers standing in the way of living donors must be dismantled. The lack of legal employment protections, which is holding back these potential life-savers, is significant, and it can be easily corrected by Government. That time out of the workplace may completely deter young people, in particular, who have the highest likelihood of donating high-quality bone marrow.

That is why my Bill will guarantee living organ donors the right to paid time off to allow them to recover, safe in the knowledge that they will not be financially penalised and that their job will be waiting for them when they return. An employee will not be checking their phone, worried they may get a call off the boss, or rushing back to work because they are worried they should be there. Instead, they can have the time off that they need to get better and that they so deserve for having saved a life.

The Bill will also guarantee that employees’ terms and conditions and their rights are the same on their return as when they left. In an age where workers feel increasingly insecure in their jobs, and where, at the sharp end of the economy, unscrupulous employment practices are rife, these legal guarantees could make the difference between donating or not. We are already chronically short of donors, and we should be clearing every conceivable barrier put in the way of these potential life savers. I am delighted that major businesses such as my own former employer, Aviva, and the DIY retailer, Wickes, back my call. It is fantastic that a cross-party group of MPs, including the Chair of the Health Committee, is supporting it as well.

Each donation is an astonishing story of bravery in its own right and a life-changing moment for the individuals and families who benefit from that generosity. As work gets increasingly precarious, employees must rely on the protections in law that guarantee their rights. These guarantees will not only bring peace of mind but help to increase the number of living donors from 1,000 and bridge the gap between availability and need. Crucially, this will send a clear signal from Government, and from this House, that if you are prepared to give an organ to save a life, the law will back you every step of the way.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Louise Haigh, Steve McCabe, Will Quince, Jim Shannon, Catherine West, Ms Margaret Ritchie and Dr Sarah Wollaston present the Bill.

Louise Haigh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2017 and to be printed (Bill 96).

Opposition Day

[13th Allotted Day]

Education and Social Mobility

We now come to the Opposition day motion on education and social mobility. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I should advise the House that a very substantial number of Back Benchers have applied to speak—no fewer than 28, if memory serves. Realistically, I imagine, the debate will not run beyond 4 pm or, at the latest, 4.30 pm. Of course there is no time limit on Front-Bench speeches. Front Benchers tend to take significant numbers of interventions, perfectly properly, and that is favoured by the House, but I am sure that those on both Front Benches will wish to tailor their contributions in the light of what I have said.

I beg to move,

That this House believes that every child throughout the UK must be given the opportunity to reach their full potential; further believes that there is no evidence that additional academic selection in the school system will improve social mobility; and calls on the Government to instead concentrate on providing the best education possible for all children.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I hope to be brief but substantive in my comments. I start by thanking the emergency services across the UK who helped many of our constituents during the floods yesterday, particularly my constituents and businesses across Tameside and Oldham.

It should be the duty of all Governments to provide the best education for every child. Today we call on the whole House to show that it shares this commitment. Only last Wednesday, we heard that Britain has a “deep social mobility problem”; that for this generation of young people, in particular, it is getting worse, not better; and that this is the result of an unfair education system, a two-tier labour market, an imbalanced economy, and an unaffordable housing market. That is not an accusation from the Opposition, but the conclusion of the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission. The commission made many recommendations on how we can offer the best start in life for every child— but, crucially, new academic selection was not one of them.

Will the hon. Lady inform the House of precisely how many grammar schools she visited as shadow Education Secretary before deciding to oppose the policy in the Green Paper and lay this motion?

As a parent, as a school governor, and as a Member who used to represent trade union members, I have visited many grammar schools. My contribution to this debate will be based on fact and evidence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at the facts and evidence and vote accordingly. In fact, the Social Mobility Commission offered a clear recommendation to abandon any plans for further academic selection. It did so because it knows that social mobility is facing a crisis and that further academic selection is simply not the answer; in fact, it will only entrench the problem.

