Skip to main content

Woolwich and the EU Council

Volume 745: debated on Monday 3 June 2013


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the recent European Council and also update the House on the dreadful events in Woolwich.

The European Council was called specifically to discuss energy policy and tax evasion. We also discussed the situation in Syria, prior to the lifting of the arms embargo agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council last week.

On energy policy, we agreed to continue our efforts to complete the single market in energy so that we drive competition between suppliers and force prices down. We also put down a marker to get rid of unnecessary regulation in making the most of indigenous resources such as shale gas. Europe has three-quarters as much shale as the United States, yet while the Americans are drilling 10,000 wells a year we in Europe are drilling fewer than 100. We must extract shale in a safe and sustainable manner but we have to do more to ensure that old rules designed for different technologies do not hold us back today.

On tax, to crack down on tax evasion you need proper exchange of tax information. In Europe, this has been stalled for decades because of the selfish actions of a minority of countries. I made tackling tax evasion a headline priority for our chairmanship of the G8. This has enabled us to ramp up the pressure and make some real progress. So at the European Council we agreed that there should be a new international standard of automatic information exchange between tax authorities and proper information on who really owns and controls each and every company.

On Syria, the situation continues to deteriorate. There is a humanitarian crisis so Britain is leading the way with humanitarian support. We need diplomatic pressure to force all sides to come to the table; and in recent weeks I have held talks with Presidents Putin and Obama to help try to bring that about. But we have to be clear: unless we do more to support the opposition, the humanitarian crisis will continue, the political transition will not happen and the extremists will flourish. That is why it is right to lift the EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. There needs to be a clear sense that Assad cannot fight his way to victory, nor use the talks to buy more time to slaughter Syrians in their own homes and on their own streets.

I regret to say that the EU arms embargo served the extremists on both sides. It did not stop Assad massacring his people, it did not stop the Russians sending him arms and it did not stop Islamist extremists getting their hands on weapons either. It just sent a signal that for all its words, the EU had no real ability to support the responsible opposition that could be the basis of an inclusive transition. That is why the Foreign Secretary and the French Foreign Minister secured agreement to lift the arms embargo in Brussels last week.

We should also be clear about the Syrian national coalition. They have declared their support for democracy, human rights and an inclusive future for all minorities, and we—not just in Britain but across the EU—have recognised them as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. The EU has agreed a common framework for those who, in the future, may decide to supply them with military equipment and there are clear safeguards to ensure that any such equipment would be supplied only for the protection of civilians and in accordance with international law.

This does not mean that we in the UK have made any decision to send arms, but we do now have the flexibility to respond if the situation continues to deteriorate. However, with 80,000 killed, 5 million having fled from their homes, rising extremism and major regional instability, those who argue for inaction must realise that that has its consequences too.

Let me turn to the dreadful events in Woolwich. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and family of Drummer Lee Rigby. What happened on the streets of Woolwich shocked and sickened us all. It was a despicable attack on a British soldier who stood for our country and our way of life. And it was a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country.

There is nothing in Islam that justifies acts of terror, and I welcome the spontaneous condemnation of this attack from mosques and Muslim community organisations right across our country. We will not be cowed by terror and terrorists who seek to divide us will only make us stronger and more united in our resolve to defeat them.

Let me update the House on the latest developments in this investigation, on the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee and on the next steps in our ongoing efforts to fight extremism in all its forms.

While the criminal investigation is ongoing, there remains a limit on what I can say. Two men, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, have been charged with the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Both are appearing in court today. There have now been 10 further arrests as part of the ongoing investigation. Two women have been released without charge, and eight men have been released on bail. The police and security services will not rest until they have brought all of those responsible to justice.

I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the work of our police and security services for all they do to keep us safe from violent extremists. Already this year there have been three major counterterror trials in which 18 people were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 150 years in prison. Much more of the work of our security services necessarily goes unreported. They are Britain's silent heroes and heroines and the whole country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude.

