With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the G8.
The Government decided to hold the G8 in Northern Ireland to demonstrate the strength of this part of the United Kingdom. We wanted to show the success of the peace process, the openness for business and investment, and the potential for tourism and growth. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the First and Deputy First Ministers for all they did to help with the conference, I congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland and all those responsible for delivering a safe and successful G8, and I thank everyone in Northern Ireland for giving everyone such a warm welcome. Northern Ireland put on its best face and the whole world could see what a great place it is.
We set a clear agenda for this summit: to boost jobs and growth, with more open trade, fairer taxes and greater transparency—what I have called the three Ts. I also added a fourth T—combating terrorism. We reached important agreements, including on support to the Libyan Government and ending ransom payments for kidnap by terrorists. Despite our fundamental differences, we also made good progress, agreeing a way forward on working together to help the Syrian people achieve the change they want. Let me take each of these points in turn.
We started with the issues that matter most to our people—jobs, growth and mending our economies. First, we agreed that each country needs to press on with sorting out its public finances. Dealing with our debts and securing growth are not alternatives. The former is an essential step in achieving the latter. In fact, the communiqué that we agreed unanimously reflects all three parts of the plan for growth that we have in Britain—not just fiscal sustainability, but active monetary policy to unlock the finance that businesses and families need, and structural reforms to increase our competitiveness so that our young people can get into work and succeed in the global race.
The UK’s G8 also launched a bold new pro-business agenda to drive a dramatic increase in trade and to get to grips with the problems of tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance and corporate secrecy. This was a distinctive British agenda to shape the way the world economy works for the benefit of everyone. We believe in free trade, private enterprise and low taxes as the best route to growth, but that is only sustainable if ambitious trade deals are agreed, the taxes owed are paid and companies play by the rules. This agenda has now, I believe, been written into the DNA of G8 and G20 summits for many years to come.
On trade, we started the summit with the launch of negotiations on the EU-US trade deal. As has recently been said, this could add as much as £100 billion to the EU economy, £80 billion to the US and £85 billion for the rest of the world. We should be clear about what these numbers mean: more jobs, more choice and lower prices in our shops, and the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, launched at our G8.
On tax, the Lough Erne declaration that leaders signed yesterday sets out simple, clear commitments: tax authorities around the world should automatically
share information so that those who want to evade taxes will have nowhere to hide; companies should know who really owns them; and tax collectors and law enforcers should be able to obtain this information easily, for example through central registries, so that people cannot escape taxes by using complicated and fake structures. In a world where business has moved from the offline and the national to the online and the international but the tax system has not caught up, we are commissioning the OECD to develop a new international tax tool that will expose discrepancies between where multinationals earn their profits and where they pay their taxes.
The declaration also makes it clear that all that action has to help developing countries too, by sharing tax information and building their capability to collect taxes. Crucially for developing countries, we agreed that oil, gas and mining companies should report what they pay to Governments and that Governments should publish what they receive so that natural resources are a blessing, not a curse. Charities and other non-governmental organisations have rightly campaigned for years for action on these issues, and for the first time they have been raised to the top of the agenda and brought together in one document.
The agreements on tax made at the summit are significant, but it is also worth noting what has happened on this front since I put the issue to the top of the agenda. On
People around the world also wanted to know whether the G8 would take action to tackle malnutrition and ensure that there is enough food for everyone. The pledges at our nutrition and hunger summit earlier this month will save 20 million children from stunting by 2020. Crucially, our G8 also took action on some of the causes of these problems. That is why the work we did on land, extractive industries, tax and transparency is so important.
Turing to the fourth T—terrorism—we agreed a tough, patient and intelligent approach: confronting the terrorists, defeating the poisonous ideology that sustains them and tackling the weak and failing states in which they thrive. The G8 leaders reached a groundbreaking agreement on ransom payments for kidnap by terrorists. In the last three years alone ransom payments have given al-Qaeda and its allies tens of millions of dollars. These payments have to stop and this G8 agreed that they will.
We also discussed plans to begin direct talks with the Taliban. Britain has long supported a peace process in Afghanistan to work alongside our tough security response, so we welcome this step forward.
We also discussed support to Libya. I believe that we should be proud of the role we played in ridding Libya of Colonel Gaddafi, but we need to help that country
secure its future. So we held a separate meeting with the Libyan Prime Minister, which included President Obama, and European nations have already offered to train 7,000 troops to help Prime Minister Zeidan disarm and integrate the militias and bring security to the whole country. More contributions will follow from others. Let me be clear that the Libyan Government have asked for this and will pay for it.
Finally, let me turn to Syria. It is no secret that there are very different views around the G8 table, but I was determined that we should use the opportunity of this summit to overcome some of these differences and agree a way forward to help the Syrian people achieve the change that they want. This did not happen during just one night in Lough Erne; the talks between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have been vital.
In the weeks before the summit, I flew to Sochi and Washington, and I met again President Putin and President Obama in the hours before the summit began. These conversations were open, honest and frank, but we were all agreed on what must be the core principle of the international approach to this crisis. There is no military victory to be won and all our efforts must be focused on the ultimate goal of a political solution.
Together with our G8 partners, we agreed almost $1.5 billion of new money for humanitarian support. This is an unprecedented commitment from Lough Erne for Syria and her neighbours. We agreed to back a Geneva II process that delivers a transitional governing body with, crucially, full Executive authority. So a core requirement for success that had been called into doubt in recent weeks has now been reasserted unanimously, with the full authority of the G8.
We pledged to learn the lessons of Iraq by making sure that the key institutions of the state are maintained throughout the transition and that there is no vacuum. This sends a clear message to those loyalists looking for an alternative to Assad. The G8 also unequivocally condemned any use of chemical weapons and, following an extensive debate, we reached for the first time a united position, including Russia, that the regime must immediately allow unrestricted access for UN inspectors to establish the full facts on the use of chemical weapons by regime forces, or indeed by anyone else. All these agreements are absolutely fundamental to saving lives and securing the political transition that we all want to see.
Let us be clear on what is happening in Syria and what we are trying to achieve. We are faced with a dramatically escalating humanitarian disaster with more than 90,000 dead and almost 6 million people having had to flee their homes. There is a radicalisation of terrorists and extremists who will pose a direct threat to the security of the region and also the world. There is a growing risk to the peace and stability of Syria’s neighbours and the long-standing international prohibition on chemical weapons is being breached by a dictator who is brutalising his people.
None of this constitutes an argument for plunging in recklessly. We will not do so, and we will not take any major actions without first coming to this House. But we cannot simply ignore this continuing slaughter. Of course it is right to point out that there are extremists among the Opposition. There are, and I am clear: they
pose a threat not just to Syria but to all of us. The G8 agreed that they should be defeated and expelled from their havens in Syria.
I also understand those who fear that whatever we try to do could make things worse, not better. Of course we must think carefully before any course of action, but we must not accept what President Assad wants us to believe—that the only alternative to his brutal action against Syria is extremism and terrorism. There are millions of ordinary Syrians who want to take control of their own future, a future without Assad. That is why I made sure that the G8 agreed that the way through the crisis is to help Syrians forge a new Government who are neither Sunni, nor Alawite, nor Shi’a.
We are committed to using diplomacy to end this war with a political solution. This is not easy, but the essential first step must be to get agreement between the main international powers with influence on Syria. That is what we have done at the G8 in Lough Erne. We must now work to turn these commitments into action, and I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s statement. Let me start by commending him on holding the summit in Northern Ireland. Fifteen years ago, holding a G8 summit in Enniskillen would have been unthinkable. Peace has transformed Enniskillen, and the location of this summit alone is testament to what can be achieved through politics and dialogue. It is a credit to all the people of Northern Ireland.
