I start by explaining that the Secretary of State is on a pre-arranged Government visit to Africa—[Interruption.] She is currently in the air. She is on a pre-arranged visit to Africa, to focus on how we are breaking down barriers to trade, helping African countries achieve their development ambitions, reducing dependence on aid and helping build Britain’s trading partners of the future.
I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the Secretary of State’s trip to Israel earlier this year, and I appreciate the hon. Lady’s question. The Secretary of State made a public statement yesterday. In that, she explained that she had the opportunity to meet a number of people and organisations in Israel. A list of who she met and what was covered was published in yesterday’s statement.
The Secretary of State realises in hindsight that those meetings were not arranged following the usual procedures, and she has apologised for that. The Foreign Office has said that UK interests were not damaged or affected by the meetings on that visit. I therefore hope that hon. Members will agree that now she has made that apology and published details of the meetings, we should accept that and refocus on our vital work of tackling extreme poverty and humanitarian crises across the world.
I thank the Minister for being here, but it is simply unacceptable that the Secretary of State is not here before the House to answer this question and explain herself.
The British public are outraged that the Secretary of State held 12 secret meetings in Israel, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu, without telling either the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister, and was accompanied by a pro-Israeli lobbyist. She then misled the British public with comments on Friday that she finally corrected yesterday. It has now emerged that the Prime Minister met her Israeli counterpart last week without even knowing about the secret meeting in August.
Today we learned that the Secretary of State has applied pressure to her Department to divert humanitarian funding to the Israeli army in the Golan Heights. Will the Minister tell the House exactly what was discussed in those secret meetings, and exactly what pressure the Secretary of State applied on her Department when she returned to the UK?
It is hard to think of a more black and white case of breaking the ministerial code of conduct, but rather than change the Minister, the Prime Minister somehow decided last night that the ministerial code itself needed changing.
We have a Prime Minister who has lost her authority and her control of the classroom. Does the Minister accept that it is time the Secretary of State either faces a Cabinet Office investigation, or does the decent thing and resigns?
First, I repeat that the Secretary of State is already on her way to Africa on a pre-arranged visit. She is already flying and it is not possible for her to deal with the question, but that is why I am here. The Secretary of State published a statement yesterday, with an apology.
Let me take the hon. Lady’s questions as she put them. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was informed of the Secretary of State’s visit during the course of the visit, but not before. The Secretary of State has been very clear and absolutely contrite. Her statement yesterday recognises that of course she should have informed the Foreign Office before the visit, but she did not. That is why the statement was made and that is why she has apologised. In the statement, she also gave full details of the meetings she had. They are not verbatim accounts, but she has given details of who she saw and the subjects that were discussed, which I think is quite appropriate. I do not think that that means they were particularly secret meetings, particularly as the Foreign Office was aware, during the course of the visit, that she had been seeing people in Israel.
On the ministerial code of conduct, my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary has apologised to the Prime Minister for her handling of this matter. The Prime Minister has accepted her apology. The Foreign Office was aware of her visit to Israel while it was under way. The Foreign Office is also clear that UK interests were not damaged or affected by the meetings on this visit. The Prime Minister regards the matter as closed.
I would like to make a couple more points, if I may. Let us look at who my right hon. Friend met: leading politicians; an emergency humanitarian aid non-governmental organisation; Pears Programme for Global Innovation; and a group that works on water, farming, solar and hospital projects in Africa; she visited Save a Child’s Heart to talk about a co-existence project; the Galilee International Management Institute and held a meeting with a group of start-ups with a focus on Africa. Does the hon. Lady think that she should not have met those people? If I had been in Israel on a two-day visit, I would have wanted a programme just like this.
You would have told the ambassador.
I would have told the ambassador—of course I would. But if we look at the quality of the meetings, who my right hon. Friend saw and what her job is, they are all absolutely pertinent.