It is important that we learn the lessons of what happened in Woolwich. This Government strengthened the Intelligence and Security Committee and gave it additional powers to investigate the activities of the intelligence agencies. I have agreed with my right honourable friend the Member for Kensington this morning that his committee will investigate how the suspects were radicalised; what we knew about them; whether any more could have been done to stop them; and the lessons we must learn. The committee hopes to conclude its work around the end of the year.

To tackle the threat of extremism we must understand its root causes. Those who carried out this callous and abhorrent crime sought to justify their actions by an extremist ideology that perverts and warps Islam to create a culture of victimhood and justify violence. We must confront this ideology in all its forms.

Since coming into government we have made sure the Prevent strategy focuses on all forms of extremism, not just violent extremism. We have closed down more websites and intervened to help many more people vulnerable to radicalisation. Since 2011 the Home Secretary has excluded more preachers of hate from this country than ever before through our Prevent work; 5,700 items of terrorist material have been taken down from the internet; and almost 1,000 more items have been blocked where they are hosted overseas. But it is clear that we need to do more.

When young men born and bred in this country are radicalised and turned into killers we have to ask some tough questions about what is happening in our country. It is as if for some young people there is a conveyor belt to radicalisation that has poisoned their minds with sick and perverted ideas. We need to dismantle this process at every stage: in schools, in colleges, in universities, in our prisons, on the internet—wherever it is taking place.

This morning I chaired the first meeting of the Government's new task force on tackling extremism and radicalisation. I want the task force to ask serious questions about whether the rules on charities are too lax and allow extremists to prosper; whether we are doing enough to disrupt groups that incite hatred, violence or criminal damage; whether we are doing enough to deal with radicalisation in our university campuses, on the internet and in our prisons; how we can work with informal education centres, such as madrassas, to prevent radicalisation; and whether we do enough to help mosques expel extremists and recruit imams who understand Britain.

We will also look at new ways to support communities as they come together and take a united stand against all forms of extremism. Just as we will not stand for those who pervert Islam to preach extremism, neither will we stand for groups like the English Defence League who try to demonise Islam and stoke up anti-Muslim hatred by bringing disorder and violence to our towns and cities.

Let us be clear: the responsibility for this horrific murder lies with those who committed it. But we should do all we can to tackle the poisonous ideology that is perverting young minds. That is not just a job for the security services and the police, it is work for us all. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement given earlier in the other place by the Prime Minister. I welcome the Statement he has given.

I start where the Statement did, with the EU summit and the conclusions on tax avoidance. We need international agreement on transparency, transfer pricing, tax havens and other issues, so we welcome the steps forward on transparency. However, do the Government agree that we need proposals for fundamental reform of the corporate tax system to prevent profits being shifted from one country to another? Seeking international agreement is clearly the right way forward but there are measures, including measures on transparency, which could still be introduced if agreement were not reached. Will the Leader of the House confirm that Britain will act if we cannot get international consensus?

I turn next to the devastating violence in Syria, which continues unabated. I share the deep concern set out in the Statement about what is happening. The number of Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict has now reached 1.5 million, half of whom are children. As so often happens, the most vulnerable continue to pay the price for war. This is a situation where there are no good options. The question is: which is the least worst option? Despite the enormous obstacles, we believe that a comprehensive peace deal still remains Syria’s best chance of ending the two years of violence, and support American and Russian efforts to bring Syria’s warring parties around the negotiating table this month in Geneva. The peace conference is due to take place in the coming weeks but the Statement did not refer to it. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House could explain why, or perhaps give a few more details.

As the conference remains the best—indeed, at present, the only—immediate hope of limiting the violence and achieving an inclusive political settlement, its success must not be put at risk. In light of this, can the Leader of the House explain the Government’s view of the risks that lifting the EU arms embargo may pose to the prospect of any peace talks? The Government say that there are safeguards on the use of those weapons. Can the noble Lord therefore set out to the House what those safeguards are? However well motivated, is not the danger of this course of action that it will lead to further escalation, as has been illustrated by Russia’s response?