Let me take the G8 issues in turn. On hunger and nutrition, it is completely unacceptable that there is enough food in the world for everyone, yet 1 billion people still go hungry and 2.3 million children die every year from malnutrition. I therefore welcome the agreements and commitments made during the hunger summit. The task must now be to ensure that these commitments will be delivered. Does the Prime Minister agree that we are right to stick by our pledge of 0.7% aid as a proportion of national income and does he further agree with me that we should be using all the moral force that we gain from that position to urge others to follow suit?
On trade, we welcome and support the launch of negotiations on a free trade agreement between Europe and the United States. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will tell all his colleagues, including the Cabinet, that this is a timely reminder of the importance for jobs and prosperity of staying in the European Union?
On tax havens, the Prime Minister said that one of his goals was to make sure that there will be public registries of who owns companies and trusts. What blocked getting agreement on that at the G8? Will he clarify whether the agreement reached by rich countries on information sharing, which he mentioned in his statement, will from the outset apply to developing countries? As the IF campaign has said,
“a summit focussed on transparency can’t justify keeping this information secret”
from poorer countries.
Let me turn to the devastating situation in Syria. It was right for the Prime Minister to prioritise this crisis and make it the focus of this week’s talks. We welcome
the announcements of additional humanitarian relief, in particular the doubling of UK aid. However, as the Prime Minister has said, the answer to this humanitarian crisis is a political solution. All of us recognise the scale of the challenge of bringing together an international community that has been deeply divided on this issue, and there are no easy options.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that it was
“a strong and purposeful statement on Syria”.
Although we welcome the centrepiece of that statement being a commitment to the Geneva II conference, will the Prime Minister explain why there was no agreement on its starting date? It is being reported that the conference is now being pushed to July or even later in August. Based on his discussions this week, could he now tell us when he expects the conference to take place?
On the substance of Geneva II, the Prime Minister has spoken today about the importance of the agreement in Enniskillen on a transitional governing body with full Executive authority, based on the maintenance of key institutions of the state and an inclusive political settlement. Does he accept, however, that every one of those commitments featured in the Geneva I communiqué back in June 2012? The Prime Minister spoke of this G8 providing a moment of clarity on Syria, but will he set out how in concrete terms yesterday’s statement moves us closer to a political settlement?
On arming the rebels, the Prime Minister now says that it is not his policy to do so. Given that the Geneva conference has already been delayed, is he able to envisage any circumstances in which he would seek to arm the rebels before the conference takes place?
Given the limited nature or the progress achieved this week, does the Prime Minister still maintain that focusing so much time and effort in the days and weeks preceding the summit on lifting the EU arms embargo was the right way to spend political capital and energy?
The reality is that we did not witness the long-hoped-for breakthrough on Syria at the G8 summit, and we need to be candid about that. None of us should doubt the difficulties of the choices that confront this Government and all Governments around the world. The Prime Minister knows that, on the steps agreed this week to tackle terrorism and on the issues of Afghanistan and, indeed, Libya, I have given him my full support. May I urge him in the months ahead, however, to proceed with the greatest possible clarity on his strategy and purpose and to seek to build the greatest possible consensus across this House?
First of all, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about holding the conference in Northern Ireland. That was not without its difficulties and questions were asked, but not only was it a very successful and very well-managed and well-run conference—I pay tribute to everyone who was involved in it—but I think it was also one of the most peaceful G8s in terms of demonstrations. It was rumoured that one of the six tents in the place where all the tents were going to be put up belonged to some Dutch folk who happened to be on holiday. I also read this morning that one of the hopeful shopkeepers in Enniskillen had stocked up on vegan meals only to find that the protesters did not turn up in large enough numbers, so he now has
a large supply going spare. It is a remarkable part of our country and it was good to bring the G8 to County Fermanagh.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said on the aid pledge. It is right that Britain has made and kept its promises, and we use that to bring others up to the mark. Of course, the G8 always publishes an accountability report. A lot of these communiqués are impenetrable, but this is very simple and straightforward on who has promised what and whether they have kept that promise. We should go on publishing those reports. I say to any sceptics that for every pound they pay in tax, only 1p of it goes to overseas aid. I think that that is a good investment in the future of the world.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the trade issue. It is good that we have made a start on EU-US trade and disappointing that we have not completed the Canada negotiations. He mentioned the single market. Of course, it is of benefit to Britain that we are in the single market as a trading nation and able to take part in deals with other parts of the world.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of public registries of beneficial ownership and asked why we had not achieved public registries everywhere. For many G8 Governments and leaders, this is a new issue at the top of the agenda. I am absolutely convinced that central registries of ownership are vital if we are to cut out corruption and corrupt payments from developing countries, and if we are to get to the bottom of tax evasion. We put that on the agenda, and every G8 country has agreed to an action plan, and some have committed to immediate registries. We must keep pushing on that agenda because it is so vital. We will consult on whether our registry should be public—I look forward to the consultation getting going—but no one should underestimate the importance of having a registry so that the tax authorities can get to grips with those problems.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about tax information change—yes, it will be open to poorer countries, but we must help them to take part and carry on with the programmes we have to help poorer countries to collect their taxes.
On Syria, the date of a conference was discussed, but the decision was taken that the most important thing is to get the substance right on the role of the transitional authority, its powers and such like, rather than set too quick a date, which might set us up to fail. Obviously, there is a real sense of urgency and we all want to see it happen in the weeks ahead.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the differences between Geneva I and the position we are now in. I would make two points to him on that. The Russians were backing off the idea of a transitional authority with full Executive powers, but have now fully reaffirmed it. That is important because no one wants to take part in negotiations that are for negotiations’ sake—they must be about something—and a transitional authority will not work unless it has full Executive power, including over the armed forces. As I said in my statement, the language and approach on chemical weapons is new, as is the language on humanitarian aid. Those new things were achieved at the G8.
I appreciate the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has tried to provide consensus on issues of foreign policy—we should always try to do that, and I hope we
can re-forge that consensus in the months ahead—but the point I would make to him is this: I think that lifting the arms embargo in the EU was right. It sent a powerful signal that there is not a moral equivalence between Assad on the one hand and the official opposition, who want a democratic Syria, on the other. That has helped to add to the pressure. There is a huge danger that people will fall into the trap of believing Assad’s argument, which is that the only alternative to him is terrorism and extremism. We should stand for something else in the House and in this country—we should stand up for people who want democracy, freedom and the sorts of things we take for granted right here.
I fully share my right hon. Friend’s horror at the situation in Syria, a country that I first visited when I was 19, and where I have had good friends, but may I urge him not to propagate the myth that progress can be made only by the killing, or removal in some way, of President Assad, because the Syrian presidency is something of a family business, and President Assad has a number of extremely tough and ruthless individuals around him. They are probably tougher and more ruthless than he is. If President Assad is removed, one of them will instantly take over his position, and will be just as determined to prevent the Alawites from being massacred by the Sunni as is President Assad. If Geneva II is to make any real progress, I strongly recommend that President Assad should be invited to attend it, together with a representative of the new Iranian Government, who need to be brought back into the comity of nations.
