[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I am grateful to be leading my first Westminster Hall debate on such an important and timely subject. I am delighted to see so many Members present, and I am mindful of ensuring everyone has time to speak, so I will limit the interventions I take. I refer hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests of a fact-finding visit I made to Israel and the Palestinian Authority last year.
During my trip, I was struck by the national pride that both the Israelis and Palestinians hold so dear, and faced the difficult reality that peace remains a distant dream. Zionist pioneers made the desert bloom, and Palestinian olive groves are world renowned. The potential for the land and the people is immense, yet no matter what land borders have been proposed in peace negotiations in the 73 years since the UN partition plan of 1947, the Palestinian leadership has rejected every option. I found myself wondering how that could be the case, when a two-state solution is clearly the only way to reconcile Jewish and Arab aspirations of self-determination in the land. It became apparent that the answer is not especially palatable: over many decades, Palestinian children have grown up in an environment of institutionalised radicalisation.
In schools named after suicide bombers, schoolchildren are taught from the age of six that Israel is a temporary construct that will,
“disappear as the fog over the sea”.
Palestinians are rightly proud of their youth literacy rate, which is among the highest in the world, but it is undermined by the more harmful material within the curriculum, which plays a significant part in indoctrinating the population. Eight-year-olds learn poetry from the following verse:
“I vow I shall sacrifice my blood, to saturate the land of the generous and will eliminate the usurper from my country, and will annihilate the remnants of the foreigners.”
As a former secondary school teacher myself, I know just how impressionable young minds are and the impact that such messaging can have on pupils’ development, values and world view.
A report published by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education in September 2019 found that the most recent Palestinian Authority school textbooks are even more extreme than previous editions. Despite promises from the PA to review and remove unacceptable content, the report concludes that there is a “clear deterioration” in content meeting UNESCO-derived standards for peace and tolerance in school education. After examining 202 textbooks from the current curriculum, IMPACT-se found,
“a systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad across all grades and subjects”,
“the possibility of peace with Israel is rejected”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Like him, I took advantage of one of the fact-finding trip organised by Conservative Friends of Israel in 2015, when I was first elected. The trip took in both Palestine and Israel, and while I was there we heard about a youth football tournament that had been hugely successful in uniting both regions. Does he agree that that demonstrates that there is an appetite for peace among young people, but that examples such as the ones he is giving seriously undermine the opportunities for it to happen?
I could not agree more. When I walked around the streets of Jerusalem, I saw Jew and Arab side by side, living peacefully together with the Christian community. There is indeed an appetite among the people of Palestine and the people of Israel to live side by side in peace. Sadly, it is the Palestinian Authority who keep dodging the answers to these very important questions.
Peace is not presented as preferred or even possible. Palestinian children are not taught what peace will even look like. Peace agreements and proposals with Israel that previously appeared in Palestinian Authority schoolbooks have been removed. Nine-year-olds are asked to count the number of martyrs in Palestinian uprisings—“If the number of martyrs of the first intifada is 2,026 martyrs, and the number of martyrs of the Al-Aqsa martyrs intifada is 5,050” and so on. Imagery in a textbook for 16-year-olds implies that Jews control the world. Ten-year-olds are taught that Jews are enemies of Islam and eight-year-olds learn in their textbooks that Jerusalem is a holy city only for Muslims and Christians. Right hon. and hon. Members will no doubt be aware that Jerusalem has been at the core of the Jewish faith and world for more than 3,000 years. Make no mistake: this is antisemitism, and we must condemn it as strongly as we fight antisemitism at home.
Mr George Bradford, a constituent of mine, works hard to raise awareness about extremist teaching in Palestinian schools. I met him here in Parliament last week. Does my hon. Friend agree that such awareness-raising has a valuable role as part of wider debates such as this one?
I agree absolutely. We must ensure that we raise awareness of this issue. It is sad that has taken a Daily Mail report to bring this matter to the public eye on a wider scale in the United Kingdom. We must do more to bring it to the world’s attention. We have seen other countries taking such a strong stance.
I mentioned that Palestinian schools are named after terrorists—at least 31 at the last count. Five of those schools are named after Dalal Mughrabi, the perpetrator of one of the worst terror attacks in Israel’s history, the 1978 coastal road massacre. Mughrabi led the hijacking of a bus and the murder of 38 civilians, including 13 children. She is portrayed as a central female role model for Palestinian girls. In the Arabic language textbook for 10-year-olds, of which I have a copy here, there is a large image of Mughrabi with the accompanying text:
“Dalal Mughrabi: Our Palestinian history is brimming with names of martyrs who have given their lives to the homeland, including the martyr Dalal Mughrabi. Her struggle portrays challenge and heroism, making her memory immortal in our hearts and minds”.
Order. May I just say to the hon. Gentleman that for his first speech he is doing very well, but under Standing Orders I am afraid that Members are not allowed to use photographs or props, or make reference to them. That is the first thing. Secondly, it makes it very difficult for Hansard to record something that is an object rather than text. I am sure he will note that, and I ask forgiveness for interrupting his flow.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I apologise, but you can understand the importance of the material that was on display.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the great speech that he is making. Is he aware that in addition to the 31 schools named after terrorists from the Palestinian Authority, three are named after Nazi collaborators? That sends a clear message, not only that killing Israelis is something that children should be encouraged to do, but that they will be honoured for undertaking such a heinous crime.
I am aware of that. Such a blatant attempt to stir up racial hatred and bring up what is a very dark history is despicable and disgusting. As one whose step-grandmother was born in Germany in the 1920s, went through an education system under Nazi rule and has lived with the shame of a nation—as many Germans do, even though they played no part in the atrocities that took place—I absolutely agree that reliving, remembering and reminding the Israeli people of such horrors should never ever be allowed, and that it should be called out for what is.
The fact that holocaust denial is most prevalent in Gaza and the West Bank compared with elsewhere in the world—standing at around 82% of the population—proves that something is going seriously wrong. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Palestinian education system should seek to promote peace and unity, with a curriculum driven by facts and history, rather than continuing to push prejudice and division?
I am sure my hon. Friend’s knowledge of that issue is far greater than mine. She has been leading the charge among the new intake of Members of Parliament to ensure that we tackle the scourge of antisemitism, not just in UK society but in the wider world. I could not agree more that we must promote peace and we must expect the Palestinian Authority to promote peace, because a two-state solution will never be achievable unless both sides share the common goal of finding a peaceful solution. The two-state solution is one that I passionately believe in.
The majority of Palestinians are under the age of 25, and recent polling has shown that they are increasingly moving towards more extreme ideology. It is with sad inevitability that the radical incitement I highlight will be a central contributing factor. The Palestinian leadership have failed to provide a positive vision for the future of their people. Until they ensure that their curriculum promotes peace, the prospects for an agreement with Israel will remain bleak.