Could the hon. Lady explain why it is right for my constituents to be able to go to a grammar school in Birmingham but not to be able to go to a grammar school in Brierley Hill, because there is no existing provision there?

In my contribution, I hope to explain exactly why we need to move away from selection and towards inclusion in our education system.

The conclusions of the Social Mobility Commission will find much support in this House, not just among Opposition Members but, I hope, among Government Members as well. We still have not heard from the Prime Minister whether any of the recommendations will be adopted.

Before we have to listen to the sixth-form debating points from Conservative Members, does my hon. Friend agree that what they ought to do is to set out the evidence for this policy? They should tell us where these schools will be, how many of them there will be, how much the policy will cost, how these schools will select their pupils, where the resources will come from, what the pupils will learn and how the schools will differ from existing ones.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. There are clearly many questions to be answered about the evidence for such a policy.

I want to give the Education Secretary the chance to end this uncertainty in our school system. Can she tell us which of the commission’s recommendations she will be accepting, and whether the Government have rejected the recommendation on schools, in particular? The challenges that we face as a country go much further than this one misguided policy.

Last year in Ashfield 66% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds did not get five A* to C GCSEs. We are the 13th lowest constituency at sending 18-year-olds to higher education. That is the real scandal, is it not—not the grammar school proposals?

I thank my hon. Friend for her absolutely splendid intervention, because we know that increasing selection is not the answer to the crisis that is facing our school system.

Is it not a fact that the demand for grammar schools is coming from wealthy parents who are seeing private education become more and more priced out of their reach, with fees of more than £21,000 a year? It is a fact that there are four times more children from privately paid prep schools getting into grammar schools than there are kids from state schools. Surely we should not let people get an elite education on the cheap, paid for by the taxpayer.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. The report by the Social Mobility Commission that came out last week stated that the people who were finding it hardest to progress were not just the most disadvantaged, but those earning around £22,000 a year. Those are the hard-working families—the people who are just getting by—that this Prime Minister pledged to support on the steps of 10 Downing Street. I want to find common cause with Members from all parts of the House and all parties in making Britain a country in which every child gets an excellent education and the best start in life.

When the hon. Lady goes to watch one of our best sports teams, does she think that it is a problem that its members were selected and given an elite education?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that this is a completely different issue. I say to him, as I say to all hon. Members from across the House, “Follow the evidence.”

Talking of excellence in sport, does my hon. Friend agree that we should celebrate the fact that Mo Farah, who grew up and went to a state school in my constituency, has succeeded on the world stage? The school that he attended is now suffering from cuts, which mean that it is referring more than 40% of its pupils for mental health support services.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. We need to make sure that every child, regardless of their background, makes the best progress in life. We know that selection is not the way forward.

I am going to make some progress before I take any more interventions.

I want to find common cause, and I know that many Government Members agree with me that expanding academic selection is hardly the best way to ensure that every child makes the best progress. Members of all parties know that all the evidence tells us that providing an excellent education starts at the earliest point. Access to childcare and early years education is absolutely vital, not just in helping children, but in helping every family to fulfil its potential. Indeed, by the time they would take the 11-plus, children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are already, on average, 10 months behind. The evidence shows that investment in early years is the best way to close the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and their affluent peers.

Does my hon. Friend agree with David Cameron, who said:

“There is a kind of hopelessness about the demand to bring back grammars on the assumption that this country will only ever be able to offer a decent education to a select few”?

I find myself agreeing with the former Prime Minister, who was elected to make those contributions to the debate. That was the platform and the manifesto on which the Conservative Government stood, which they are currently rejecting.

I know from personal experience, as will parents from across this Chamber, the incredible impact that childcare can have, not just on children and their education, but on entire families. Leaving school at 16, with no qualifications and a newborn son, Labour’s Sure Start centres helped me to learn to be a better parent to my son. I know that I would not be speaking in this House today without those programmes, and that they have helped to offer my son the opportunities I never had growing up.