I have huge respect for my right hon. Friend, but I do not agree with him that, somehow, President Assad can continue. When a leader has used chemical weapons against his own people and presided over such an appalling slaughter, he cannot have a place in the government of his country. I agree with him that, clearly, the aim must be to bring forward a transitional Government that includes Sunni and Alawite representatives, and representatives of the regime and opposition, because we need a Government in whom everyone in Syria can have confidence.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that there can be no military victory in Syria. In his search for a political solution, may I caution him on his apparent insistence on a precondition? Northern Ireland shows that preconditions do not work. He and I share exactly the same view of Assad’s barbarism, but if he insists that Assad cannot come to the conference or play any subsequent role, I caution him that the conference might never happen.
We are insisting that a proper conference must include representatives of the regime and representatives of the opposition, and that it should lead to a transitional Government. The UK Government have a clear view that neither of those stages can involve President Assad, for the reasons we have given, but that should not stand in the way of the transition that is necessary, and the transition that everyone in the G8, Russians included, believes is right.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are persistent reports that, in the course of the discussions on Syria, Russia made it clear that it would no longer insist that any final settlement should include a role for President Assad? If that is true, it represents a substantial step forward, if not a breakthrough, and merely emphasises the importance of continuing dialogue and discussion with Russia, which has such an important part to play in the solution we all seek.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his question. Obviously, it is important that the Russians are allowed to speak for themselves about what they did and did not say, and what they agree and do not agree with. I found in the discussions that the reason we were able to go ahead with the seven points I laid out at the press conference yesterday was that the conversations were constructive—we did not dwell on the areas where we have disagreed and continue to disagree; we dwelled on those areas where we can agree. I agree with what he says about engaging with President Putin. That is why, in addition to inviting President Putin here before the G8, I flew to Sochi this year—I was the first Prime Minister to visit Russia for many years.
I thank the Prime Minister for highlighting his commitment to ending world hunger as such a central part of the G8, and for highlighting many of the underlying causes, but he will be aware that a third of the most malnourished children in the world live in just four countries—India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh—so will he continue to use his best offices to ensure that those countries give their wholehearted commitment to ensuring that their children do not go to bed hungry every night?
On Syria, two days after America has agreed to sit down with the Taliban, surely it is better to bring everyone around the debating table. We do not want 12 more years of civil war in Syria.
On the Taliban, I have said many times that I welcome a political process. It is worth noting that the Taliban said in their statement that they wanted an Afghanistan that no longer caused instability, death or trouble in other countries. That is significant.
On hunger, the hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is not enough for us just to pass resolutions, or for this country alone to commit to aid programmes. We must engage other countries, which will do a lot of the heavy lifting in dealing with malnutrition. I am confident that, having held our summit at the Olympics last year, with the sort of top-up this year and the Brazilians co-chairing another summit at the Olympic games there, we have achieved a lot in terms of getting other countries to pledge action on hunger.
I commend the Prime Minister and the G8 for addressing the key challenges of the day. On Syria, the situation is becoming increasingly complex as the rebels become increasingly fragmented. Does he agree that the solution lies in a negotiated settlement, but—it is an important “but”—that cannot be achieved without him firmly setting out where his red lines lie?
My hon. Friend is right. Everyone wants a negotiated solution and a peace process. We must think about what things will make a peace process and peace settlement more likely. Obviously, international agreement at the G8 is one of them, but we must also ensure that Assad feels he is under some pressure and cannot achieve what he wants by military means alone. That is where there is such unity of purpose between President Obama, President Hollande, myself, Angela Merkel and Stephen Harper. This is an important point to make to those who have concerns. They cannot think of President Obama as someone sitting in the White House dreaming up ways to start a new engagement or war in the middle east. That is not what Barack Obama is about. He knows that we need a peace process, but he also knows we need to present a tough and united front to President Assad in the process.
The Syrian Government have brought their troubles on themselves. There is no doubt that they are a corrupt and brutal regime. Although the Prime Minister was keen to lift the arms embargo, there was no enthusiasm in this House for doing so and very few Members have stood up and said that they are in favour of sending arms to the Syrian opposition. The sooner we have a debate on this subject, the better.
We are debating it right now and we should go on debating it. We have not made a decision about arming the rebels. However, the fact that we are working with the opposition to help and advise them, along with the French, the Americans and our Gulf allies, is helpful in making sure that Syria has a legitimate opposition who want democracy, freedom and a pluralistic Syria. At the same time, we should have no hesitation in condemning extremism. We must work with everyone to say that the extremists on all sides, including Hezbollah, which is working for the regime, should be expelled from the country.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising the case of my constituent, Shaker Aamer, with President Obama during the G8. Will he update the House on that discussion and on what progress has been made towards Mr Aamer’s release from Guantanamo Bay?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts on behalf of her constituent and his family. I have received moving letters from them. I raised the case with President Obama directly and will be writing to him about the specifics of the case and everything that we can do to expedite it. We need to show some understanding of the huge difficulties that America has faced over Guantanamo Bay. Clearly, President Obama wants to make progress on this issue and we should help him in every way that we can with respect to this individual. I will keep my hon. Friend and the House updated on progress.
I am sure that the Prime Minister was honoured to showcase to his fellow world leaders one of the most beautiful regions of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the lakelands of Fermanagh, and to bask in the glory of one of the most peaceful G8 summits in history. Will he
assure Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland that he will do everything in his power to build on that summit and bring economic prosperity to Northern Ireland? Will he also ensure that all company taxes that are due to the UK coffers go to them, instead of to the Irish Republic?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Each of the G8 leaders mentioned how pleased they were to be in Northern Ireland and how impressed they were by the progress of the peace process. The advertising or, as I put it yesterday, infomercial for Northern Ireland was priceless. I ensured that the leaders were all sent off with a bottle of Bushmills to enjoy when they got home.
We discussed the tax issue. It is important to recognise that as well as the issues with the rate of corporation tax, there are issues with how tax authorities handle companies. We must ensure that they do not turn a blind eye to bad practices. That is an important part of the debate.
Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That point highlights what a complicated and difficult deal it is. We sometimes think that trade deals are just about taking down tariff barriers and then letting the market decide. Modern trade deals are much more about agreeing common standards and recognition of each other’s standards, and opening up things like services and procurement. The deal will be difficult and complicated, but it has started with good will on all sides, which is the right way to kick it off.
The automatic transfer of tax information and the provision of registers of beneficial ownership appear to be no more than a wish list, since the communiqué says that countries “should” do those things, rather than “will”. What sanctions or pressures will be exerted against countries that refuse or fail to comply, given that that could unravel the whole objective?
The right hon. Gentleman has a long track record of campaigning on these issues. I urge him to read the Lough Erne declaration, because we tried to put down in simple terms something that everyone would understand about publishing information, about companies saying where they pay their taxes and about what extractive industries pay to developing countries. People write and campaign to all Members of the House on that agenda, and we all feel passionately about it. Getting the leaders to sign their name under that declaration means that it will become part of the G8 process. Every time we meet, we will discuss what progress has been made and what fresh agreements have been made. In the end, all countries are sovereign and make their own decisions, but it was remarkable how much progress was made so quickly at the G8 in getting countries to sign up to these things and do them.
The Prime Minister is right to stress the importance of a political settlement in Syria. Does he understand that excluding Iran from the forthcoming talks simply because we do not agree with it is an admission of political and diplomatic failure? It is precisely because we do not agree with it that we should be talking to it. Will he revisit that decision and approach his international partners in the hope that there can be a change of view?
I make two points to my hon. Friend. First, Iran has never accepted the premises of Geneva I, so it has not even crossed the threshold into considering what a transition would look like. Secondly, when we are trying to put together a group of individuals to negotiate at a peace conference, the most important thing is that there are a limited number of people from the regime and a limited number of people from the opposition who represent the people of Syria. We must focus on that more than on anything else.