My hon. Friend and I were together on that last trip to Jerusalem. He knows that I try to take a balanced view of the middle east and previously visited the area with a Palestinian charity. Most alarming is that these propaganda books are available to children as young as six, and that those on the Palestinian side found guilty of terrorism offences against Israelis—not throwing stones at buses; I have been critical about the way such people have been treated by the courts—are as young as 11. These deeply impressionable young people are being indoctrinated by the failed Palestinian Authority, which relies on fear and the poverty of the Palestinians to foment hatred against Israelis and the wider world. That is what this amounts to. It is in nobody’s interests for these textbooks be allowed, and certainly not at our taxpayers’ expense.
I remember that trip. When we met members of the Palestinian Authority, including one of the chief negotiators back in the early 1990s, we saw the lack of drive and vision for how to reach a two-state solution. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend and will not try to better his comments, because he perfectly summed up the situation. The self-interest of these leaders in prolonging the conflict causes immeasurable long-term harm to the Palestinian and Israeli people.
I welcome to the Minister to his place, and I understand that he may not yet have had the chance to raise these issues with his Palestinian counterparts, but does he agree that we have a duty of care to children worldwide who receive UK aid to ensure that their educational experience is positive? Will he confirm that £20 million of annual UK support the Palestinian Authority contributes to the salaries of teachers and health workers through a vetted EU list? Does the UK monitor the training programme for the teachers whose salaries we pay? Who oversees that programme?
While it is not necessarily the UK’s place to determine the narrative and content of another territory’s curriculum, we are duty-bound to intervene immediately should unacceptable materials be used in education systems supported financially by British taxpayers.
The House of Commons Library briefing shows that, on 1 April 2018, in response to reports about this sort of material, the Department for International Development’s media team stated:
“DFID is planning to conduct a thorough assessment of the Palestinian curriculum and evidence and if we find evidence of material which incites violence, we will take action.”
That is coming up to two years ago, so I think we ought to have heard something from the Government about this by now.
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. One reason why I wanted to secure the debate is that two years is absolutely too long. We need to ensure that UK aid money—UK taxpayers’ hard-earned money—is used appropriately, for aid and support and not to promote violence and extremism.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Debate and concerns raised in this place about this issue go back more than two years—check the parliamentary record. For five years-plus, concerns have been consistently raised by Members from various parties about the use of discriminatory and inciteful language in textbooks that, directly or indirectly, UK aid is helping to finance. We have heard repeated assurances from various Ministers over the years. One question we need an answer to is why there has been so little progress in clamping down on this destructive activity.
I agree completely that this has been going on for far too long. Warwick University’s vice-chancellor has failed to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. That is an absolute abomination. UK textbooks, including those produced by Pearson, contained material that had to be removed. It is bad enough when that happens in our own country; we should be even stricter and harsher in ensuring that UK taxpayers’ money spent overseas is used appropriately.
The hon. Gentleman brings a lot of legitimate concerns to the House. On the timing and the immediacy of this debate, he will be aware that the Georg Eckert Institute is investigating this issue for the European Union, and the report is due in a couple of weeks’ time. I suggest that there would be merit in waiting for the report from the institute, because it has the advantage of being independent; it has no axe to grind. In what is always a highly charged debate, honest brokers can play a valuable role.
I agree that the report will be extremely important, and along with many other Members I look forward to reading its lessons and how we can make progress. While I and my colleagues may display a lot of passion, I totally take on board those facts and hope that that report will be made available for public consumption and not kept behind closed doors. The EU is duty-bound to ensure that everyone has a right to see what the institute manages to find.
Does the Minister share my grave concern that, even if we are not directly funding the publication these textbooks, we are paying for teachers and public servants in the education sector to draft, implement and teach this material, potentially in schools named after terrorists? I was encouraged by the UK’s call for international action on the content of these textbooks. The ongoing EU review of Palestinian textbooks is under way after months of delays, and the Minister for the middle east, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), confirmed in a written answer last week that the interim report will be completed in spring, with the full report due later this year. Will the Minister confirm that the interim report and subsequent full report will be made publicly available, to ensure transparency and openness at every level?
The Minister no doubt shares my view that we have a responsibility to protect children who are supported by the UK, and that the continued use of the textbooks amounts to nothing short of child abuse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Like him, I have been to Ramallah in the west bank, and met members of the Palestinian Authority. It worries me that they not only glorify terrorism but financially reward it, paying monthly salaries to terrorists and their families to the tune of £260 million in 2018, or 7% of their entire budget. Like him, I desperately want to see peace, but while those payments continue, the prospect is bleak.
My hon. Friend speaks with absolute authority on this subject. It is utterly shameful that money is paid to terrorists who have committed heinous crimes against the people of Israel and foreign nationals in Israel. This problem affects us globally. We absolutely need to ensure that the funding stops, because it does not show any sign of facilitating peace in the future.
This issue is taken extremely seriously by our colleagues in Europe. In 2018, the European Parliament’s budgetary committee voted to freeze more than €15 million of Palestinian Authority funding if they do not remove incitement from their textbooks. Last year, the ruling coalition in the Norwegian Parliament voted to withhold funding to the Palestinian Authority if this content is not removed. Our ambitions for a global Britain must include safeguarding for all recipients of UK aid, particularly in areas of conflict.
The UK Government provide £65.5 million annually to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which delivers vital humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees, including education and healthcare. However, UNRWA schools in the west bank and Gaza use the official Palestinian Authority curriculum, so the textbooks I have quoted from are being used in UN schools that the UK and international partners support. In August 2019, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticised the content of these textbooks for perpetuating prejudices and hatred. While one UN agency condemns the textbooks, another promotes them.
Uniquely, UNRWA extends refugee status beyond the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, to the descendants of all Palestinian refugee males, meaning that the UN recognises 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, rather than the estimated 30,000 refugees alive today. There are now more than 320,000 Palestinian refugee children in UNRWA schools in the west bank and Gaza—internationally designated Palestinian territories. Children in those schools are taught that they are refugees from what is now Israel, and that they will one day return, in line with the teachings in their textbook. Does the Minister believe that that is compatible with our stated aim to protect the political and physical viability of a two-state solution? A right of return for 5 million Palestinian refugees will demographically end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. I do not suggest withdrawing UK aid contributions to Palestinians in need, but this Government—the people’s Government—must demand value for money and, with international partners, place pressure on the UN agency to ensure that its work lays the groundwork for a two-state solution, rather than prolonging the conflict.