One last point if I may, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) raised the question of pressure on the Department afterwards. As the Minister responsible for development in that area, I can say that two issues were raised by the Secretary of State on her return. One related to aid currently being provided by the Israeli army for those in Syria who could not get medical assistance or cross the border to get it from the Israeli Defence Forces. The second issue she raised was whether there was room for more co-operation between the UK and the Israeli aid agency, as we look at issues right across the region.
We looked at both issues. The Department’s view is that aid to the IDF in the Golan Heights is not appropriate —we do not do that—and that was the advice given to the Secretary of State. We are looking hard to see if there is room to co-operate with the Israeli aid organisation, as we do with others around the region. There was no pressure put on the Department. They were perfectly pertinent questions to raise on her return. She raised them in an entirely the proper way with the Department and with me, and we are dealing with it. She is doing her job as Development Secretary. That is what she is doing today and that is what the meetings disclose.
The spotlight is on the proceedings and behaviour of all of us in this place as never before. What people want is transparency and accountability. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is time, finally, to address the issue of privileged access, lobbying and funding if we are not to have this repeated time and time again? Does he not agree that all organisations involved in active lobbying of Members of Parliament and Ministers should open their books and be entirely transparent, so that we can see who is lobbying whom and who is providing the funding?
Questions about lobbying and transparency are really important for the House and for Ministers, which is why it was important for the Secretary of State to disclose who she was with and the organisations she went to see. Wider questions about lobbying and funding are for others, but I think the Secretary of State has, having made the statement yesterday to disclose what she had done, been entirely transparent in relation to her visit.
I share the astonishment of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) that the Secretary of State is not here to defend herself. It would appear that the Government have such little credibility left that Ministers are now freelancing on foreign policy. I wonder if the Minister will answer these questions. Will he confirm whether the Chancellor was briefed about the outrageous development that UK aid funding was to be given to the Israeli army? What action is the Prime Minister taking to ensure the matter is investigated in terms of the ministerial code? Does he have faith that the Secretary of State still has the ability and credibility to carry on?
No, I do not think the Chancellor was informed, because it never became a policy, or had the chance to become a policy, to fund the Israeli Defence Forces in the Golan Heights. Secondly, as I said a moment ago, as far as the ministerial code is concerned, the Prime Minister has seen the Secretary of State, who has explained and apologised again for not informing people beforehand. The Prime Minister regards the matter as closed, but she is looking to tighten up the ministerial code to make it very clear what the process should be. Do I have full confidence in my right hon. Friend? Of course I do.
The Minister read out an incredibly long list of meetings that the Secretary of State held in Israel on what I thought was supposed to be a family holiday. Did she have any meetings with the Palestinian side? The Minister will, as Middle East Minister, appreciate the importance of a wholly balanced approach to the middle east peace process and not a one-sided one. If she is in the air now, she could have delayed her departure, couldn’t she, and shown some courtesy to this House. It is very difficult for us to know, Mr Speaker, whether the Secretary of State for International Development or the Foreign Secretary has the worse relationship with accuracy. If we had a Prime Minister who was not so weak, both would have been sacked.
The Secretary of State says, in her very full statement yesterday, that she was on a family holiday between 13 and 25 August, which is 12 days. She took two days out of that holiday to have a series of meetings with Israeli politicians and political people, and a number of different charities, including, as I said earlier, Save a Child’s Heart, which works with Palestinian children as well as Israeli children. The list of meetings has been published. I do not see that she specifically had a set of meetings with those representing Palestinian interests, but of course she has met those on other occasions. It is a full disclosure of work. She had two days off in the middle of a holiday. I suspect that is not particularly unusual for Ministers, who sometimes do other things. But you would, of course, let the Foreign Office know in advance, which my right hon. Friend did not, and that was the error for which she has apologised. The meetings were really pertinent to her work, to our work and to British interests.
Given that Foreign Office Ministers and International Development Ministers now share responsibilities across the two Departments, and that we have two Secretaries of State, is there not a need to clarify the position for Ministers visiting particular countries—whether the Foreign Office or DFID is informed —so that we clear this matter up once and for all?