May I ask the Prime Minister about the fourth T in his tieless summit: the issue of counter-terrorism? I welcome what he said about the agreement on ransom moneys. However, we must consider not only the discussions of the leaders, but the follow-up. What additional resources or powers will he give the Roma-Lyon group that traditionally follows up on the counter-terrorism agenda from G8 summits? In the end, the most important part of the summit meeting is what happens afterwards. The Prime Minister has seven months as president. Will he ensure that there is an effective structure?
The communiqué pays tribute to the Roma-Lyon group and says that it must have what is necessary to take action so that we can co-ordinate better after dreadful events such as that at in Amenas. In the discussion at the G8, we tried to agree on the drivers of terrorism and extremism across north Africa, and on what more the countries around the table could do so that we do not duplicate our efforts, but divide up what needs to be done. For instance, Britain could do more to help Nigeria, France could do more to stabilise Mali and the United States could work with key partners in the region. We tasked our national security advisers with continuing to work out how to adjudicate who should do more of what. It was encouraging that President Putin agreed to take up that work when he chairs the G8 next year.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the gravest threat to western interests and safety would be al-Qaeda getting its hands on Syria’s stocks of chemical weapons of mass destruction? Does he think that arming the rebels would make that outcome more or less likely?
My hon. Friend is right to point to the danger of having extremists in Syria who have weapons and the intent to get hold of chemical weapons. We must ask ourselves how we have got to that point because they already have weapons and that intent. The extremist element of the opposition has become too strong, so our aim should be to reduce its strength. That
is why we agreed at the G8 that part of the programme must be to expel extremists on all sides from Syria—that is the absolute key.
I say to those who see dangers, quite rightly, in engaging in any efforts to help Syria that we have got to the point of extremists having arms, ill intent and the desire to get hold of chemical weapons while there has been a deficit of engagement from countries that want Syria to take the right path rather than the wrong path. As I have said, we have not decided to arm the rebels, but are working with the opposition in the ways that I have described. We are working with the Americans and the French. I am sure that being engaged and being positive about what Britain can achieve with its partners is the right approach to reducing the dangers, rather than increasing them.
I welcome the statement on taxation, international transparency and commissioning the OECD to develop new international tools, but has there been a recognition that the big accountancy firms have not always been as benign an influence on that transparency? Unless they too play a part in developing international standards of transparency, we will not succeed.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and we will never solve that issue just through Governments reaching agreements, either nationally or internationally. We need a debate about this in every boardroom and business in the world, and we also need lawyers and accountants to think about their responsibilities, as well as the bottom line. I do not think that is an unreasonable thing to do. A positive suggestion made by the French and Americans, with my support, was that we ought to be asking accountants and lawyers to do more to help developing countries with their tax systems. Otherwise, there is an unequal struggle between businesses armed to the teeth with corporate lawyers and—this was one example given—a country where the entire budget of the department dealing with the company was far smaller than that of the army of lawyers sent to deal with it.
The point I was making—I hope the hon. Gentleman will quote me in full—is that if Britain were not in the European Union we could reach our own trade agreements with different parts of the world, but I believe we benefit from being part of the single market, and obviously part of bigger negotiations where we have a huge amount of heft in delivering these deals. The EU-Korea deal has been positive, and I think the EU-Canada deal will be positive and completed very shortly. The EU-US deal obviously has more potential than all the others put together.
I have listened with interest to a number of the Prime Minister’s answers on tax. The IF campaign said that although there has been progress, the G8 tax deal left major unfinished business, particularly on information
exchange in relation to poor countries. What assurances can the Prime Minister give thousands of campaigners up and down the country about when and how he will finish that business?
The IF campaign has done an excellent job in raising the profile of that issue and all the other issues around hunger, and in its response to the outcome yesterday it made a number of fair points. We have made good progress and the issue is far higher up the agenda than it has ever been. Lots of tax agreements have been made and lots of revenue recovered for this country. We have done a huge amount to help the poorest countries in the world. At the lunch meeting yesterday the African leaders said that this is absolutely the agenda they want us to focus on, but there is more to do and I am happy to keep on with that work.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making progress on Syria at the G8 summit, although there is clearly more to do. President Putin reminded us that among the Syrian rebels are those of the same kind that murdered Lee Rigby. What more can we do in this country to stop young British men going to Syria and coming back seriously radicalised?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a danger of young people from Britain taking part in this conflict, just as there has been in Afghanistan, Mali and elsewhere. We should do everything we can in the UK to try to crack down on those centres of radicalisation. It is clear to me, as I said during Prime Minister’s questions, that we need to do more to throw extremists out of mosques and confront the radicalisers and hate preachers, and we must do more to throw those who are not British nationals out of the country. This is a huge programme that goes right across Government, and we must do everything we can to deliver it.
The Prime Minister will know that my constituents and people around the world will be positive about much that has come out of the G8 conference, although the hard-headed and cynical press are always ready to say it is pie in the sky. What assurance can he give me and my constituents that jobs and growth are a priority, and how do we know he will follow this through so that it makes a real difference to a world looking for a new deal in employment?
I completely understand people’s cynicism about these great international gatherings because they produce long communiqués, lots of talking, and one has to ask afterwards, “Well, what did you actually agree?” On this occasion, we can point to one or two really concrete things—an agreement not to pay ransom for kidnap by terrorists, which is good, and all the agreements in the run-up to the G8 conference which have delivered an extra £1 billion of revenue, just from Crown dependencies and overseas territories, that can help to keep tax rates down. I think the Lough Erne declaration is the clearest statement yet to come out of an international body about what needs to be done on tax, transparency and extractive industries, and frankly it is now a guide for NGOs to hold Governments to account and make progress on that vital agenda.
May I echo the strong words of the Leader of the Opposition, and thank my right hon. Friend for bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland, and through that, showing the world how far it has come from the dark and dangerous place I remember from my childhood? Before the conference, the Prime Minister alluded in a newspaper interview to his frustration with the diplomatic vagueness of communiqués. This one was a big step forward, and he has a list of real and tangible declarations on tax and transparency. What more will we do to get that excellent list—reproduced in full in today’s Belfast Telegraph—to the British people?
I commend the Belfast Telegraph on the fact that it has not joined the mass of the cynical and hard-bitten, and has actually said, “Hold on, this is an important breakthrough on the issues that people really care about.” We must now hold all those countries to their commitment and ensure that everybody delivers on the action plans for beneficial ownership, so that we can see who owns what company. We must ensure that the international exchange of tax information can involve every country in the world. In that way we can get fairer taxes and help the developing world at the same time. We need follow-up on all these issues.
Will the Prime Minister assure the House that there will be no unilateral military intervention, including the supply of weapons and other arsenals to the rebels in Syria, and that Britain’s role will be confined to an international peace plan? I was, of course, pleased that the G8 came to Northern Ireland.
I thank the hon. Lady for praising the decision to hold the summit in Northern Ireland, and let me say again how well I think the authorities did in making it work. On Syria, the Government have clearly stated their approach. We want an international peace conference and a transitional Government, and we want a peace settlement. We believe, however, that we should be helping the Syrian national opposition. We have recognised—not just us, but America and countries across the European Union—that the opposition are legitimate spokespeople for the Syrian people. We should decry Assad—frankly, I hope the Labour party and all its allies in the Social Democratic and Labour party and elsewhere will decry Assad—[Interruption.] and continue to do so. We should also decry the use of chemical weapons. It cannot be said often enough what a brutal dictator this man is.
I warmly congratulate the Prime Minister on the achievements of the G8. On tax transparency, will he comment a little more on the timetable that might be stretching in front of us for making that happen?