I shall finish by reflecting on the impact that the Palestinian Authority curriculum has had in recent years on the children whom they are duty-bound to protect. Since September 2015, 87 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed and more than 1,520 wounded in 210 stabbings, 239 shootings, 77 car rammings and one bus bombing. Palestinian youths under the age of 21 have carried out many of those acts of terrorism. Even screwdrivers have been used as weapons, and perpetrators have included children as young as 11 years old.
It is well known that Palestinian terrorists who kill Israelis receive monthly payments to reward their acts of terrorism, with higher salaries given to those who have killed more Israelis. It should be a matter of great sadness to us all that these children are raised in an environment infected with radical messages, with no hope for peaceful co-existence with Israel. No curriculum is perfect, as we are very much aware, and it is ultimately for the Palestinian Authority to address these issues, but they are recipients of UK aid so there is an expectation that they will uphold international standards of understanding, peace and tolerance, as set out in article 29 of the convention on the rights of the child.
There is a memorandum of understanding underpinning DFID’s support for the Palestinian Authority that requires the PA to commit to the principle of non-violence, and that includes a commitment from the PA to take action against incitement to violence and address allegations of incitement in the education curriculum. Recent UK assessments have concluded that the Palestinian Authority demonstrate a credible commitment to that principle. Does the Minister agree that that simply does not compute with the material that I have highlighted today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important matter to the House today. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should be looking very closely at the psychological impact of these materials on children and their upbringing? Should they not ensure that the work done by the Department for International Development, including in my own constituency of East Kilbride, fosters positive mental health and wellbeing throughout the early years, and supports and builds individuals who will be positive contributors to society? Some of the materials that he has described certainly run counter to that aim.
I could not agree more. Again, we are seeing vulnerable young children growing up in a world of conflict who already have some sort of psychological damage, just because of the situation and circumstances in which they live. To add on top of that the material seen in these textbooks and for that to be taught by their teachers will only create more harm. The money could be much better spent on creating a peaceful, tolerant society, while providing world-class mental health support.
While my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent North endure multiple types of deprivation and rightly call for greater funding for our schools, the UK’s commitment to build peaceful and stable societies overseas clearly misses the mark in this case. I struggle to look my constituents in the eye and justify our overseas aid spending when their hard-earned money enables radicalisation and UK-funded teachers use textbooks filled with hate. The two-state solution that we all hope to see remains unachievable so long as another generation of Palestinians are growing up indoctrinated to hate Israel and Jews. It is our responsibility as donors to ensure that the Palestinian Authority sit up and take note.
Order. Because of the interest in the debate, I shall set a time limit at this point of four and a half minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I declare an interest as the new chair of Labour Friends of Israel, and I refer hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing the debate and on an excellent speech. I also pay tribute to former Members Joan Ryan and Dame Louise Ellman, who did so much to lead debate on this subject in the previous Parliament. Like the hon. Gentleman, I strongly support a two-state solution. That is precisely why I believe that we must urgently tackle the issue of radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum. As we have heard, it seeks to pass on old hatreds and prejudices to a new generation of young people. It is a barrier to reconciliation and co-existence. It is pernicious and simply unacceptable.
However, as we have also heard, this is not an issue just for the Palestinian Authority; our Government share some of the responsibility. UK taxpayers fund the salaries of some 30,000 teachers and officials in the Palestinian education authority. Those are the people involved in the implementation and delivery of this curriculum. Let us be clear: we are paying the salaries of those who designed and administer the curriculum and those who teach it. As we have heard, the memorandum of understanding that governs British aid states clearly that the Palestinian Authority should abide by principles of non-violence. I think that the hon. Gentleman quoted the provision about incitement in the educational curriculum, so I will not repeat that, but we know that it has existed for many years. Every year Ministers claim that DFID’s annual reviews—reviews that are not published, incidentally—show that the PA are upholding their commitments. I have to ask: how do they show that?
Last year, former Minister Alistair Burt admitted that the content of textbooks is not covered in the reviews and that DFID plays no role in relation to textbook material. I therefore say to this Minister that, whatever has happened in the past, surely now we have to have some commitment that we will look at that if it is to be possible, in all honesty, to say that the PA are complying with the memorandum of understanding.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not good enough for a Government to say, “We do not fund this or that directly,” because while we are giving funds to the Palestinian Authority for one thing, we are releasing funds for them to use for other things and therefore indirectly we are subsidising these abuses, even if we are not doing so in a more direct fashion?
I do agree. I suspect that every one of us here supports the aid programme, but we do not support the misuse of the aid programme. I am certainly not here to attack the Minister, but I am here to say that we have to guard our own best interests in the way the programme is being applied. I think that is the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
I hope that the Minister will comment on the independent evaluation that the PA say they have commissioned from the Arab European Foundation. I have not seen the evaluation, and I do not know whether the Minister has. If he has, will he be kind enough to place a copy in the Library, and does he think that there will be any action by the PA as a result of that report?
I hope that the Minister will accept that many people have raised this matter before. Joan Ryan and Louise Ellman first raised it back in September 2017. Their concerns were initially dismissed. Then they were promised an independent international review. That took about 10 months, to be honest, and it was supposed to report last September. I obviously welcome the review by the Georg Eckert Institute, but I believe that what we are now waiting for is a short interim report. Can the Minister give us any further update on that and whether it will be placed in the Library?
I think the short line here is that there have been many promises but little action. Ministers claimed in 2018 that new textbooks were being piloted. That turned out to be untrue. In 2019 the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education reported that the same curriculum was being taught for the third consecutive year. Mr Saidam, the PA Education Minister, committed to a constructive review but later denounced an attack on the Palestinian curriculum by the Zionist lobby.
The bottom line is that Britain is bankrolling this curriculum. We must take responsibility. I think we are agreed that we need to see some action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who did a very good job of outlining this concerning and difficult set of issues. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). I wish him all the best in taking over Labour Friends of Israel. I declare my interest as the House of Commons chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel.
I will be brief. I do not want to repeat anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North spoke about. I strongly support a two-state solution. I am a friend of Israel, but I do not believe that being a friend of Israel prevents one from being a friend of Palestinians, too. I am proud that I was part of the Government that increased their aid spending to reach the 0.7% target. I am a strong believer in the power and effectiveness of UK aid when it is spent well. Being a friend and supporter of UK aid does not prevent me from raising concerns and criticisms, where they are fair.
The concerns and criticisms raised this afternoon are entirely fair. We have previously debated these issues, in this Chamber and in during Question Time in the main Chamber. Having participated in this debate for the past five years, I sometimes feel that when we raise issues with the Minister, he wants to say, “Please move along; there is nothing to see here.” Actually, there is something really concerning to see here, and more examples have been raised this afternoon.