Having been around a bit, I would hope that the ministerial code makes it clear what the sequence of events ought to be. Most Ministers should let the local embassy know they are going to be there, in case something happens while they are—that is reasonable practice, including sometimes for holidays. Certainly, if a Minister is going to have meetings in a country, they need to make it very clear that they want to have them and get them set up. That is the appropriate process. Again, my right hon. Friend has said very clearly that she did not do that, and she has apologised, and I suspect that someone will not be doing something like this for a very long time.
It is a real shame that the Minister is acting as an air raid shelter here—I think if he reflects later, he will not be proud of what he has done today. The honest truth is that if the Secretary of State had said in this House what she said in public last week, when she misled the public, by now she would have been referred to the Committee on Standards. I honestly say to the Minister: either there is a Government with collective responsibility in which people talk to one another before they potentially meet significant people in other Governments, or there is not a Government, and if there is not a Government, it is not a question of whether the Secretary of State should resign, but a question of whether they should all resign.
To return to the core of the issue, my right hon. Friend accepts that she should have discussed the visit before she went and made it very clear what she was going to do. In relation to what she said to The Guardian last week, again she has made it clear that her words left room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding, which is why she issued the statement yesterday and is clarifying matters. She regrets not being clearer in her language, which is appropriate, and I think it perfectly reasonable that I have been asked to do this today, given that she is continuing her work as International Development Secretary abroad and so could not be here.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s apology. My right hon. Friend the Minister will understand that we often come to this issue with history and positions previously taken: he is a former treasurer of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State are regarded as very strong supporters of Israel. My right hon. Friend will know how important it is, when people get into these positions and hold responsibilities for whole-of-Government policy, that they understand all the perspectives around this awful conflict, which is at the heart of so many of the problems in the middle east. He is probably the best equipped of her Ministers to take her gently in hand, and I hope that he does.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s welcome for my right hon. Friend’s apology. He is right; many Members have history in relation to this terrible and long-standing conflict. Those in ministerial positions have to be particularly careful that whatever their background they apply themselves honestly and objectively to the issues. We all try to do so. We cannot pretend we did not have affiliations, but we make sure, when we are acting in the UK’s interests and on UK foreign policy, that that—and absolutely nothing else—is our guiding light. I have seen nothing to suggest that the Secretary of State takes a different view.
The Minister said that the Foreign Office was made aware of the Secretary of State’s visit to Israel during her visit. Can he give us more information about when the Foreign Office was made aware? Was it before or after the meetings with Israeli Ministers and politicians? At what level was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made aware? Did someone in the embassy find out, or did the Secretary of State tell London she was in Israel?
My understanding is that FCO officials became aware of my right hon. Friend’s private visit on 24 August—during her visit. I do not have the dates of all the meetings, but I suspect it was after the meetings took place, and I believe that it was she who told the official abroad that she was there and having these visits. That is my understanding of the case.
Has guidance now been reissued to Ministers and Secretaries of State that they should not freelance on foreign policy—or on policy in relation to any other Department—when on their holidays, with or without Tory donors present?
The Prime Minister said yesterday that the ministerial code would be tightened in relation to this matter, and I am quite sure that it will be. I do not think it has been reissued this morning, but—again—the common sense of this is very clear. That is why my right hon. Friend has recognised that she should have done this differently, as I am sure we all would were we in a similar position.
The Minister has been clear that neither his Department nor the Home Office knew about these meetings. He said that they were not set up in the usual way. Can he explain how they were set up? My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) asked about when the FCO was made aware of the meetings. Is it not important that that question be clarified? If it knew beforehand, did the embassy make any attempt to attend the meetings and make sure the Secretary of State knew her responsibilities?