In terms of UK domestic action, we will publish shortly our consultation on whether to make a register of beneficial ownership public, and we can get on with that rapidly. The international exchange of tax information is progressing all the time throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and we need to keep pushing that.
The Prime Minister is aware that 30 years ago, a United States President and a British Conservative Prime Minister decided to arm the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, with consequences that are still with us today in belated talks directly with the Taliban. The Prime Minister mentioned Mali. I was there two weeks ago and we are aware that arms that came out of Libya led to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb almost taking power in that country. What guarantee can he give the House that if he decides to arm elements of the Syrian opposition, we will not be dealing with the same problems in this country and the rest of the world in 30 years’ time?
We have not made that decision and let me say that on Libya, I think it was right to work with others, including the French. There was cross-party agreement to do that and get rid of Gaddafi. Of course, that work is never done, but that should not be an argument for never doing anything anywhere. If we take action, as we do in Libya, we must do everything we can to help the successor regime that is democratically elected get weapons out of Libya, and that is what we are doing. Those are all arguments for engagement and working with partners—not putting our soldiers at risk or taking steps we are not capable of, but working with others to try to get good outcomes.
Was any progress made on international development issues in terms of trying to establish a land registry in Africa and other developing countries, as this would be hugely helpful in enabling people to have security when they lend to boost agricultural and industrial production?
That was discussed at the lunch held yesterday specifically on tax, transparency and trade, and the Lough Erne declaration covers the important issue of land transparency. The point was made that not only do we now have these declarations, but with all the capabilities of satellite mapping and digital technology, it should be easier to take these steps forward in the future.
The talks that the Prime Minister reported on between the Taliban and the west are obviously welcome, and one hopes that they bring about a long-term resolution and peace in Afghanistan, but can he not draw a parallel from that and recognise that a political settlement in Syria must involve Iran as much as Russia and all the other countries? Will he turn his attention to a political settlement, a date for the conference and wide participation, and get off his hobby horse about supplying arms to fuel a civil war within a civil war that can only bring about greater destruction to an already disastrous situation?
I would make two points. First, the Iranians have not accepted what was discussed at Geneva as a basis. Secondly, it is not right to say that the British Government have had a single fixation. After all, it was my decision to fly to Sochi to have the discussions with Vladimir Putin and to invite him back here in order to try and find common ground. When I sit down with him, there are obviously big disagreements—I take a totally different view from him about Assad and the use of chemical weapons—and there is no point
hiding that. It is right to engage, however, and to discuss where we can find common ground, and that is exactly what we have done.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his energy in trying to resolve the dreadful humanitarian crisis in Syria and I warmly welcome his statement today that he is emphasising the diplomatic route. In that connection, may I press him gently, as Jeremy Corbyn just did, on the need to bring in everyone who can influence the situation? Is it not a good idea to talk to the new Iranian President?
Of course, we should have discussions, as we are, with the Iranians over the nuclear issue, and perhaps those discussions can get a greater pace with the new Iranian President. We have to remember, however, why we do not have an embassy in Tehran—it was invaded and trashed by the Iranians. We should remember that. On the issue of how wide to take the discussions, of course in the end we need to involve all partners and neighbours—the more people who buy into a process, the better—but it is important that we do not make that a substitute for the real action that is needed, which is to get the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition, with encouragement from the Russians and Americans, to name the people who need to sit round the table to hold those talks. That is where the leaders need to apply pressure on everybody, because otherwise one can get into an endless, tortuous process.
While it was regrettable that climate change was not on the official G8 agenda this week, the communiqué described it as one of the foremost challenges we face. What is the Prime Minister doing to meet this challenge and secure a new global climate change agreement?
This issue was dealt with not only in the communiqué, but in the vital preamble, which is the part that most people look at to see what the conference discussed. My judgment was that it was right to talk with the G8 countries about, in particular, the issues of trade, tax and transparency, because I thought that that was where we could make the greatest progress. Had we had a long conversation on climate change, there would have been basic agreement among most of the participants around the table. We already know one another’s positions, and without some of the developing countries and larger countries, such as China and India, it would not have been a vital agenda-shifting discussion. I chose the subjects we spent the most time on, but there is an important reference to climate change, as the hon. Lady said.
The Prime Minister is to be warmly commended for taking the initiative and for the first time in recent years putting tax, transparency and justice in the developed and developing worlds on the agenda at the G8 and on making progress. In order that it be not the end, but only the beginning, of the process, will he undertake to take that agenda to the EU, the Commonwealth and the G20, so that by the end of the Parliament our Government can deliver on transparent ownership of companies, for example, and ensure that multinationals are seen to pay tax in all the countries where they work?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously, the G8 includes a limited number of countries, but it can play a leadership role. Now we have this agenda and a simple and straightforward declaration, we can run it through the G20 and the Commonwealth. The EU has already started to address this issue with the ground-breaking deal on tax exchange between EU members, which for many years the Austrians and Luxembourgers have held up. So yes I want the British Government to drive this through all its multilateral bodies.
At an IF campaign event in Belfast last Saturday, I heard at first hand from Bangladeshi community workers about the impact that land grabs have had on people there, with the poorest farmers having been displaced and agricultural land being destroyed for more than a generation, so I very much welcome the Prime Minister placing land on the G8’s agenda for the first time. What will he do throughout the rest of our presidency of the G8 to ensure that G8 companies involved in aggressive land acquisition are tackled on this matter?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Point 7 of the declaration states:
“Land transactions should be transparent, respecting the property rights of local communities.”
That is the commitment, and we now need to engage with Governments beyond the G8 and businesses to ensure that it is put in place.
Is it not the case that the speed of events on the ground in Syria vis-à-vis chemical weapons potentially falling into the hands of the wrong opposition groups might move quicker than the Westminster parliamentary process? May I encourage the Prime Minister not to be deterred from making immediate national security decisions, if he needs to do so?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Clearly, it is a concern, because Syria has very large stockpiles of chemical weapons, and I think we have to focus on both dangers: the danger that the regime could use them again—as we have said, we believe they have been used on 10 occasions, so we have to beware of that danger, and President Obama has sent a clear message about that—and the danger that these stocks could fall into dangerous hands. We have to be alert to both dangers. He is absolutely right to say that we make a big commitment to come to the House, explain, vote and all the rest of it, but obviously Governments have to reserve the ability to take action swiftly on this or other issues.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that no sooner do we make one change to the tax system than another loophole opens up that we have to attack. Prime Minister Harper in Canada said that he
had taken about 72 tax avoidance measures in recent years. This is continuing work; it never ends. As for the second half of his question, I think I will leave that.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his position vis-à-vis Syria. One of the lessons from Iraq, Libya and Lebanon is that some of these extremist groups thrive not only with the bomb and the bullet, but by distributing food aid and using other ways to aid the communities that they invade. What are we doing to help the official Syrian opposition do that sort of work with the communities in the areas they control?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It was a huge issue in Somalia, where we have seen real progress in recent years. What matters is funding humanitarian relief through the best mechanisms we have. At the moment, that means working a lot with non-governmental organisations and the UN to ensure that they deliver what they can. He is absolutely right, however, about ensuring that it gets to parts of the country held by the Syrian opposition.
Hosting the G8 in Enniskillen was a practical way of showing that Northern Ireland was an integral part of the UK, and I want to add my congratulations to the Prime Minister on taking it there. Is he aware of the concern, however, that the Libyan Prime Minister was in Enniskillen, just a few miles from the site of a terrible atrocity involving semtex from Libya, but was not able to meet those concerned—they got very late notice—and then went and met someone who used to be in the IRA?