The Government are right: the international community cannot continue to stand by while innocent lives are lost. However, I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that in the action we must take, our primary aim must be to ensure a reduction in the violence. The Government tell us that the lifting of the arms embargo has provided flexibility. Given the concern in this House and beyond, can he assure us that he will come back to this House before any decision by the British Government is made to arm the opposition in Syria?

I turn to the vile murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. I join the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister, this House and, I believe, the whole country in expressing our total revulsion at this appalling act. Lee Rigby served his country with the utmost bravery and was killed in an act of the utmost cowardice. All of our thoughts are with his family and friends, and with our troops who serve with incredible courage all around the world and have seen one of their own murdered. I join the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister in singling out for special praise members of the public, and I would include Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who intervened so bravely to try to protect Lee Rigby. We should also praise the quiet determination of local leaders and residents in Woolwich who are not allowing their community to be consumed by division and hate.

Over the past 10 days we have seen attempts by some to use this evil crime as justification to further their own hate-filled agenda, as the Leader of the House said, attempting to ignite violence by pitting community against community. However, they will fail because the British people know that this attack did not represent the true values of any community, including Muslim communities who contribute so much to our country.

Governments must do three things after such an attack, and we will support the Government on all three. The first is to bring the perpetrators to justice. We welcome the swift court appearance of the suspects. The second is to seek to bring people together in the face of attempts to divide us. The third is to learn the lessons of this attack. We welcome the Intelligence and Security Committee investigation.

We also welcome the task force on extremism. I agree with the Government that the task force should look again at issues around radicalisation and helping communities to take a stand against extremism—issues covered in the original Prevent strategy. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether the task force will be looking into earlier intervention to prevent young people being radicalised? Will he also confirm whether the task force will heed the calls from youth workers to look more carefully at the links between violent extremism and gang-related activity—something which was raised with my party by community leaders in Woolwich last week? Specifically on legislation, and in the light of recent events, can the Leader of the House update the House on the Government’s current view on the need for legislation on communications data?

Whatever the origin, and whatever the motive of the terrorists, our response will and must be the same: the British people will never be intimidated. Across every faith, across every community, this is a country united, not divided, in abhorrence at the murder of Lee Rigby. We have seen people try to divide us with acts like this before. They have failed, and they will always fail.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her overall welcome, and I associate myself very much with many of the points that she made, particularly about the awful situation in Woolwich.

On the noble Baroness’s specific questions on the Statement and the proposals on tax, our view—and it may be hers as well—is that it is best if this is done on an international basis. We can use the G8—as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is doing—the G20 and the OECD to drive that agenda forward. We need to take action. It is a global problem and it is best to address it in that way.

I agree very much with the noble Baroness’s comments about the overall situation in Syria. I think she said that there are no good options and that we are talking about the least bad option, and I very much take that point.

On Geneva 2, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—the Government—have always been clear that we are very much in favour of a negotiated political solution, so we welcome the fact that the Russian/American talks will be taking place. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister himself has had talks with Presidents Putin and Obama to try to bring about diplomatic pressure, so that all sides will come to the table.

As for the risks of lifting the EU arms embargo, as the Statement made clear, it would be wrong to deny that there are risks with all courses of action. However, the risks of inaction are also clear to see. As the noble Baroness made clear in her comments about the numbers of those already displaced and suffering and the numbers who have been killed, the price of doing nothing is extraordinarily high.

As for the safeguards on the use of weapons, the framework agreed at the Council made it clear that any provision of arms would be only to the Syrian national coalition, and it has to be intended for the protection of civilians. There are safeguards to ensure that delivery goes to the right hands, and confirmation that existing obligations on arms exports remain in place.

As for the flexibility of the embargo, the Foreign Secretary regularly updates the House of Commons on developments. I know that he will continue to do so. Things can move fast and he needs to be able to reflect and respond to that.