A number of hon. Members present were also at a meeting with the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who recently visited the UK Parliament to alert us to some of these fresh issues. I want to put on the record my tribute to Fleur Hassan-Nahoum for her work on this matter and more broadly in that difficult but wonderful city of Jerusalem, across its divisions. A few weeks ago, I was with her, with other members of my party. As well as talking about this issue, Fleur introduced us to some inspiring Palestinian Arab women in Jerusalem who are setting up their own businesses.
There are reasons to be hopeful when visiting the region. I go there most years wearing my CFI hat. I am always looking for those green shoots of hope. There are reasons to be hopeful, but confronting an issue such as this can make us feel incredibly depressed. Those young minds are being poisoned. When I meet Palestinians in the West Bank, one of the big barriers to any serious talk of a two-state solution and a peace deal that I become conscious of is a pervasive cultural acceptance of and support for violence. That starts at a really young age, with young minds in school.
As a Government that take pride in the aid that we give, it is right that we support humanitarian assistance to Palestinians—I believe in that—but it is also right that we ask difficult questions about how that money is spent. It is not good enough to be told that we are not funding these textbooks directly. The fact is that we are funding education in the Palestinian Territories. That is a good thing, if it is done well. We should own this issue and be more challenging of our friends in the Palestinian Authority, who, for whatever reason, try to make us believe there is not a serious issue here, when there is.
I say to the Minister that this issue goes beyond the Palestinian Territories. Different organisations, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide, recently raised with me examples of extremism and discriminatory language in textbooks used in Pakistani schools. Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of UK aid. There is a broader issue here about how we are spending aid. As a friend and supporter of the UK aid budget, I want to see aid spent well.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for raising this difficult subject. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing the debate. I thank him for the way he set the scene. I am happy to stand with him and other hon. Members on this matter, and to say to the Minister that there must be a change in the way things are done in this Department.
This is not the first time I have spoken on this issue, and I assure hon. Members and the Department that as long as God spares me this will not be the last time, unless aid distributed by DFID is not misused, as currently is the case. I was a member of the DUP Friends of Israel group in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I am a member here too. I unapologetically stand with Israel and its citizens in this debate.
As the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) said, I want Palestine to have the opportunity to go forward and the two-state solution could well be the way to do that, but for that to happen there must be commitment from the Palestinians. They must stop their attacks upon Israelis, and that must be the basis for any progress.
I ask the Minister to request that his Department reviews the UK funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, where the money goes through to the Palestinian refugees. It seems to me—the information we received indicates this—that they are deliberately using educational books to focus on Palestinian young people, who are easily influenced. It is important that education is not used for the wrong reasons.
We should remember that the controversy around the use of different funds by the Palestinian Authority is not new; it covers many more issues than Palestinian textbooks. Although that is the starting point, it shows what the end goal is: namely, to perpetuate hatred against Israelis by indoctrinating children with spin and lies, which is more akin to what Goebbels would have done in the second world war. This House must not aid the Palestinian propaganda machine by ignoring the signs.
Ever since I entered the House in 2010, the misuse of funds has been a regular topic. For example, successive DFID Ministers regularly denied that a World Bank trust fund to which the UK made significant contributions enabled money to be sent to terrorists. The evidence said differently. The recipients claimed that the money funded the salaries of 85,000 Palestinian Authorities civil servants, but as far back as 2014 a report by the International Development Committee stated:
“We are nevertheless concerned that DFID is not taking adequate measures to prevent its funds from being misused. Given the scale of the operation, with 85,000 civil servants being paid with UK money, there is a serious risk of abuse. We do not regard a six-monthly audit as an adequate protection to secure the integrity of UK aid funds… We recommend that DFID impose more stringent checks to ensure that the money it provides to the PA is not being misused while pursuing a constructive dialogue with the PA on the end-use of funds.”
Having enjoyed conversations with the hon. Gentleman, I know that he speaks with years of experience. My stepmother was involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland, using music education to bring the different factions together. Does he agree that Northern Ireland is a good example of how, when peace and tolerance are taught in the curriculum, we can unite a country, rather than continue to see division, as we do with the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis and the Arab people of the area?
I agree. In my conversations with the hon. Gentleman prior to this debate we discussed those matters and were clear on what we wish to see. Northern Ireland may be an example, and it is one we use many times. We now have a working Assembly again, so there is an indication of a political process that can move forward. That requires tolerance and that both sides of society are prepared to be more respectful of others.
To return to the report of the International Development Committee, it has subsequently been discovered that the list of 85,000 civil servants to which DFID claimed it used to pay out millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money did not exist, and DFID swiftly redirected the funds to health projects. If the money is transferred for the purposes of education or health, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred to, no one would see anything wrong with that, but when it is transferred or used for a different purpose, action must be taken.
I understand that this is a difficult debate for the Minister. Whenever the facts are presented, they cannot be ignored. Christian, Jew, Muslim or atheist, the simple fact is that the misuse of millions of pounds of money cannot be acceptable. One interested party said to me that, in his opinion, the Minister’s job is to protect taxpayer’s funds, given that previous Ministers and civil servants have been less than successful when it comes to directing Palestinian aid.
The indoctrination of children cannot be funded out of aid. We cannot advocate for hatred. We send that message today. The Minister is the only one with the power to make a change, which would speak louder than my words ever could. Whatever reassurances the Minister offers today will have to be backed up by hard evidence. We must be convinced that not one penny can be diverted from those sources that we all agree it should go to: food and healthcare for the children caught up in this through no fault of their own. They must not be trapped in such a vicious cycle for the rest of their lives.
I look to the Minister, and I will continue looking to him, not because I like him, although he looks well—[Laughter.]—but because he is the Minister who has to answer the questions. It is really important that the Department and the Government find the right approach to aid that will end up only in the classroom, with food in the bellies of innocent children. Let us have an honest answer from DFID of where we are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I draw Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Along with many other Members, I participated in a fact-finding trip to Israel, paid for by Conservative Friends of Israel, only last month. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate and on his exceptionally powerful and moving speech. I will not cover the same ground, but the trip that I have just been on and his speech have made it clear to me that we have an awful lot of work to do in this area.
I was struck deeply by this beautiful, historic, troubled land. The names are familiar to many of us and have been for a long time, often for very unhappy reasons. Like everyone here, I long for nothing more than for peace, and for the Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live together in harmony and make the most of this wonderful land together, but I struggle to see how that will happen when the educational biosphere in which young Palestinians grow up is saturated with antisemitic hatred. My hon. Friend quoted some examples from the IMPACT-se report, which I also have in front of me, and I will quote one or two others. One example that particularly struck me was the teaching in science of Newton’s second law:
“During the first Palestinian uprising, Palestinian youths used slingshots to confront the soldiers of the Zionist Occupation and defend themselves from their treacherous bullets. What is the relationship between the elongation of the slingshot’s rubber and the tensile strength affecting it? What are the forces that influence the stone after its release from the slingshot?”