First, the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that Libyan semtex played an appalling role in the violence and destruction in Northern Ireland. For all we know, Libyan semtex may still be in the hands of dissident republicans, so this is a serious and live issue. Let me commend the Libyan Prime Minister for wanting to settle all these issues with the United Kingdom. He knows how important it is to communities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere to do so. My sense is that he wants to deal with these issues, not least because he knows that Britain played such a key role in getting rid of Gaddafi. Let us not forget that he was the person who provided the semtex in the first place.
I thank the Prime Minister for choosing Northern Ireland to host the G8 conference. It looked very different on the television screens from when I was there some 19 years ago. Many internet providers exploit the global nature of the worldwide web to ensure that they avoid their fair share of tax. I congratulate the Prime Minister on reaching an agreement to commission the OECD to consider what tax regime can ensure that providers are taxed where transactions take place, not where they declare their profits. Will he let us know the timetable?
We commissioned the OECD to help us. The simple principle is that there should be a tool to enable a country to see how much revenue, profit and tax a company is paying in each jurisdiction. Sometimes non-governmental organisations and others have asked for full disclosure of every piece of information, but,
frankly, boxfile after boxfile of information does not necessarily get us the high level tax tool we need to see whether there is a problem, to share information with other tax authorities and to find an answer. This is the right approach for the reasons I have just given.
The Prime Minister has in the past supported the public disclosure of ownership of companies, so why is he hesitating now, rather than seizing the opportunity to show leadership again and committing the UK to a public register in its action plan?
As I said, we will set up a central registry and consult on whether it should be public. There are strong arguments for it to be public, but let me make two points. First, the point at which one says one’s own registry will be public, one gives up rather a lot of leverage over other countries we might want to encourage to do that at the same time. Secondly, it is important to take the business community that believes in responsible behaviour with us on this journey of greater transparency and fairness. To be fair, the CBI has been supportive of this agenda, so there is nothing to fear from a consultation where we try to take people with us on this important progress.
I warmly welcome the clear commitments from the G8, led by my right hon. Friend, which I would characterise as growth with responsibility—growth for all citizens and responsibility for the most vulnerable. None of that can happen without responsibilities. Does he share my hope that the groundbreaking agreement on ransoms will not be lost in all this? I have seen this menace with my own eyes in the Sahel. It drives so much of the instability that we can now conquer by cutting it off at the source.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. There is no doubt that paying ransoms to terrorists has been immensely damaging. Tens of millions of dollars in countries such as Mali, Niger and elsewhere in the region he knows so well, can buy a huge amount of arms and power. The countries have all signed up to this. What matters now is that we hold each other’s feet to the fire and make sure we deliver on it. I pay tribute to President Hollande, Prime Minister Letta and others, who all willingly engaged in this agenda and signed this important declaration.
I fear that the Prime Minister’s strategy on Syria is completely misguided, but I want to ask him about the EU-US trade deal. Of course I support it, but we should not be naive. The Motion Picture Association is one of the best funded lobbying organisations in the world. It has always campaigned against any state subsidy of any kind for making movies in this country or anywhere else in Europe. Should there not be an exemption for cultural services?
What the hon. Gentleman will see if he looks at it closely is that the European starting position is that there will be an exception for audiovisual services, which has been in place for all free trade
agreements we have made as a European Union with countries around the world. Uniquely, there is an opportunity, if we want it, to add it back in. Personally, I think that the British film and television industry is immensely strong and I do not think that our tax credit system is in any way an unfair subsidy. We should be proud of collaborations between Britain and Hollywood. This subject was much discussed, including which member of the G8 liked what French film.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on securing agreement on land in the declaration he cited earlier this afternoon. Will he support measures to increase the transparency of land deals done around the world by companies based in the United Kingdom, thereby getting our own house in order?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Clearly, the register of beneficial ownership will help with this issue, because companies will have to declare who owns them. That will be one way that tax authorities in developing countries, for example, will be able to ensure that bribes are not paid and so on. That is part of the point of the register.
The Prime Minister said that the tax evasion provisions in the G8 agreement would raise £1 billion per annum for the Exchequer. What about the other £29 billion that is lost each year illegally, according to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?
If we look at all the things the Government have done, the Swiss deal raised billions of pounds and I have mentioned the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. The more countries that sign up to these multilateral exchanges and the automatic exchange of information, the more money we will be able to recover.
The figures I gave are £85 billion benefit to the US and £100 billion as a whole to the EU. With the UK being, I think, 13% or 14% of the EU, one can, as it were, do the math. Britain benefits from freeing up services, particularly financial services, so it will perhaps be of particular benefit to Britain to reach good agreements in those chapters of the deal.
I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister’s response to my right hon. Friend Mr Meacher and other hon. Friends on tax transparency. Is not one of the weaknesses of the Lough Erne declaration that there is no means of holding countries to account? The nightmare scenario will be that we will be back next year, the next year and the year after that, with little progress being made.
I would not be so depressed about it. One of the good things about the G8 is that the accountability report is simple and straightforward. It has always been about aid volumes and aid promises. I hope that future accountability reports will be able to address some of these issues in the declaration, too. If we do that and hold leaders’ feet to the fire, there is no reason why we should not make real progress on this agenda.
In giving a strong welcome to the EU-US trade negotiations launched at the G8, does the Prime Minister agree that the process itself could be a catalyst towards creating a more open and more modern Europe, and that that is entirely consistent with his ambitions for Europe and demonstrates that Britain’s influence in Europe will be positive?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. The process, going through chapter by chapter trying to open up areas to greater trade and competition, will be good for Europe as a whole. There are always those countries that fear this process. We tend to be in the vanguard of thinking that it is a good thing, so I hope this engagement will have the effect that he says it will.
Our commitment is what we said it is, which is to have a central register of beneficial ownership and to have a consultation about whether it should be public. As I said, I think there are strong arguments for public registers of beneficial ownership all over the world. Let us be clear about the end point: every country having a register of beneficial ownership so that we can see who owns every single company. That is the goal. The question is: how can we accelerate progress towards it? I think we have really put the foot on the gas for this declaration. We now need to work out how to use our next steps to increase the leverage on others.
The moment has arrived for Stephen Williams, who need no longer look downcast in any way.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. All my colleagues thought that I was going to be left out. When I used to read double tax treaties, they were written in a bygone age and mentioned quarrying, forestry and the signatory powers of overseas agents. Will the Prime Minister use Britain’s position in the OECD to ensure that those treaties are brought up to date, particularly in regard to e-commerce, where so much international tax avoidance is done?
That is a very important point. We must also try to make them less impenetrable, but they need to cover every area. E-commerce is a real challenge for the tax authorities, because so much business has gone online.
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on proving once again the remarkable persuasive powers of parliamentary questions? As recently as
“the Government currently has no plans to require disclosure of the beneficial ownership of UK property.”—[Hansard, 25 February 2013; Vol. 559, c. 301W.]
Now they do. Will he further prove his flexibility in this area by persuading his right hon. Friend Lord Blencathra to end his work as a lobbyist for the Cayman Islands?
Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to Members of the House who put pressure on the representatives of the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. We should also pay tribute to those representatives. They came willingly to London, they sat round the Cabinet table and they committed to a series of steps that some but not all of them had committed to before. We should now stand up for them and say that other jurisdictions that do not have this sort of transparency now need to do what they have done. It is important that we pay tribute to the work they have done. As for the other part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am not sighted of it so I shall have to have a look at it.
