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Israel: DfID Secretary of State Meetings

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2017


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend Alistair Burt to an Urgent Question in another place earlier this afternoon. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, may I start by explaining that the Secretary of State is on a prearranged government visit to Africa to focus on how we are breaking down barriers to trade, helping African countries achieve their development ambitions, reducing dependence on aid and helping build Britain’s trading partners of the future?

I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the Secretary of State’s trip to Israel earlier this year. The Secretary of State made a public statement yesterday. In it, she explained that she had the opportunity to meet a number of people and organisations in Israel. A list of whom she met and what they covered was published yesterday as part of the statement. The Secretary of State realises in hindsight that these meetings were not arranged following the usual procedures, and she has apologised for that. The Foreign Office has said that UK interests were not damaged or affected by the meetings on this visit.

I hope that honourable Members will therefore agree that, now she has made that apology and published details of the meetings, we should accept that and refocus on our vital work of tackling extreme poverty and humanitarian crises across the world”.

My Lords, this is fundamentally about transparency and accountability. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office only became aware of this visit a full day after it had taken place. Numerous meetings had taken place without the FCO being aware. More importantly, no officials from even her own department were aware or present. It appears that the only person who may have been present was a Member of your Lordships’ House. I think that requires proper investigation and a proper declaration of interest.

The noble Lord said that an apology had been made and accepted and that that was the end of the matter. I do not accept that. I hope he will agree that it would be extremely valuable if this matter were formally referred to the Cabinet Office for an investigation, so that lessons can be learned by all concerned. It is not good enough simply to apologise and say that the matter is at an end.

On that point, the Secretary of State made clear the meetings that occurred. In her statement yesterday she said:

“In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be misread, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologise for it”.

But we need to recognise that the Secretary of State was having meetings in a country that is a major ally, a democracy, a major trading partner and a friend. During part of her trip—this was listed in the meetings that she set out in her statement yesterday—she visited a number of NGOs, including Save a Child’s Heart, which works with Palestinian and Israeli children, and Wheelchairs of Hope. One can see that the Secretary of State was, in her enthusiasm, as she says, carrying out her work passionately even during her vacation. That said, she recognises that the usual procedures were not followed in the way that they should have been. She has learned a lesson from it and the Prime Minister has accepted her apology. That is why we are moving on.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for DfID has repeatedly admonished her department for not being sufficiently transparent in making sure that every single penny of UK taxpayers’ aid money gives value for money, yet she herself goes rogue. She meets with the Israeli Prime Minister. Regardless of what the Minister says, it is a very sensitive region indeed—particularly in this year, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Nevertheless, she meets the Israeli Prime Minister, in secret, without her officials, without the prior knowledge of the Foreign Office and without the prior knowledge even of Prime Minister Theresa May herself. Furthermore, on her return to the UK, she attempts to influence government policy by asking that UK taxpayer money be handed over to the Israeli army for aid work in the illegally annexed Golan Heights. Does the Minister agree that she has comprehensively broken the Ministerial Code, forfeited the respect of colleagues and officials and should, in all decency, go?

I do not accept that. Indeed, Section 8.14 of the Ministerial Code states:

“Ministers meet many people and organisations and consider a wide range of views as part of the formulation of Government policy”.

It does not make a specific point on that. That is why the Prime Minister has responded today to say that we need some clarification. It is important that people see that these meetings are occurring, and that that is important.

The Israeli Defense Forces’ Operation Good Neighbor in the Golan Heights provides emergency medical support to Syrians crossing the border. It has received widespread humanitarian recognition for what it is doing, and that was something that was explored. But our policy is that, because it is part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, we would not support such a programme because we do not believe that the Israeli Defense Forces should be there. Therefore, the answer was no to that.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether the Secretary of State took the opportunity while she was there to visit any part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories? In particular, did she go to the DfID office in occupied East Jerusalem? It is in a part of East Jerusalem where there is a good deal of illegal Israeli settlement activity, which she could have observed. Of course, both there, in Gaza and elsewhere, DfID has very important programmes which she should have investigated. If she did not visit on this occasion, will he do his best to urge her to make an early visit?

All I can say to my noble friend is that, in the list of 16 meetings that were published as part of the statement, no specific location was given that appeared to be in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. But it could well be—we need to check this out—that one of the charities that she visited, Save A Child’s Heart, could have been located there. The wider point that my noble friend makes about the importance of DfID’s work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, working with UNRWA and others in that area, is very important. We are spending £68 million this year in that area and it is providing important humanitarian relief. I will relay his points about the importance of visiting and viewing those places to the Secretary of State.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify one point about his Secretary of State’s activities during her busman’s holiday? Will he say whether, having held all these meetings, including one with the Israeli Prime Minister, she recorded what passed and circulated the records to all the departments that have responsibility for relations with Israel? If he is unable to give a positive answer to that, could he take the issue way and ask her to rack her brain and write a few records?

Just a minute—I was making that point. To answer the specific point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on who is responsible, the Secretary of State provided detail in her statement yesterday of what was discussed in the meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: the Secretary of State’s family background, her personal journey, the Israeli domestic political scene, India, the Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to the UK and prospects for closer collaboration between Israel and the UK on development. Should those discussions have been circulated earlier? That is why the Secretary of State apologised and why the Prime Minister accepted that apology.

The Ministers of this country are representatives of the Government of this country, whether on holiday or official visits. Clearly, there are principles, are there not, which ought to be clear about the support Ministers should have and the kind of reporting that needs to take place. Are these not principles that apply, whatever country was involved?

This case has highlighted some ambiguity in the operations in travelling overseas for Ministers. The benefit that will come from this is greater clarity on what those rules and procedures should be. Clearly, we are entering a very important stage in the UK’s global relations. We want to make sure we are as joined up as possible, working together as a team and leveraging all our personal contacts around the world for the UK national interest. Lessons will be learned, not least by the Secretary of State.

We have the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs telling a Select Committee of the House something that was not correct, and now we have another Secretary of State—for International Development—telling the press and the world that she had told the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in advance of her visit, then saying that she did not do it. What do you have to do in this Government to get sacked?

The point the noble Lord raises is one of procedure, in terms of how these meetings take place. The noble Lord was a very senior Cabinet Minister for many years and has held many senior positions; he will know that one of the great benefits he gained from that time is personal contacts and friendships around the world that occasionally, even on unofficial visits, it is possible to have. That is for the good of the country. Therefore, using those contacts is something the Secretary of State has done; she has said that she is sorry for that, that she did not do it in the right way and that in future she, and all other Ministers, will behave differently as the changes to the ministerial code come into play.

My Lords, I apologise to the House, but this is an Urgent Question on which questioning lasts 10 minutes. It is always open to noble Lords to put down debates on any subject in the future.