I was particularly struck by that because it normalises violence and legitimises hatred. There is no way that children are likely to grow up with a normal, benevolent attitude to their fellow citizens when science is taught in such a way.
A second example that particularly struck me came from “Arabic Language”:
“Students in grade 9 Arabic study a story describing a firebomb attack on Israeli passengers traveling on a bus, reporting the terror incident as a ‘barbecue party’...on one of the buses of the colonial settlement.”
Not only is that unacceptable material; it constitutes antisemitic hatred that will prolong and worsen the terrible troubles in that land.
We have established that the curriculum contains difficult material, on which action must be taken. From the Palestinian Authority, we have white-washing and sanitisation; according to the Library briefing, they have said that the contentious parts of the curriculum are “the ripple effects” of the conflict. UNRWA states that it reviews textbooks rigorously and that its curriculum framework
“aims to ensure that our curriculum is in line with UN values.”
To say that it “aims” to do so is surely not good enough.
Then we come to the UK Government’s position. I understand DFID’s perspective that it does not fund the making of the textbooks, but that is a little bit lawyerly, given that it funds the teachers who teach the material in the textbooks. Whichever way we look at it, the UK taxpayer is funding the teaching of this material, even if we do not actually fund the production of the textbooks. We surely have to do something about that.
I know that the Government have an independent report, and I am sure the Minister will refer to it in due course, but will he be kind enough to answer three questions from me? First, why has there been a delay? In December 2018, the review was meant to be completed by September 2019. Secondly, DFID has stated that it “will take action”, but what will that action be? Given that the UK does not fund the textbooks, what action will the Minister be able to take? Thirdly, what comment does he have on the IMPACT-se report, which shows that, despite the objections of European politicians for the third year in a row, the teaching material still exists? That must be changed. Will the Minister comment on those points?
I am afraid we will to have to set a time limit of three minutes, and then it will be 10 minutes for the respective Front-Bench speakers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) on his new role. I, too, refer hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I also went to Israel and the west bank on a fact-finding mission last month.
Hon. Members have highlighted the truly appalling content of Palestinian textbooks in Gaza and the west bank, where textbooks on radical Islamism are being used that are more extreme than previous versions. My hon. Friends have cited extracts that are certainly damning in their divisive nature. However, reform is possible. For instance, Jordan comprehensively reviewed its curriculum in 2015 in response to concerns about radicalisation in the country, and terrorism is now depicted as killing innocent people and having devastating consequences. That is not the case in the textbooks that we are discussing, however. Although it is not perfect, Jordan’s curriculum can generally be seen as an indication that reform is possible. I wholeheartedly hope that the Palestinian Authority review the textbooks and reflect on their own curriculum to try to encourage future peace with the state of Israel.
Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that Jordan’s education reforms show that an alternative approach is achievable and desirable? Is the Minister aware of any ongoing discussions between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority about the content of their respective curriculums? We should not lose hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. There is already extensive security co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and there are some fantastic NGOs on the ground in Israel and the west bank laying the groundwork for peace. My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) has already referred to the fantastic work that Fleur Hassan, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, is undertaking on the ground in the east of the city.
I will skip forward in the speech that I prepared and ask the Minister a few questions. I hope he will agree that a new approach will empower those who support peace and the two-state solution, rather than the radical voices that benefit from the status quo and continued resentment. That will allow us to support the moving forward of the peace deal. Ultimately, we are not, and nor should we be, in a position to dictate how the Palestinians can and cannot educate their children. Can the Government truly be committed to stamping out antisemitism in our own country when they fund it in a foreign nation? Is it right that we fund divisive, antisemitic, anti-Israeli propaganda?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I declare an interest as a parliamentary officer of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I have visited Israel with them. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate.
Education is a social and cultural right for any child. It plays an important role in reducing poverty and promoting peace and tolerance, regardless of race, religion or gender. School education is one of the most powerful tools available for countering extremist influences. Parents and teachers know and appreciate that young children are extremely impressionable and easily influenced by people in positions of authority, and by the teaching and the books given to them. That underlines the importance of the quality and accuracy of what is taught to children, not only here at home but abroad.
The UK plays an important role in providing financial support to people in need in all corners of the world, and we should be proud of our nation’s contribution to the Palestinian people through UNRWA. UK financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority this year has paid the salaries of 39,000 teachers, doctors, nurses and midwives in the west bank, who have helped to immunise up to 3,700 children against prevalent diseases. The Palestinian Authority have overseen education provision since 1994, following the Oslo accords. It is unfortunate that since they took it on, they have issued the textbooks—they are used in schools in the west bank, the Gaza strip and most of the schools in East Jerusalem—that are the subject of this debate today.
Over the past five years, the Department for International Development has awarded £330 million to UNWRA. However, the agency insists that the schools must follow the curriculum set by the Palestinian Authority, which, as we have heard, glorifies martyrdom and rejects peaceful coexistence with Israel. Although the agency’s work includes healthcare, relief and social services, most of the funding that it receives—58%—goes towards education. It is a matter of concern that the textbooks that are used are educating young minds to accept prejudice and hatred, so that six-year-old Palestinian children are reading poems promoting violence, and science lessons depict a young boy with a slingshot targeting Israeli soldiers.
I know that the EU supported an independent review conducted by the Georg Eckert Institute, which is due to report its findings. Should it be the case that the curriculum and its textbooks are indeed warping young minds, rather than educating them, would the Minister agree that the UK should reconsider its funding and insist on a guarantee that schools funded through DFID will teach a non-discriminatory syllabus?
Order. Subject to there being no interventions, I think we will make it with three minutes each for the remaining speakers.
I join my hon. Friends in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing today’s debate; it is right for the House to consider this important motion. By considering the worrying levels of radicalisation in Palestinian schools today, we are supporting the peace brokers of tomorrow. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I have travelled to Israel and Palestine on a fact-finding trip.
One thing that the House can do is to agree to denounce any form of hate speech or radicalisation in any curriculum. We must seek to stop radicalisation in schools to curtail extremism where we can. We must recognise that there is a dangerous level of problematic content in the Palestinian curriculum, and that only through diplomatic pressure can we prevent long-term escalation and conflict.
The radicalisation of the Palestinian curriculum is shocking, and I am appalled by the content that is being taught to children from a young age. At its heart, the curriculum repeats a call to arms and a stark antisemitism that risks stability in the region. Calling for teenagers to give their lives for jihad falls far short of UN standards, or indeed any acceptable standards. We have heard the horrific details of how violence is perpetuated through the curriculum.
