Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [ Lords]

Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language) – in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Second Reading

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This Bill seeks to amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, but the Vote Office does not have a copy of that Act. That is a very unfortunate state of affairs. Should not this debate be delayed until the Vote Office has a copy of that Act?

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

I do not think that we can do that. I will instruct the officials to ensure that the Act is made available in the Vote Office, but we cannot delay the proceedings.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 12:45 pm, 1st April 2009

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will give effect to two international agreements. The aim of both is to protect those who help others caught up in conflict—those who risk their lives to provide humanitarian support to others. The enactment of the Bill will enable the UK to become a party to the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions and the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of the United Nations and associated personnel.

This is a fitting moment to seek support for improvements to the Geneva conventions as it is this year that the conventions celebrate their 60th anniversary. They are universally recognised as enshrining the main principles of international humanitarian law. They oblige every state in the world to abide by the rules of war in order to limit the effects of armed conflict. They help to ensure that the wounded and the sick receive treatment; that prisoners and refugees are treated humanely; and that all civilians are protected from unnecessary harm.

The UK has, of course, always been at the forefront of developing and promoting the rules in the Geneva conventions and, by enacting this Bill, we will show the UK's support for the latest improvements to these rules and our continuing commitment to the development of international humanitarian law.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I am obviously minded to support the Bill. It is a question of process. Often the biggest frustration for free countries is the inability to bring obvious offenders—people such as Robert Mugabe—to justice for violations of civil liberties. Is it the Minister's view that the Bill will improve our capacity to bring to justice people around the world who clearly have no regard for human rights?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is not within the scope of the Bill, for reasons that I will go on to outline.

I know that right hon. and hon. Members will join me in thanking the British Red Cross Society for the co-operation that it has given us in preparing and promoting this important Bill. Members will also join me in commending the magnificent work done by the British Red Cross, both in the UK and overseas, where it co-operates with other national societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to which I also pay tribute.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Hon. Members on both sides of the House would want to associate ourselves with what the Minister has just said about the Red Cross, but will the Bill have any consequences for the name of the Red Cross? For example, in the future, will it have to be called the Red Cross and Red Crystal society?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

No, I am assured that the current arrangements will stay, and I will, of course, explain our default position on the use of symbols. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. Of course, we all share a common view of the work that is done on our behalf.

Most people are well aware of the life-saving work done by the Red Cross during times of conflict or when natural disasters strike, but I should like to put on record the kind of work that the Red Cross also does to save and improve lives in many other ways. First, it provides first aid training for thousands of ordinary people, so that they can take the right steps when confronted by serious injury. Secondly, it helps communities vulnerable to natural disasters to prepare for the worst and to work in advance against the possible effects of floods, earthquakes, fires and weather-related disasters. Thirdly, it promotes the international laws that help to minimise the negative effects of wars and other conflicts on civilians and combatants.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

In welcoming the work of the Red Cross, will the Minister include the work of the Red Crescent and the Red Star of David—the Magen David Adom?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Of course, I am very happy to do so.

Such work helps us all, of course, and we should be proud of and grateful for it. I very much welcome the sentiments expressed in early-day motion 1224, which was tabled this week by my hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle, to support the "Our World. Your Move" campaign. I am grateful for the eagle-eyed attention of Mr. Lidington in alerting me to the fact that the impact assessment was not, as it should have been, available in good time before the debate. I apologise to the House that that happened due to administrative error, and I assure the House that the impact assessment has now been made available.

I now come to the detail of the Bill. Clause 1 will amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 to allow the ratification of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions. The protocol provides for the use of a new humanitarian emblem—the red crystal—in addition to the existing emblems, the red cross and the red crescent. The UK Government and the British Red Cross played a significant role in securing international agreement for the adoption of the red crystal. The symbol is already widely accepted, as 38 states have already ratified the third additional protocol. Like the other two emblems, the red crystal is designed to be a protective symbol for humanitarian personnel in armed conflict.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the idea of a protective symbol came from a Swiss business man—Henri Dunant—who was travelling on business some 150 years ago and, by chance, happened to witness the battle of Solferino in Italy. During the battle, some 40,000 men from both sides were killed or wounded, and Dunant was shocked to see the wounded left on the battlefield without proper medical care. He therefore broke off his business trip and spent the next few days helping to do all that he could himself and convincing the locals also to help the wounded. He went on to found the Red Cross and establish the emblem of a red cross on a white background to help to identify those providing assistance.

I was fascinated to read the Red Cross literature, which told me that the emblem is a reversal of the colours and design of the Swiss flag. The symbol, as we know, has been used ever since. Its use has undoubtedly saved many lives—the lives of those providing humanitarian assistance, as well as lives saved by humanitarian acts. The red crescent emblem was given the same function in about 1879. Both symbols represent the protection of the medical services of the armed forces and the injured under the Geneva conventions. More recently, that protection has been extended to include civilian medical services.