As we went into Afghanistan as a direct result of a threat to our own country and our own people, will my right hon. Friend honour all those soldiers, sailors and airmen who have died or been hurt in Afghanistan by ensuring that those who negotiate with the Taliban somehow get an agreement from them that they will never make a threat against our country or encourage others to do so? Thus can we honour those people who have given their lives in support of our country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak as he does; he speaks with great authority on this matter. If we cast our minds back to 2001, we will remember that one of the reasons we went into Afghanistan was that the then Taliban regime refused to give up or condemn al-Qaeda. The whole point of the action was to get al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and to stop them launching attacks from there on our soil. We should pay tribute to the more than 400 service personnel who have given their lives and to the many more who have been wounded. We should pay tribute to the incredible work they have done. They have helped bring us to a point at which Afghanistan is now taking responsibility for its own security through the highly capable Afghan national security forces. The Taliban have said in their statement that they do not want to see Afghanistan being used as a base for attacks on other countries.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement today. I welcome the distinctive British agenda for the G8 summit in Enniskillen, the PR for the Province and the two days of sunshine—although I am sure that he had no control over that last element. He referred to talks with the Taliban. Will the conditions for starting such talks include a cessation of violence or a ceasefire prior to the start of the process?
As the hon. Gentleman suggests, the two days of sunshine were a bonus, and not one that I was expecting. The point about the discussions with the Taliban is that they are taking place against the background of a statement by the Taliban that—I am paraphrasing—they do not want to see Afghanistan being used as a base for attacks on other countries. That is the right basis for them to start from, but clearly the whole aim of the process is to give people who thought that they could achieve their goals through the bomb and the bullet an opportunity to achieve them by political means. That is, I suppose, a parallel with the very painful process that was gone through in Northern Ireland.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on hosting such a successful meeting of the G8? Given the UK’s special relationship with the United States of America, however, does he not think that we could have made more progress on negotiating a free trade deal with America had we not left the matter up to the EU for the last 40 years?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, if Britain wanted to leave the European Union, we could do so and we could then make trade deals with every country in the world. Obviously that path is open to us. The argument that I would make is that, as part of the European Union—the world’s largest single market—we have the opportunity to drive some quite good deals. Clearly we sometimes have to make compromises with EU partners with whom we might not agree, but I would argue that, on balance, membership of the single market brings clear benefits, as does the negotiating heft that we have. The whole point is that we are going to be able to debate and discuss this, not least in the run-up to a referendum by the end of 2017.
The Prime Minister will understand that some of us are still seeking assurance that the outcomes from the G8 summit will be as thoroughly welcome and significant as its arrival in Northern Ireland. The Lough Erne declaration contains 10 points, which contain 13 “shoulds” and not a single “shall”. The “G8 action plan principles to prevent the misuse of companies and legal arrangements” provides eight principles containing 17 “shoulds”, one “could” and no “shall”. The provisions will be subject to a process of self-reporting against individual action plans. The UK individual action plan, which was helpfully published here yesterday, sets out 10 points offering standards, most of which should or could have been reached under existing laws and Financial Action Task Force requirements. What confidence can we have that the Prime Minister will ensure that the commitments made yesterday will go the distance?
This is a journey, and the question is: how far down the road are we? I would argue that we have taken some serious steps down that road by setting out clearly what needs to be done on beneficial ownership, on automatic exchange of information and on international tax standards. If we look at what Britain has done—with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories, for instance—we can see real progress. Is there a lot more to do? Yes. Do we need international reporting on it? Yes.
Has the G8 lifted this issue? Frankly, tax transparency and beneficial ownership were academic issues that were discussed in lofty academic circles, but they are now kitchen table issues that are being discussed by the G8 leaders, who have pledged to take action on them.
Order. The Chair is minded to take all remaining colleagues on these extremely important matters. The Prime Minister is helpfully providing pithy replies, which of course now need to be matched with comparably pithy questions.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on the progress made at the G8 and on his commitment today to come to the House before taking major action on Syria. Will he confirm that that would include an opportunity for the House to vote before any arms were sent to Syria?
I have made it clear that we have made no decision to arm the rebels. As has been said, these things should be discussed, debated and indeed voted on in this House—with the proviso of the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard.
The agreements on tax transparency are welcome, and I give credit to the Prime Minister for that achievement. He will know, however, that tax transparency is only part of the issue because, although it will stop excesses, there will still be tax havens to which people can have recourse. Does he agree that the next step is to ensure that companies and individuals pay tax in the countries in which they earn their income? Will he make that a priority for the next year, before the next G8?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; I know that he has spoken a lot about this in the past. That is the point of the high-level international tax tool. I have been searching for a better description for it than that, but it is none the less what we want the OECD to provide to countries so that we can see at a glance what a company earns, what its profits are and how much tax it has paid. In that way, we shall be able to see whether there is a problem, and whether further investigation is required. The register of beneficial ownership will also help, because it will enable us to hunt down the true owners of companies that are being registered under different nominee ownerships. These things all go together, and I think they can work.
Hope Technology in Barnoldswick, which the Prime Minister visited in April, was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend use it as an example of a great British exporter in a keynote speech ahead of the G8 summit. I warmly welcome what he has said today about the focus on jobs and growth. Will he say more about the positive impact that decisions taken at the G8 will have on manufacturers such as Hope Technology in Barnoldswick?
I will not forget my visit to Hope Technology in Barnoldswick, because it was impressive to see a manufacturing business making cycle accessories,
parts and bicycles here in the UK, when so often people think that all this sort of manufacturing has gone offshore. No, it has not: some of the highest-quality production is right here. Obviously these trade deals make a difference for manufacturing industries, but we also need to do everything else, including keeping our tax rates low, which is what this Government are doing.
Now that the Prime Minister has had some time to reflect on his earlier remarks about the Labour party and the Assad regime, will he consider withdrawing his remarks and apologising? Everyone in this House is united in being opposed to the Assad regime and the brutal killings of thousands of people, but we have genuine questions about his stance on arming the Syrian rebels. The first question is—
Order. Just one question.
Sorry. Can the Prime Minister give a guarantee that humanitarian access will not get worse, and can he explain—
As I have said many times, we have made no decision to arm the rebels. The point I was making was simply that, whenever we talk about these issues, we should put out there, front and centre, how much we abhor this form of dictatorship, brutalisation and use of chemical weapons. It cannot be said often enough and it needs to be said by everybody, all the time. That is the point I was making and I certainly will not withdraw it.
I warmly welcome the significant progress that the Prime Minister has made on issues that really matter to my constituents and, I am sure, those the length and breadth of the country. Will he confirm that at the forthcoming Geneva II talks, a limited number of representatives of civil society and the refugees who have been displaced in neighbouring countries will be involved?
What matters is that the regime and the opposition nominate a limited number of people to discuss how to put together a transitional Government who can represent all the Syrian people. I do not want to put too many strictures on it, because speed and simplicity are of the essence.
The activities of companies engaged in secret mining deals and salting profits away in tax havens are, in the words of Kofi Annan,
“like taking food off the table for the poor”
in Africa. What specific commitments has the G8 made to ensure mandatory country-by-country reporting of what companies pay in tax?
This issue—on which I applaud Kofi Annan’s work—is covered in the declaration: that companies should report what they pay and that Governments should report what they receive, because often there has been a discrepancy between the two. Obviously the more countries that join the extractive
industries transparency initiative—several promised during the course of the G8 and the Italians, the French, and ourselves before the G8—the higher the international standards will be.