The radicalisation of the curriculum is, perhaps, most worrying when it rejects the viability of peace in the region. The new curriculum systematically alters history to remove the validity of lasting peace. It no longer mentions previous treaties from the 20th century. The curriculum must acknowledge those treaties to encourage a viable two-state solution in the future. Further important international agreements on the creation of the state of Israel, and Jewish cultural and historical roots in the region, have been omitted.
It is vital for the long-term stability of the region that the school curriculum should teach that peace is a real possibility. That can be achieved only through the recognition of multiple cultural and religious connections to the land. By removing the validity of a two-state system, the Palestinian Authority seek to create a generation of nationalists. Rather than promoting peace and prosperity, the curriculum pushes for martyrdom and jihad. The omission of historical accords does nothing to help to promote lasting peace.
It is not right that British international aid—British taxpayers’ money—is going towards supporting a curriculum that actively perpetuates hate. Britain has always supported developing countries through education, and I want that to continue long into the future. It is, however, vital that the Government should limit spending where there is clear evidence—
Order. Forgive me; I call John Howell.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing the debate and allowing us the opportunity to highlight this important issue. I, too, want to refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, with reference to trips to Israel.
My hon. Friend mentioned the recent wave of violence against Israelis: 87 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming terror attacks in the past five years and more than 1,500 people have been wounded, many of whom face life-changing injuries. Since the Oslo accords of 1993, instead of educating its people towards peaceful coexistence with Israel, the Palestinian leadership has radicalised a new generation of Palestinians, and many are intent on harming Israelis and Jews.
Hon. Members will now be aware of the background of continuous incitement in Palestinian society—from an educational system that denies Israel’s right to exist, to the provision of financial incentives to terrorists and their families. Is the Minister aware, and does he share my concerns, that despite assurances from the current and previous Palestinian Education Ministers that incitement will be removed from textbooks, no change has taken place since October 2017? Since there has been no change in three years, how does the Minister intend to ensure that the Palestinian Authority implements the recommendations of the long-awaited EU review? I echo colleagues’ calls for the EU report to be made publicly available. Does the Minister agree that that is crucial for transparency?
The Palestinian leadership delivers messages in Arabic to the Palestinian people entirely contradicting the promises they make in English to UK and foreign officials. Is the Minister concerned that the Palestinian leadership says one thing to UK officials and another to the Palestinian people? Does he agree that UK taxpayers’ hard-earned money should not be enabling support to be given to terrorism, however indirectly?
Incitement to violence of such a magnitude is simply difficult to accept. We have a duty not only to UK taxpayers, to spend their money wisely, but also to future generations of Palestinians, who deserve a future filled with opportunities, not hate. I, too, started out as an optimist on this journey, and I am trying hard to put together at the Council of Europe an exhibition of projects that Israelis and Palestinians have worked on together, including Save a Child’s Heart and the work in East Jerusalem that others have referred to. I hope that it comes about, to show that those Palestinians who are derided for—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
We did have one more speaker, but he is obviously detained in his office or somewhere else, so I will go straight to the Front Bencher from the Scottish National party, who has 10 minutes.
Thank you, Sir Charles; colleagues will be glad to know that I will come nowhere near 10 minutes. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in my first Westminster Hall debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on having brought this important subject before the House. As Members may be aware, before my election to this place I was for 15 years a Member of the European Parliament, where I served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and took a particular interest in the middle east, which is where I grew up. I have a personal connection to the region, and in the middle east, everything is connected to everything else. If anybody who is engaging with the middle east thinks that there are simple answers to black-and-white problems, they really need to pay attention to the wider context.
It goes without saying, but is worth saying none the less, that my party deplores antisemitism in the same way as we deplore Islamophobia and any bigotry, however it is directed. We take a position of principled neutrality on the middle east conflict, but we are in favour of a two-state solution. It is important to have a balanced debate and discussion on these matters. If Members will forgive me, I am not sure that we have entirely achieved balance in our discussion thus far.
There is a problem with Palestinian textbooks. This is a well trodden path that the European Parliament has examined a number of times, and as we have already heard, the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgets has called for the suspension of funding to the Palestinian Authority pending resolution of these problems. A live investigation of these matters is under way, and the Georg Eckert Institute is conducting an impartial assessment for the European Union. It is my understanding that that report will be made public, as such reports tend to be, but I join colleagues in calling for it to be made public, because I think the best solution to this issue is ventilation and transparency about what the issues are.
None the less, we should be proud of the fact that we fund teachers, fund UNRWA, and fund the education of some of the most desperate youth in the world. The radicalisation of Palestinian children is of course a problem and something we should be concerned about, but if anybody thinks textbooks are the primary reason why Palestinian children are being radicalised, they are not paying attention to the wider context. We can agree, however, that there is an issue that needs to be looked at and ventilated, as the European Union is doing. I am proud that the United Kingdom Government are funding UNRWA’s humanitarian and educational efforts, which are important in a pretty hopeless part of the world. If we want to see where radicalisation is coming from, it is to be found in the hopeless situation that Palestinian youth and the Palestinian people find themselves in.
The Balfour declaration has long roots; we in this House and in these islands are bound to the people of the region. Whatever the constitutional future of the region, we want to see an educated populace, we want to see peace, and we want to see an end to that radicalisation. I agree that textbook content needs to be addressed, and it is being addressed by the European Union in an impartial report. I suggest that we pay close attention to that and reconvene when we have its findings. That will be a better discussion than the ideological discussion that we have heard today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing his first debate. He started with a tough subject, for which I admire him. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I declare an interest as I visited the region with the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians.
We all care deeply about the education of children across the world. Nobody comes to this place thinking that that is not exceptionally important. It is even more important in the vulnerable refugee communities that are rightly at the forefront of the Department for International Development’s work. I want to be clear that there is no place for promoting hate or intolerance in school curricula or textbooks anywhere in the world. We have a double responsibility where UK aid may be present, either tangentially or in another form.
Last month, I visited the consul general. Hanging outside his residence is a sign that reads,
“Our mission in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. To advance the United Kingdom’s security and prosperity through a just peace between a stable, democratic Palestinian State and Israel, based on 1967 borders, ending the Occupation by agreement. To strengthen the ties of friendship between the Palestinian and British peoples.”
That is a worthy goal and a worthy ideal that I suspect all 650 MPs would just about agree with. That is the context for the debate. With a sense of sadness, I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) that perhaps we are having this debate a few months too early. The exceptionally important review of the Georg Eckert Institute will set a context beyond the anger that has properly flown around, and settle things in independent facts. As a result, we will have a better discussion.
I do not mean to be critical, but I was concerned by references to the IMPACT-se report. When Alistair Burt, who is no longer of this parish but who was admired on both sides of the House, was the responsible Minister, he said in a written answer that he was “concerned at…the allegations” in the report and was
“working to commission a robust study”
of it, but that his assessment was that it was
“not objective in its findings and lacked methodological rigour”.