This appears to have been a gross breach of the code of ministerial conduct—certainly every code I have ever seen—and, as a Minister of nine years’ standing in previous Governments, I would have thought that this was a resigning matter. The Minister, for whom I have a lot of respect, has said that no officials attended the meetings. Has the Secretary of State provided a full minute to the Department, the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister of the content of the meetings, which she appears to have attended alone, without any officials, so as to fill this appalling gap that she has created?
My right hon. Friend supplied in her statement yesterday a list of the meetings and the subjects covered—nobody would expect a verbatim account of those meetings—and has spoken to the FCO and the Prime Minister about them. I again draw the House’s attention to these meetings, however, with parties ranging from the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister of the State of Israel and the Minister for Public Security, Information and Strategic Affairs to several charities. There is nothing in this programme that anyone interested in Israel and the middle east would quibble with. The difficulty was that they were not spoken about in advance, as my right hon. Friend recognises, but none of these meetings themselves would be considered untoward. That is why the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office are satisfied they were in the UK’s interests and that nothing has happened that is detrimental to the UK’s interests.
I feel for the Minister—he has been sent here to answer these questions—but it is not unreasonable to have expected him to arrive able to furnish the House with full details about what was disclosed, to whom, when and under what circumstances. [Interruption.]. He says he has. In response to the questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and for North Durham (Mr Jones), he was unable to provide accurate and factual responses about who was met—[Interruption.] Will he stop waving bits of paper, just for one moment, and getting hot under the collar? At what point was the Foreign Office informed? What exactly was it informed about—was it the full scope and content of the meetings? At what stage was it informed? Under what circumstances was it informed? Those are the key questions. Finally, there has been some controversy about this issue with the IDF. Did the Secretary of State discuss funding for the IDF in her meetings in Israel? If so, it was not disclosed in the ministerial statement.
I was holding the piece of paper because on it is the statement that my right hon. Friend issued yesterday. It lists the meetings that she attended and the subjects for discussion. It is not a verbatim account, but it is pretty detailed in respect of the matters that she discussed.
I gave the hon. Gentleman the answer to that question. The embassy was aware on 24 August, which I think will have been after some of the meetings. As for who was met and what was said, details have been provided.
I am sure colleagues do not believe that the Secretary of State should not have discussed the Pears Programme for Global Innovation with Dr Aliza Inbal, discussed with IsraAID emergency humanitarian aid and the work that the organisation does, or visited Save a Child’s Heart. If I were on a development-related visit to Israel, I would want to have exactly the same meetings. The root of the matter and the heart of the concern is the fact that my right hon. Friend did not disclose her visit at the outset. She has addressed that, and the details of the meetings have been made clear in her statement.
Earlier, the Deputy Leader of the House accused Labour Front Benchers of pursuing this matter because they were vehemently anti-Israel. I freely admit that I have profound disagreements with the perspectives of some of my Labour colleagues on this conflict, but let me say to the Minister and to all Members that, as a former proud chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I am appalled by what has happened. The Minister is right to say that the meetings were not heinous in and of themselves, but the lack of accountability is highly suspect.
Does the Minister not agree that it is beyond credibility that the International Development Secretary thought that it could be an appropriate use of UK public funds to divert them to the Israeli Defence Forces in the Golan Heights? This is surely an example of her seeking a position within the Conservative party and bringing the country into disrepute.
The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to defend any suggestion that the matter is being pursued because of an Israel angle, but it is a perfectly legitimate matter for the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) to have raised because, as we know, the substance of it is already contained in a ministerial apology. My right hon. Friend accepts that she got the sequence wrong, and that she should have done something differently. Therefore, I accept the question in a perfectly straightforward way. However, I think it is a stretch to say that, having learnt on that trip—if she did not already know—of the Israeli army’s work in looking after people from Syria who cannot get medical aid for their acute injuries there and who cross the border into Israel where aid is properly and freely given by the Israeli Defence Forces, she should not have come back and said that that was an extraordinary humanitarian gesture, and asked whether there was anything that we should do. The answer to that question is no, for the reasons that I gave earlier, but not to believe that it is a perfectly genuine question to ask, on a humanitarian basis, strikes me as a bit of a stretch.