On Syria, may I refer the Prime Minister to paragraph 87 of the communiqué, which deals with chemical weapons and a United Nations mission going to Syria to inspect whether there are any chemical weapons there? For clarification, will Russia, having been a party to this, accept the findings of that mission and, following on from that, will Russia accept any action that the United Nations proposes should be taken if there are any specific findings on those matters?
Obviously my hon. Friend’s second two questions are matters for the Russians, which they will have to answer for. I am clear about the information I have been given about the use of chemical weapons. Clearly there is a disagreement between what I believe and what President Putin believes, but what matters about paragraph 87 is that it says that the UN should be allowed in unhindered and that the regime must allow that to happen, and I think it is significant that the Russians agreed that.
I welcome the statement by the Prime Minister and the distinctly “British agenda” set in Fermanagh. I am very happy that the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone have given way to a new dawn. I congratulate the Government on setting the G8 in Fermanagh and I look forward to other G8 summits coming there in future, when the British Government are back in charge—perhaps they could be in North Antrim.
May I turn to the part of the Prime Minister’s statement where he said, “We will not take any major actions”—on Syria—“without first coming to this House”? Can he confirm that that includes arming the rebels?
Yes, I can, and I have said that very clearly. Let me be clear: although I know the saying, there was nothing dreary about the steeples of Fermanagh. The sun was shining and the countryside looked magnificent.
The talks between the EU and the US on trade are welcome for economic growth, covering, as they will, 50% of global trade. Will my right hon. Friend use his influence to ensure that those tasked with negotiations on the EU side maintain relentless energy on the removal of non-tariff barriers, such that services trade should blossom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. It is not just that officials have to be relentless and engaged on this, but where there are blockages and problems, that needs to be elevated to politicians and Ministers, so that we can try to drive forward the agenda. Otherwise, these trade talks get bogged down in difficult areas.
Everybody in the Labour party abhors the Assad regime, but on the question of Iran, given the Iranians’ traditional influence over the Syrian regime and given the election results, is
the Prime Minister absolutely sure that we do not now have a window of opportunity to try to engage Iran in helping us to find the political solution in Syria that we all want to see?
I think we should certainly engage with the fact that Iran has elected a relative moderate. I think that is a positive sign and we should look for opportunities; but as I said, really, if we are going to put so much weight on the Geneva process and the Geneva principles, it is important that everybody, Iran included, signs up to them.
The Prime Minister’s attempts on the world trade agreement will be warmly welcomed by many, and rightly so, but does he agree that the prize could be even bigger if we could genuinely open up the EU single market to services? Some 71% of EU GDP is in services, yet only 3.2% is intra-EU trade, so much more could be done to help our economy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This requires action by Governments and countries across the board, including traditionally quite free trade countries such as Germany that have sometimes had quite a lot of restrictions around particular professions. We therefore need action in the EU and then between the EU and the US in order to capture the full benefits of these changes.
On the sharing of tax information, was there agreement in principle that multinationals should pay their tax where they make their profits and if so, when will that happen, given that there will be winners and losers, with different countries resisting?
The key point in the Lough Erne declaration is that we should stop companies trying to artificially shift profits from one jurisdiction to another. I believe in fair tax competition. I am a low-tax Conservative: I think it is right to have low tax and then to ask companies to pay that tax. I think what is unacceptable is when processes and procedures are gone into not to shift the activity—that is a company’s right—but to shift where companies are trying to take the profits. That is the point.
Having served on the effective no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether there were discussions at the G8 about the introduction of a no-fly zone over Syria?
There were no specific discussions at the G8. Obviously I had a series of conversations with Barack Obama about all the things that we should be doing to put pressure on President Assad, but we do not have any plans to take those steps.
I am not aware of a specific exemption for any particular area, but I think that the health service would be treated in the same way in
relation to EU-US negotiations as it is in relation to EU rules. If that is in any way inaccurate, I will write to the hon. Lady and put it right.
Yesterday my right hon. Friend commented on the possible route to a political solution in Afghanistan following the opening of talks between the United States and the Taliban. May I encourage him to offer our resources to those who are beginning to tread that very difficult path, and to share our experience of peace talks in these islands with them?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. I agree that we have relevant experience and that we should share it, and we do so. The fact that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland are working together is a tangible example.
May I press the Prime Minister further on the precise wording of his statement? He said, “We will not take any major actions without first coming to the House.” Can he offer us a definition of “major”?
The hon. Lady is tempting me. I think that I would repeat what I said in my statement about major action, but add the proviso that I issued in replying to my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard. As the hon. Lady will recall, in the case of Libya and other such action it has sometimes been necessary to act very swiftly in defence of the national interest. The same applies to, for instance, terrorist kidnap, and not supplying information to those with whom one is engaged. Obviously, however, one would come to the House very swiftly after that and explain, as I did in the case of Libya. I think that those are well-known approaches, and I do not think that there is anything to be surprised about.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his approach to Syria at the summit, and particularly on his approach to an international peace conference, but may I urge him to be very cautious about calls for Iran to be involved in such a conference? After all, the Iranian regime has been funding its proxy Hezbollah in Syria, and has been responsible for and complicit in many of the atrocities committed by the Assad regime.
My hon. Friend has made an important point, but the most important point is that if countries are to be engaged in any way, they must sign up to the Geneva process.
The G8 tax agreement opens the way to an international tax settlement that is simpler and more transparent. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it has the potential to benefit countries that have reduced their corporation tax rates, such as the United Kingdom?
I think my hon. Friend would agree that, while low tax rates are good for business and there is nothing wrong with healthy tax competition, when we set a low tax rate we should then say to
businesses, “We have a low tax rate; now you must pay the tax.” I believe that the G8 agenda will help us in that regard.
My hon. Friend is right to ask that question. Dealing more effectively with tax evasion, which is illegal, and with aggressive tax avoidance, which, as I have said many times, raises serious moral issues, while at the same time garnering more revenue, can help us to keep down taxes on hard-working people who do the right thing. That is what should drive our whole agenda. As I said earlier, we have recovered a lot of money from territories and bank accounts, and we should continue to do so.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making his recent pre-G8 “ambition” speech at London Gateway port in my constituency. Does he agree that that investment will assist our global export aims, stimulate world economic growth, encourage free trade and, above all, demonstrate that under this Government, Britain is a great place in which to do business?
I commend my hon. Friend for standing up for his constituency so vigorously, and for that extraordinary investment. I urge Members who have not seen the giant port that is being built on the Thames estuary to go and look at it. When you are there, you think that surely this must be happening in Shanghai or Rio, but it is actually happening right here in the UK—a massive investment that will cut costs for consumers and will really benefit our country. [Interruption.] Opposition Members may chuckle. They do so because they do not care about the important things that are happening in our country.
I thank my hon. Friend. The EITI is important, and I think it right for countries such as Britain to sign it themselves as well as asking developing countries to do so. We should then try to help developing countries to meet its requirements, because it imposes a number of obligations on them which they cannot always fulfil. I think the fact that so many advanced countries have signed it is a good step forward.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s leadership in pressing for stronger relationships between the EU and the United States—that is vital—but does he agree that it is critically important for us to press for an unrelenting focus on driving British exports in growth markets such as China, India and Russia in the years ahead?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need for us to win this global race and to back our exports. At the beginning of Prime Minister’s Question Time, I announced that Ian Livingston, who has run BT so effectively, would join the Government as Trade Minister at the end of the year. Having first secured the services of Stephen Green, who led HSBC, one of the world’s strongest and best banks, we have now secured those of someone who has run a successful business here in the UK, but who also has a presence in about 78 markets overseas. I think that is great for Britain and great for our exports, and I am sure that it will be widely welcomed by Members in all parts of the House.