On Woolwich, I associate myself with the noble Baroness’s praise for the local leaders. I agree with her about the three things she set out that we, all of us together, need to do—to bring the perpetrators to justice, to bring people together and to learn the lessons. I am grateful to her for her welcome for the new task force on extremism and, indeed, for the role that the ISC will be carrying out. She made a number of practical suggestions on points to do with earlier intervention and with violent extremism and gangs and the link between them. They are very sensible points. There is no monopoly of wisdom here and we should be open to all kinds of sensible, intelligent suggestions from people who know, and try to take those into account.

As for communications data and legislation, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister earlier this afternoon made clear that we need to have a frank debate about this issue. There is a problem—we know that 95% of serious crimes involve the use of communications data—but it needs to be addressed in a sensitive and careful way. If we can find a way of getting cross-party support to take this forward that would be desirable.

Overall, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the support she gave for the steps that the Government have taken specifically on Woolwich, and I associate myself with the tributes that she paid to the people involved in that situation.

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House of the benefit of short questions for my noble friend the Leader so that he can answer as many questions as possible.

My Lords, the Leader of the House referred to the Cameron/Rifkind discussions on the role of the ISC. Can we be assured that the ISC will not be prevented in any way from carrying out a full inquiry to report by December as a result of what the Leader referred to as the ongoing inquiries being carried out by the police? Can we be assured that the police inquiry will not stop the ISC inquiry from taking place?

My Lords, following the conversation that the Prime Minister had with the right honourable Member for Kensington this morning, I know that the ISC is able to go wherever it needs to go to carry out its inquiry. The timetable of reporting by the end of the year is the one to which it is working. If there is further information I can get to amplify that, I will come back to the noble Lord. My understanding is that the terms of reference, as it were, of the ISC have been agreed and the very clear view is that it should be able to carry out its inquiry and do its work in whatever way it thinks it needs to in order to look into the matters properly so we can all see and learn the lessons.

My Lords, I thank the Leader for repeating the Statement. Before I ask a couple of brief questions, I want to express my sentiments and those of this side of the House, as the Prime Minister did, to the family and friends of Drummer Lee Rigby. I was delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, from the Front Bench, was so forthright in her condemnation of what happened in Woolwich.

We fully endorse the need for transparency on tax matters and welcome the exchange of information between tax authorities internationally. Does my noble friend agree that it is time that law-abiding taxpayers are made aware of those who are involved in tax evasion? What arrangements are in hand to ensure that tax loopholes will be closed by legislation? With regard to the task force, it would be so nice to see representatives from minority ethnic communities being brought into it so that their contribution in trying to tackle the problem of radicalisation and terrorism could also be recognised.

My Lords, on the last point, I agree that it is important that we should draw on the widest possible experience and expertise in the way that my noble friend suggests. I am very grateful for his remarks and I know that he and his Benches share the feelings of the whole House about what happened in Woolwich. He is absolutely right to say what he said about that. With regard to transparency on tax matters, that is one of the main issues that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be pursing at the G8. He has made it one of the three legs he is pursuing in terms of the agenda at that summit meeting. My noble friend is right that we need to keep pursuing that but in a way that recognises that this is a global problem and we need to try to tackle it across the board.

My Lords, a couple of points arise. On taxation, does this not demonstrate that, far from the European Union involvement getting in the way of global agreement, as some people might argue, points (a) to (e) in the Council’s statement demonstrate that these are very good building blocks for the G8 and that the EU’s role is very helpful. On Syria, I echo the thrust of one of the questions from my noble friend Lady Royall. The country is swimming in arms—coming from this side and indeed an escalation tit-for-tat from Moscow. How is the option of sending more arms and that degree of armed support potential for the Syrian National Coalition squaring and compatible with us wishing to be seen as an honest broker at the conference in Geneva? Maybe there is a simple answer. I would be very glad to hear it.