It is dismal to see the Minister having to defend the indefensible in this way. He is doing his very best to put a positive gloss on the issue, but does he really believe that, when the Secretary of State offered to make financial assistance available to the Israeli Defence Forces to aid that settlement development in the Golan Heights, she did not know, or did not care, that the UK does not recognise the legality of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights? Will he clarify that point, please?
Let me make it clear that there is no question of supporting any settlements in the Golan Heights. What the Israeli Defence Forces do is open information, which the hon. Lady can find on the internet. Civilians from Syria come to the Israeli Defence Forces with their injured, for whom they cannot get help on their side of the border, and ask for medical help, which the Israeli Defence Forces give. That is an extraordinary humanitarian act, and it has been going on for some time. I do not think that my right hon. Friend was unreasonable to look at the work that was going on and ask whether there was something that the United Kingdom could do to assist it. Because we regard the Golan Heights as occupied territory, and because we cannot support the Israeli occupation, the answer to her query was no, but I think it entirely reasonable for her to have come back and thought about it—and, of course, the Department provided the appropriate answer.
Does the Minister understand the concern that the public will feel when it seems that British foreign policy on Israel and Palestine is being run by a Conservative-linked lobby group rather than by an independent civil service and an elected Government? Is this not just another example of a Government who are in disarray as lobby groups, not Downing Street, run our country?
May I also ask whether the Secretary of State has been referred to Sir Alex Allan or to Sue Gray, the director general of propriety and ethics, in connection with the ministerial code of conduct?
The short answer to the hon. Lady’s second question is no, because the Prime Minister considers the matter to be closed. As for her first question, it is palpably obvious that policy on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is not made by any lobby group anywhere, but is made, perfectly properly, by the Government. Since my right hon. Friend returned from Israel, support for the west bank, and for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the emergency appeal from Gaza, has come from the Department for International Development. Ministers quite properly make the policy. The Government are informed by lots of people, but they make the policy, not lobbyists.
This feels like another case of shooting the messenger, but are we supposed to believe that—according to the Minister—the Secretary of State had all those meetings that were so beneficial, so worth while, yet did not fully brief people when she came back? This has never come up in parliamentary questions.
We are supposed to believe that the Secretary of State is so capable and has the ability to carry out her role, yet we are also supposed to believe that it was a good idea to give the Israeli Defence Forces money in the Golan Heights—oh wait, we cannot, because we do not recognise the territories; we regard them as occupied territories. That does not sound like someone in whose ability to do her job we can have confidence.
May I also ask a question about demolitions? Did the Secretary of State express any concern about international aid for the villages of Khan al-Ahmar and Susiya?
I cannot answer the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, because I do not have a verbatim account of all the meetings, but I can say that the Secretary of State is fully behind the Government’s policy, which has been to oppose the demolitions in both Khan al-Ahmar and Susiya. I went to visit those villages in August, and the policy has not changed.
As for the issue of the Israeli Defence Forces, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw, as we all have, the extraordinary work that is being done to provide humanitarian assistance and save people from the death that they would have suffered had they not been treated. That she should feel humanitarian concern and ask whether, wherever that support had come from, the United Kingdom could contribute to it did not strike me as unreasonable, but we cannot do so, for the reasons that I have already given.
It is becoming a regular occurrence in the Chamber for issues to become less rather than more clear when a Minister is at the Dispatch Box. It seems that the Secretary of State informed the Foreign Office about her visit the day before she left; perhaps that was because she got caught.
On the issue of transparency, will the Minister ask the Secretary of State for a full timeline showing when she met the organisations that she met? It should start with the first correspondence between the Secretary of State and Lord Polak, or between whoever arranged the visits in her office and Lord Polak. It should also show whether she used official or unofficial e-mail addresses.