As long as our debates are based on such facts, we will struggle to move forwards. We have a responsibility to try to assemble the best facts.
The Department was right, therefore, when it said last March that it wanted to take an active interest in the issue in conjunction with international partners. If we are to have something that everybody has confidence in, it is best to act collectively, and the EU is an obvious actor in that place. The Opposition have supported the review throughout, and we will to continue to support it, because it has significant implications. What stems from the review will have an impact on the lives of refugee children—what they learn, where they learn and whether they receive an education at all. Those are exceptionally important matters that make a significant difference to people’s lives. We need to work collectively. It was bad when the United States unilaterally pulled out of UNRWA, because that does not promote anything. Even if a country has problems with institutions, to act in that way does not promote peaceful goals and certainly not a two-state solution.
We were expecting the review to be completed in September, so we are six months on. Since it was launched, there has been a lot of change in the Department’s leadership. There have been four Secretaries of State in that time; the Minister is the third Minister who I have shadowed. There is a fear that things will be missed. We hope that there will now be a period of stability and genuine commitment to the Department by the Government.
I know and respect the Minister. He is a good Minister who will do a good job. Like me, he is a plain speaker, so I have some plain questions that I hope will some get plain answers. When will the report be published? What are the Government doing to roll the pitch so that we are ready to act on those recommendations? What conversations are taking place with the Palestinian Authority and what is the nature of those conversations? The hon. Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned the importance of the Palestinian Authority, and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) asked the Minister what the Palestinian Authority are willing to do. From talking to colleagues in the sector, my understanding is that the PA have said that they are willing to accept criticism and to engage. That has to be the right thing to do.
I do not know the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) well, but he made the outstanding contribution of the debate and spoke brilliantly when he said that we have to see the issue through a lens of reform being possible. That was not the tone of the whole debate. We need to work on it as a moving thing and a live thing. To do that, we need the debate.
UNRWA is another live matter. We were flyered outside the Chamber by someone wanting to put a report about UNRWA into our hands. Many people use this subject—I am not referring to hon. Members who have engaged with it seriously and soberly—as a proxy measure to damn UNRWA’s work and undermine it. We do that at our peril. UNRWA supports 5.5 million refugees with a range of vital services including education, healthcare, social services, infrastructure services and microfinance, about which the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) spoke strongly. When we undermine UNRWA, we pick at and risk those things.
When I visited the occupied territories last month and I was at the Aida refugee camp, I met UNRWA staff and my first question was about textbooks. Their analysis was that, in their opinion, less than about 3% contravene UN principles, largely on age appropriateness, gender representation and inclusiveness, rather than on issues with Israel; they said that, in response, they had supplemented the curriculum with human rights content. I am interested to hear the Minister’s reflections on whether that chimes with the best information he has. The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) suggested that the curriculum was saturated. It is absolutely critical that we know the facts, so we know where to go next.
I am always respectful to other hon. Members, but if an evidential base proves that the money has been used for ulterior motives, which is wrong, surely that cannot be ignored.
No, absolutely. This is a case where 97% or 99% compliance will not give hon. Members or people worldwide much confidence. Of course, 1% is too much, but that is the basis to start from. We need to start from the evidence base, which is why we need the report.
I want to be clear that I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Earlier, he criticised the IMPACT-se study and said that he would like a more objective study, which is why we should wait. I am happy with that, but surely the impressionistic view that has been given to him, that 3% is not compliant and that there is some supplementary material, is also a subjective assessment. Should we not be wary of putting too much emphasis on that? Would we not be better to settle for his original proposition that, if there is doubt, let us have the clear unbiased objective report and a guarantee that action will be taken on its findings?
I am grateful for the intervention. On the IMPACT-se point, those were not my words, but the words of the then Minister. On UNRWA, I take the point that we need to see it in the round, but I do not see UNRWA as a particularly politicised operator, and it was on its numbers that I was relying.
From my time with UNRWA, it was clear that if its support stopped quickly, which it could if other Governments act as the United States did, there would not be significant support for people who desperately need it. The Government ought to be commended on their actions when that happened. I hope we can sustain that.
Surely that is exactly the point. UNRWA should act quickly to address all the concerns and issues that have been raised. All hon. Members want aid to reach people who are desperately in need, but at the same time, they do not want aid to be used counterproductively or in a way that promotes terrorist ideologies.
Absolutely. I am sure the staff of UNRWA do not want to be in classrooms teaching such things either. We have common cause here—we need to look at the evidence, because what we need to do will flow from that.
It is important that we look at the wider context. We are answering a fundamental question: why are young Palestinians being radicalised? We have picked one element of the issue—a very important element of it—but I also saw military courts where children were offered arbitrary sentences that were shorter than the period of time they would have been detained to have a full trial. We heard first-hand stories of inconsistent access to life-saving medical treatments. We visited suburbs that had been developed around and heard from children about their lack of hope for their community. Everyone will have seen the physical checkpoints and walls that those children have no prospect of ever passing through. Their lives are lived under the constant threat of demolition. We heard from Israel defence force soldiers, who said it was a part of their operating procedure to inconvenience and to disturb Palestinians, especially young men.
That is the broader context. We serve nobody if we choose only a little bit of context to try to answer the whole question. I know today we have focused on a very important issue—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is right to raise it—and we should find solutions, because it gets to the very core of why we use aid spending in this country. However, we will serve no one in the pursuit of a two-state solution if we look like we are picking sides.
As I stood up to speak, I thought about my friends who often have contrasting views on these issues, and I thought, “I hope that when I sit down, I will at least have disappointed them equally.” That is the territory that we are in here and that is the spirit in which we need to continue these conversations. Hopefully, we can revisit it after we have seen the report.
Before I call the Minister, I would just point out to him that if he stops speaking at 4.25 pm, that will give the mover of the motion two minutes to wind up. I call the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this debate and speaking so passionately. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. It is quite clear that this issue generates significant interest and passion in all corners of the House.
I wish to make a couple of broad points as a backdrop to my further comments. I will seek to address as many of the questions that have been brought up as possible. The Government are clear that quality education is vital to individuals, their families, their communities and wider society. Education has the power not only to transform lives, but to bring hope and to build the foundations for a sustainable, long-term peace, and that is particularly true in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Government are committed to a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.
We believe that girls’ education is the key that unlocks so many of the challenges around the world; it can break the cycle of poverty, improve health and bring lifelong opportunities to entire countries. That is why we are prioritising the delivery of 12 years of quality education. It is a global priority, which is vital for all girls around the world, including those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—in Gaza and the west bank. The education of girls is going to be part of the road to a sustainable two-state solution. It is also worth bearing in mind that UNRWA funding, to which the UK contributes, means that half of the people educated in Gaza and the west bank are girls. Without the support of UNRWA, that might not necessarily be the case.