I am not sure I will be able to give as simple an answer as the noble Lord would like. On his first point though, he and I may be in agreement. The EU can certainly help to play a part in this, as can the G8, the G20, the OECD and all the rest. With regard to arms for Syria, I emphasise again that no decision has been taken to send arms into the conflict. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, it is clearly the case that the Government’s desired outcome, as it must be everyone’s, is that there should be a negotiated, peaceful, diplomatic solution. Lifting the embargo, we would argue, gives the Governments of EU member states the flexibility to bring pressure to bear on Assad to realise that the negotiated route is the way forward he needs to take. I agree with the noble Lord that if it is at all possible to secure that outcome that is the one we would all prefer.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement from the Leader. Obviously we join in our sense of grief with the family of Lee Rigby. In the same way as the whole country will have been shocked and felt a loss of trust in human nature at this atrocious event, I am sure that, as the noble Baroness said, we will also be reassured and have a renewed sense of trust when we see the support that has come out from all sectors of the community for the family and also the courage of those such as Ingrid Loyau-Kennett. Does the noble Lord agree that preventing future atrocities like this in the UK requires international action to improve dialogue, especially where there is widespread violence in the name of faith, which tends to slide over into our own country, often with impunity, and also supporting those resisting attacks in the name of faith or suffering such violence themselves in places such as west Africa and elsewhere?

I very much agree that there are multiple levels and stages of this. There are people born and bred in our own country who have been radicalised and we need to do what we can to address that problem. That is the focus of the work that the task force that was set up and had its first meeting today will address. We should also seek to encourage what can be done more broadly internationally to bring pressure to bear and to debate these issues.

My Lords, religion is much more important in many parts of the world than it is in England. The message that the West is against Islam is presented to the Islamic community across the world, and this is succeeding by default. Does the Leader of the House recall that British troops rescued Muslims from a secular regime which invaded Kuwait, from Orthodox Christians in Kosovo and from attacks by Orthodox Christians on Roman Catholic Christians in Croatia? Is it not about time that Her Majesty’s Government began to say, loud and clear, that on many occasions we have come to aid and support our Muslim neighbours?

I obviously agree that Britain and other western countries have made a contribution and that it is important that that message is communicated. It needs to be done in such a way that the message will have resonance. By the same token, it is extremely important that all members of local communities, whether they are Muslims, Christians or whoever, work in the way that the noble Lord suggests. They must make it clear that the fear that some people perhaps have is not based in reality, given the behaviour of this country and the West towards Islam.

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that the Government, in looking at tax evasion and capital being moved around, will also look at the rights of workers, many of whom are being abused by the very companies that evade taxation and then criticise our income support projects, which are there to make up those companies’ shortfalls? Secondly, will he join me in saying that not only are extreme forms of Islamophobia unacceptable, but that parents, teachers and youth workers should listen very carefully for those children who, because of what they hear at home, or because of prejudice or for other reasons, can be heard using the phrase “You’re a Muslim” as a term of abuse? It is low-level abuse but it is a problem. I remember the head of a school in Lancashire many years ago saying, “We don’t have to deal with this because we don’t have any of those children here”. However, that low-level abuse can lead to an atmosphere of hostility. I hope that the Leader will agree with me on that.

I certainly agree with the common-sense point that the noble Baroness makes, and I am sure that everyone would agree. On her first point, the particular Council meeting talked about tax, but I will make sure that my colleagues who deal with these things day to day have heard the noble Baroness’s remarks about employment rights and the rest of it.

My Lords, as part of our memorial to the late Drummer Rigby, will my noble friend assure the House that the Government remain committed to the “Prevent” strand of counterterrorism policy, and that they will ensure that it is not deprived of funding, as it has been in the past two years? Further, will he give an assurance on behalf of the whole Government that the communications data issue will be reconsidered on the merits, on the evidence and on a multipartisan basis, and on no other foundation?

I am aware of my noble friend’s strong views on the communications data point. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said this afternoon, we need to look at these issues extremely carefully, in a sensitive way but bearing in mind those facts of the sort to which my noble friend refers. On his first point, it is clearly the case that the “Prevent” strand of work that the Government carry out is extremely important. It has been successful in many ways. We will step up the focus of the Government’s work on addressing radicalisation, and we will obviously need to make sure that the agencies charged with that work are adequately funded.