What would the hon. Lady say to parents in my constituency and in the rest of Croydon—where there are no grammar schools—who have to travel for miles and miles to an adjacent grammar school in either Sutton or Bromley? She is seeking to deny those parents choice, is she not?

I am seeking to ensure that every child has the best opportunities in life and a great start. I do not want the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to have to travel miles away from his constituency; I want them to have absolutely the best education possible, and selection does not provide that for every child.

My hon. Friend is making an outstanding opening speech. Does she agree that in this debate the point about choice is really a non-starter? The choice lies not with the parents, but with the school. The school gets to choose the kids; the parents do not get to choose the school. Invariably, the school chooses the children on their financial and social wellbeing rather than on anything else.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to her for the outstanding work that she did when she was on the Front Bench.

I am going to make some more progress.

The Social Mobility Commission talked about treadmill families, who are running fast but are stuck in the same place, and who are working hard but do not have anything to show for it at the end of the week. Childcare and early years intervention will do far more to address those problems than would a focus on new academic selection at age 11. Yet we have seen the closure of more than 800 Sure Start centres since 2010, the loss of around 45,000 childcare places and the closure of 1,000 childcare providers in the last five years.

There are similar challenges facing our existing schools. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that our schools are facing the first real-terms cuts to their budgets in nearly two decades, just as demand for school places is growing. We already know the consequences: more staff leaving, more schools in disrepair and more courses being cut. The Department for Education has missed its teacher training targets for four years in a row, while more experienced teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers and half a million pupils are being taught in super-sized classes. It should be our mission to provide an excellent education for all children, and we know what is needed to provide that: high-quality early years education, and the best heads and teachers teaching the right curriculum to manageable classes in decent school buildings, with high standards and good behaviour.

Let me say to the Education Secretary and all Government Members that if they take serious action to make the changes our education system needs, I will be the first to support them, because education policy should not be about ideological dogma, but about looking at all the evidence and pursuing policies that will improve the lives of all children.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the academy programme has delivered considerable success? Will she give it her unequivocal support, and will she condemn the members of the National Union of Teachers who picketed the Kimberley School in my constituency when it had the temerity to break free of the local authority and establish an excellent academy?

Education—I hope we can agree on this—is not about the vehicle, but about the drivers. Focusing on the vehicle does not deal with the fundamental issues of collaboration, leadership and good teaching in our school system.

I will make some more progress.

The purpose of today’s debate is to send a message that Members from all parties are committed to an evidence-based approach to education policy, not to pursuing the failed policy of academic selection. We know that such a policy is not the answer to Britain’s social mobility crisis, and the Government knew that, too, until very recently. Indeed, the former leader of the Conservative Party—the one who won an election—had explicitly promised not to do so: only just gone, but so quickly forgotten. Why has that pledge been ripped up by the new Prime Minister? The Education Secretary has said it is to help solve Britain’s social mobility crisis, but the evidence for that is scant. I will not recite this point at length, but that was conclusively demonstrated in the recent Back-Bench business debate, which focused precisely on the evidence, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), the Chair of the Education Committee.

I am not going to take interventions on that point. I will make some progress.

We know that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to get into selective schools, even if they are just as bright as their better-off peers, and we know that even if they do get in, the impact on their attainment is minimal at best. It is not just Labour Members who know it; dozens of the Education Secretary’s own Back Benchers know it. The greatest concerns are about the mistaken priorities revealed by this policy.

I want to make some progress, because I will wrap up shortly.

In the consultation document launched in November, the Government have already pledged £50 million to help existing grammar schools to expand. The same Green Paper made a series of substantial, uncosted pledges to schools that want to become grammars or to academy chains that want to open them. Now, just this weekend, Government sources briefed The Sunday Times that there will be “tens of millions” more to help grammar schools to expand.

The idea that this is the way in which the Government should spend taxpayers’ money is simply baffling. When nurseries across the country are facing closure because the Government will not deliver the investment needed to deliver on their manifesto pledge to provide 30 hours of free childcare a week and our schools are facing deeper cuts in their budgets than at any time since the 1970s, why is this money being taken away from them?