An enduring principle that I think we can all agree on is that antisemitism is unacceptable in all its forms; it is offensive, hateful and has no place anywhere in society, least of all in classrooms. We are therefore deeply concerned by reports of radicalisation in the Palestinian education system, and specifically concerns about the Palestinian Authority’s textbooks and the incitement of hatred and violence towards Israelis. It is clear from this debate that those concerns are shared by Members from all parties in the House.
I will offer the Government’s perspective on this issue and set out the steps that we are taking to address it, and in doing so I hope to cover the questions asked by right hon. and hon. Members. It is important to remember that the UK does not fund textbooks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The allegations relating to incitement in the Palestinian education system came to international attention following the publication in 2018 of the report by an Israeli non-governmental organisation, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education—IMPACT-se. They are serious allegations and we take them seriously but, as has already been discussed, they are contested by the Palestinian Authority.
We need to encourage change and support improvement in the Palestinian Authority, and an independent review will help to underpin that, which is why the UK has repeatedly raised concerns about the textbooks with the Palestinian Authority. Most recently, my right hon. friend the Secretary of State for International Development reiterated our concerns in a call to the Palestinian Authority’s Education Minister just last month—it was one of the first calls she made after being appointed by the Prime Minister.
I am pleased to confirm that the Palestinian Education Minister is leading a review into the content of school textbooks, which will be completed in time for the start of the next academic year in September. He has committed that his team are taking into consideration the feedback from a range of sources, both domestic and international, and we seek to support that work.
In addition to our engagement with the Palestinian Authority, the UK has led international efforts to get to the bottom of the situation with regard to the content in the Palestinian Authority textbooks. We funded the development work for the methodology of an independent review, which is sponsored by the European Union. That review by the specialist and respected Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research is under way. As has been discussed, we expect the interim report in the spring, with the full report later on.
It is good news that the Palestinian Minister is undertaking a review. Have we also got an assurance that any textbooks that are found to be wrong, in every sense of the word, will be withdrawn and not used in the next academic year? That is the point.
The short answer is that we do not have an absolute guarantee, but as in so much of the work that we do with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, human interaction, persuasion and good old-fashioned diplomacy can bring about change, and that is what we seek to do in our relationship, hence my right hon. friend the Secretary of State engaging so quickly with the Palestinian Authority’s Education Minister.
As I have said, we expect the interim report in the spring and the full report later this year. It is ultimately for the European Union to decide whether it puts the report in the public domain; it is, after all, its report. However, it has been said on both sides of the House that transparency is our friend in this instance, and we will continue to encourage the EU to put that report in the public domain. I think it is worth waiting for that report to underpin the basis for our response to these concerns and our interaction with the Palestinian Authority. We have regular interaction with our European partners on the review and we encourage transparency.
The Government are firm believers in the positive power of education. We are proud of the support that we are providing for education around the world, including in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is a vital part of our wider effort to improve lives. In 2018-19, UK aid enabled 26,000 young Palestinians to be educated, and half of them were girls. We do not want to lose that, which is why I treat with caution calls to withdraw funding from UNRWA, because some young people—particularly girls—might lose the opportunity to have an education at all if that were the case. We are very uncomfortable with that option and that risk.
Our money to support education on the west bank goes into a specially dedicated bank account and is paid only to the individuals who are vetted through the Palestinian-European socio-economic management assistance mechanism. Each payment is individually audited to ensure that the money is received by the intended recipient. It is a rigorous process, which means that the UK can be confident that none of our aid is diverted. No UK aid is used for payments to prisoners or their families. Helping to meet essential education needs does not contradict our clear and long-standing message to the Palestinian Authority about prisoner payments.
I apologise for not being present for the start of the debate; I had a Select Committee meeting that clashed. I first raised this issue with a parliamentary question in the European Parliament 19 years ago. Why has the problem not been fixed?
I detect in the tone of my right hon. Friend’s question her frustration at the delay in resolving some of these problems. She is far from alone in feeling frustration that the peace process in the middle east has not progressed as quickly as we would like, but we are actively engaging on this issue. I reiterate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has engaged quickly and directly with the Palestinian Authority, and we genuinely hope that a balanced and independently produced report will be the key that unlocks what has been an intractable problem until this point. We will use that, and our position as a respected, honest broker between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government, to try to push for improvement and reform.
I think the question that we all have in mind is this: is there not a suitable methodology within the system? It is good to provide money for Palestinian children’s education, and I understand the logic behind that. What I do not understand is how we check that. How does the Minister or UNWRA ensure that textbooks do not contain material that could lead to terrorism and change children’s opinions? That is the thrust of it.
I recognise the hon. Member’s point. We absolutely recognise that this is an imperfect situation, but we are working with the Palestinian Authority, as we will continue to do, to reinforce and support moves to improve textbooks. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) pointed out that Jordan has significantly improved the content of its textbooks. There is a pattern, and that is something on which we will engage with the Palestinian Authority.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate; I too was at a Select Committee hearing. Given that this has been an issue for 19 years, what faith does the Minister genuinely have that the Palestinian Authority will investigate the matter properly?
Minister, you have a minute and a half left.
Thank you, Sir Charles.
The simple truth is that we have to work with the Palestinian Authority. We have to encourage and support them to do the right thing, but ultimately a sustainable two-state solution will have to be negotiated between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority. Although there may be concerns about the ability or willingness of the Palestinian Authority to engage in this, they are the organisation through which we have to work in order to have a credible and sustainable two-state solution, so we will be patient. We will be persistent, we will be principled and we will be balanced, but we will keep pushing this agenda.
Mr Gullis, you have until no later than 4.27 pm to wrap up.
I am a committed believer in having a UK aid budget that will make a massive difference. However, I cannot escape the fear that, although we might be not paying for textbooks directly, we are somehow freeing up cash within the Palestinian Authority education system to fund the textbooks being distributed, to fund the teachers’ training and to have those teachers use the textbooks as part of their wider teacher training programme.
I applaud the Department for International Development. Back in July 2017 it allocated £3 million towards peaceful co-existence projects, which is exactly how I want to see the budget spent. Let us not forget that it is not just the United States of America that has pulled out of UNWRA; New Zealand, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium all ceased funding back in 2019, due to serious concerns about ethical misconduct allegations. This issue will not simply go away, and we need to look further into UNWRA and what it is doing in the region.
I first engaged with this issue when I visited the region last summer, and I was pleased that it received the national attention it deserves in a recent Daily Mail investigation. A few months ago I was teaching at my local school, where every day I saw at first hand the importance of providing children with an education free from prejudice and bias. This place offers an incredible platform to raise such issues, and I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered radicalisation in the Palestinian school curriculum.