My Lords, one feature that is common to the outrage in Woolwich, the attack on the French soldier at La Défense in Paris and 7/7 is not often remarked upon. The perpetrators of those acts, or at least some of them, were recent converts to Islam. Will the task force look at this phenomenon? Obviously, it needs to work closely with the responsible leaders of the Muslim community, who stand to lose the most from any increase in such racial tension as the Government, properly, try to drain the swamp. Will the Minister also look at schools, on which he is an expert, and at what is being done in some of the Saudi-financed schools and the effect on the young people there?

The noble Lord raises two very pertinent points, both in terms of schools—madrassahs—and universities, where there are clearly issues. It is right that the task force set up will want to talk to community leaders about these things, and I am sure that it will want to look into the kind of broad issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, refers.

The Statement says that the murder of Drummer Rigby was a “betrayal of Islam”, and that there is nothing in Islam which justifies acts of terror. However, since 9/11 some 107,000 people have been killed and some 174,000 injured, most of them Muslim, in many thousands of attacks, the perpetrators of which claim Islam and the Koran as their inspiration. In my Oral Question this afternoon, therefore, I asked the Government whether they would encourage a gathering of great Islamic clerics—the grand muftis and the ulema—to agree to issue a fatwa against the jihadists, to cast them out of Islam and to declare that they are no longer Muslim. I regret to say that the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, failed to answer that Question. Would the Leader of the House now care to do so? Surely this huge problem can be cured only from within the Muslim community.

It is clearly the case, as the noble Lord says, that the Muslim community needs to be very closely involved in everything we do to address this problem. In many of these cases, particularly in the recent case of poor Lee Rigby, it is encouraging that the Muslim community has been very clear in its condemnation of what happened. I am not sure that it is within my gift, powerful though the Leader of the House is in theory, to convene a global gathering of muftis. I find it hard enough to convene a gathering of three or four Peers in your Lordships’ House. However, I am sure that my noble friend Lady Warsi will have heard the noble Lord’s point again.

My Lords, in Northern Ireland we made progress when our Governments were prepared to talk to people who engaged in violence. In order, as the Prime Minister said, to,

“tackle the threat of extremism”,

and “understand its root causes”, should we not be prepared to have conversations with those whose actions in this country, part of the UK, we in no way condone? Talking to perpetrators does not amount to endorsing their views or their actions, but we can learn.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear that in trying to address this issue he is keen to learn from a range of people. The Government already do that; they challenge people and can learn from that. However, I am not able to say whether we will be able to go as far as my noble friend specifically suggests.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that lifting the EU arms embargo in Syria has provided the basis for individual member states to exercise some influence as and when they decide to sell arms. However, was not the lifting of the EU embargo itself potentially a major instrument of influence on both sides in the Syrian civil war? Would it not have been more sensible to have made lifting that embargo contingent on the behaviour of both parties, for example at the forthcoming Geneva talks? Have we not thrown away a particularly valuable diplomatic instrument rather prematurely?

As I said in reply to an earlier question, clearly the Geneva talks are extremely important and we all want them to go as well as they possibly can. The argument in favour of the step that the French, British and other member states took last week was that the decision gives them greater flexibility. They and we are not saying that we want to take this step, but it gives us greater flexibility. We hope that that will lead to the kind of pressure to which the noble Lord refers, and to a sensible outcome at the Geneva 2 talks.

Will my noble friend confirm that, with regard to the future, there is a clear distinction to be drawn between freedom of speech and incitement to commit crimes of violence that results in such crimes, and that the latter can most certainly be proceeded against?

I agree with both points that my noble friend has made. Freedom of expression is important and we are always keen to hold on to that vital principle in our country. However, by the same token, we must be able to act against people who step across the line and incite violent extremist behaviour, and that is what the Government want to do.