My hon. Friend is making an outstanding speech. Have we not seen the problem with Tory education thinking this afternoon? Government Members think that some types of schools are better than others and that some children deserve better opportunities than others. That is what is so entirely wrong with what they are arguing today.

Do you know what? That is the real rub: that is the difference between Labour Members and Government Members. We believe that teachers are invaluable in making sure that our schools are the best they can possibly be, rather than focusing on the vehicle in which those teachers and drivers take forward that mission.

We know that Members across this House agree that this is not the way we should spend school budgets. Members in the devolved nations will want to know the implications for their own school budgets, too. I know that many Government Members share the view of Labour Members that education is the key to social mobility, and that for all our differences on policy, they would not want the Government to waste the Department for Education’s budget on an ineffective vanity project. That must be the key test of every spending commitment made by the Secretary of State.

Will the hon. Lady provide some clarification? We have heard loud and clear her position on grammar schools, but is it also her position that the Government should close all the grammar schools that already exist?

Again, I reiterate my point that Members on both sides of the House have the absolute responsibility to make sure that the policies they introduce in this House for the education of all our children are in their best interests and are evidence-based. This must be the key test of every spending commitment made by the Secretary of State: will this money be spent on something that we know will improve the lives of children across this country, whatever their background? That is the point of our motion, and I urge all Members on both sides of the House to ensure that our collective endeavour is always for the best education for every child.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from ‘potential;’ to end and add

‘shares the strong commitment of this Government to promoting and improving social mobility and building a country that works for everyone; notes that there are now more than 1.4 million pupils in England attending good or outstanding schools than in 2010; and welcomes the opportunity afforded by the Schools that Work for Everyone consultation to seek the widest possible range of views on how the Government can build upon these successes and awaits the outcome of the current consultation.’.

Social mobility matters hugely to this Government and, of course, to Members across this House. It is easy for us to say that where someone starts should not dictate where they finish, but the greatest challenge we all face is that, in reality, that still makes a difference, as it has done for generations. As last week’s Social Mobility Commission’s report tells us, just 5% of children on free school meals gain five good GCSEs; they are 29% less likely to take two or more of the facilitating A-levels that will help to keep their options open; and they are 34% more likely to drop out of post-16 education altogether. It is therefore no surprise that they are 19% less likely to go to university, and 47% less likely to attend a top Russell Group institution.

Given the excellent case the Secretary of State is laying out, how can those statistics be changed by grammar schools when currently only 3% of kids on free school meals go to grammar schools?

I will come on to that point, but as we already have grammar schools, it is quite right for us as a Government to set out the case for how we make sure that they play their full role in driving social mobility.

I have set out a number of facts about the prospects of too many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in our country. None of these facts should be acceptable to us. They certainly are not acceptable to me or this Government. I believe that social mobility matters for several key reasons. First, it matters for individuals. I believe that the innate desire of people to do well is one of the most powerful forces for change in our country, and social mobility is about our country working with the grain of human nature. Secondly, social mobility matters for communities. Fundamentally, feeling that we all have an equal shot at success—having equal opportunity—is the glue that binds us together. Lastly, social mobility matters for our economy. Investing in people is a core part of how we raise productivity. Yes, we need to build roads and railways, but we are determined to build up people, too.

How can the Government claim to be the party of social mobility when 800 children’s centres have closed and 29 nursery schools have closed in the past year alone? That is letting down a whole generation of two, three and four-year-old kids, because if they fall behind at that age, they will never catch up.

Of course early years education matters. We are investing in not only improved but more childcare for parents around the country—for working parents, in particular—because we think that having a strong start is absolutely vital. As I was saying, this is about improving not just the prospects of individuals and communities, but the prospects of our country and its economy, and we have to build our country’s economy by building our people.

Will the right hon. Lady explain how having additional secondary modern schools will do anything that she aspires to do?