The hon. Gentleman implied that my right hon. Friend had suddenly found a reason to go to Africa and disappear, and that is not fair.
If more information is needed, there is no reason why further questions may not be asked by means of written parliamentary questions or the like. Let me point out again, however, that a full statement and an apology were made by my right hon. Friend, who recognised that what she did was not in the right sequence, and gave the details of whom she saw. I am sure that, if colleagues seek more information, they will be responded to in the appropriate way.
I also have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but even he must concede that the more we hear about this affair, the murkier it sounds. May we have an assurance that DFID will publish a summary of all discussions that took place in the months prior to this holiday within the Department that had any connection to Israel or any organisations in Israel, and may we have a summary of all discussions that have taken place in the Department since the holiday?
The hon. Gentleman can ask these questions, but I have to say that DFID and the Foreign Office discuss issues relating to Israel and the occupied territories virtually all the time. It is a constant source of discussion as we look at both the long-standing issues between them and the aid we give to the west bank and Gaza in emergency appeals and for long-standing development programmes. That is all public and open and clear. If the hon. Gentleman would like to ask any further questions, he can do, but the information on these matters and the support that is given to the area is well known, and that policy has not changed in any way since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came back.
I feel for the Minister, who is a very decent man. He has been brought here to answer questions about significant failings by the Secretary of State, but frankly she should be here today, and if that meant cancelling or postponing a flight, so be it. May I press him on when the Secretary of State first informed her own Department of these meetings, and whether she received any advance briefings or advice?
I thank the hon. Lady for her generous remarks; I appreciate them very much.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State informed the FCO on 24 August. If I recall rightly, the FCO at that time made the matter known both to her own Department and the rest of the FCO. So it was known at that stage. It would seem clear that discussions were not held in advance—my right hon. Friend has apologised for that and recognises she got it wrong. That is what I have been trying to make clear in this statement as best I can, and that was also the purpose of her statement yesterday.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister has given a number of answers to me and other colleagues whereby there is some lack of clarity and some uncertainty. How can we best ensure that the House gets the full facts about the timing and the role of the two Departments in the periods up to, during and at the end of this ministerial private visit to Israel?
The short answer is that Members can table questions, either written or oral or both. If the hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied he can, when the House returns next week, seek, by one or other means of the various types of question available, to procure the information, in all likelihood from the Secretary of State for International Development herself.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister have an opportunity to offer some clarification? He has said today that Foreign Office staff in Israel found out about these meetings as they were going on, but, from answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and others, it seems clear that they found out after the meetings had taken place. May we get some clarity about when they did find this out?
The Minister of State may come in in a moment if he wishes, but when that was first put to him, he effectively acknowledged the likelihood that that was so, and I think it recurred as an issue in the course of the questioning—and the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has now reiterated the same point. So, although there might not be specificity today about precise dates, on the concept involved, the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of State was clear. It is open to Members to return to these matters in the normal way through written and oral interrogation, and the hon. Gentleman will have to be only modestly patient.
I am happy to do as best I can by being as clear as I can. The information I have is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told Foreign Office officials on 24 August that she was on the visit. It seems likely that the meetings took place beforehand. The reason for the statement and for her explanation yesterday is that she recognises that she should have told people beforehand. So there is no doubt about that: that is what the explanation is for; that is what the statement is for; and she has apologised for that—she got that wrong. I do not think there is any lack of clarity about the date, the sequence or anything else now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Bearing in mind what the Minister has just said and what has been said about giving advance notice, would it not be nice, and rather charming, if the Secretary of State just told you—today, perhaps—that she was going to make a statement next Monday, so all of this could be cleared up in the round?
I always welcome communication from the right hon. Lady, whom I have known for many years. If she becomes aware of these matters and wishes to indicate to me an intention to come to the House, she is welcome to do so and I would welcome it, but that has to be for her to judge. We will leave it there for now.