As we know, however, conflicts have become more complex and the scope for the misunderstanding of those emblems has undoubtedly increased. In some situations, the red cross and the red crescent perhaps can be seen as having a religious, cultural or political connotation, which is not appropriate, accurate or intended in the settings in which it is used. Therefore, the red crystal has been introduced to ensure that a clear and neutral symbol exists for all to use. It can be used wherever the use of the other two symbols might be misinterpreted and therefore may not provide the protection that we would all seek to ensure. The red crystal symbol can also be used by national societies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement—for example, in Israel and Eritrea—where people may feel unable to identify with either the cross or the crescent or do not want to have to choose between the two.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Who will determine the circumstances in which the red crystal, as distinct from either alternative, will be used?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

That is a matter on which the appropriate movement in-country will make a decision. As I will go on to say, our default position will be to use the red cross; but in all cases, we will consider the circumstances of the conflict and make a decision for our own part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The creation of the red crystal was part of a package that paved the way for the Israeli and the Palestinian national societies to join the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2006. That has offered the movement the opportunity to achieve its goal of universality—again, something that we would all support.

The United Kingdom signed the third protocol in December 2005. Once the protocol is ratified, our Defence Medical Services will be able to use any of the three distinctive emblems. As I have already stated, we will continue to use the red cross as our main humanitarian emblem; but in any conflict, our armed forces will be able to choose the emblem that is likely to afford the maximum protection to their medical services and their patients. For instance, British troops deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq can use the red crystal or the red crescent, rather than the red cross, as a protective symbol for their medical units if they believe that doing so would improve their safety.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Can the Minister help us on the use of the red lion and sun? In 1980, the Islamic Republic of Iran declared that it was waiving its right to use those symbols and would use instead the red crescent as its distinctive symbol, but it reserved the right to return to the red lion and sun if new emblems were recognised. By recognising this new emblem, are we creating the danger that the Islamic Republic of Iran may wish to revert to the use of the red lion and sun, thereby creating another symbol?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

We are introducing clarity and reminding ourselves why we have international emblems. The three emblems form the basis of use and protection; they are clearly and absolutely recognised; and there can be no misunderstanding. In-country, for example, if a local society wished to use the red crystal with a red cross inside, it could do so. However, I am talking about—this is what hon. Members are concerned about—the protection provided in conflict situations.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, because I do not think that she understood my point, which is that the Islamic Republic of Iran has given due warning that if symbols in addition to the red cross and red crescent were enacted, it would reserve the right to revert to the use of the red sun. I want to find out from the Minister whether or not that threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran is still on the table.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

My understanding is that there has been no indication that Iran would wish to revert to using those symbols, and I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

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Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk

Does the Minister accept that using various symbols in different areas gives rise to the problem addressed by my hon. Friend Mr. Chope? In the future, more symbols may well be introduced because of the circumstances that are presented, and that could cause more confusion, rather than coherence in what the Red Cross is trying to achieve.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

No, I do not share that view. Indeed, let us remember that the impetus has come from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which recognises the difficulties and limitations of having two emblems. Therefore, rightly and sensibly, with a lot of hard work and negotiation, we have found that the adoption of the red crystal is getting us through the kind of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have been listening carefully to the Minister, but she has not really answered the question about the people who have been ignoring red crosses and red crescents but who are not going to ignore a red diamond or crystal, or whatever she wants to call it. Will she answer that question now? What evidence is there that the approach has worked in the field of combat?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I have been in discussions with the British Red Cross and I know how much support there is for this Bill. I also know how much support exists internationally, among people who operate in the field. They have requested us to take the legislative action necessary to make available an additional option that they do not have at the moment. That is why we are here today.

This is about sensitivity to the situation. As I said in my opening comments, there are concerns that the red cross or red crescent might be incorrectly interpreted. That is why the international movement has come forward with this proposal for the red crystal symbol. I think that it is the correct option.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. She is very reasonable, and is addressing the House in her usual mellifluous tones. I am minded to support the Second Reading of the Bill, but I am a bit befuddled about one thing; I hope that she can release me from my ignorance before long. There are three clauses in the Bill, and clause 3 deals with commencement. It specifies that the other two clauses will come into effect, by statutory instrument, on a date to be decided by Ministers. The measure is important and reasonably urgent, so when will the instrument be brought forward?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am afraid that I cannot tell the House that at this stage, but I shall be glad to do so in my closing remarks.

By ratifying the third protocol, we will show our continuing commitment to the development of international humanitarian law. As required by the additional protocol, the Bill will amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 to make it a criminal offence to misuse the red crystal symbol, as is currently the case with the other two symbols.

Clause 2 amends the United Nations Personnel Act 1997 to give effect to the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of UN and associated personnel.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I am grateful to the Minister, who is being extremely generous in giving way. However, I return to the point made by my hon. Friend John Bercow. If she cannot answer now, perhaps she will be able to answer at the end of the debate. As I understand it, the red crystal symbol has been in force internationally since 14 January 2007. Why has the Bill taken so long to get here? Why does its commencement provision not use the word "forthwith"?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

To do full justice to that question, I shall deal with it in my closing remarks.

The optional protocol allows states to agree to extra measures to increase the legal protection of UN and associated personnel engaged in UN operations. The UN began providing legal protection to its personnel in 1994, when it adopted the convention on the safety of UN and associated personnel in response to rising casualties among UN peacekeepers and others. The convention makes three requirements of member states: that they prevent and punish, through domestic criminal law, attacks on UN personnel and others associated with UN operations; that they extradite the perpetrators of such acts; and that they implement other ancillary measures.

The scope of the convention is relatively narrow, applying to UN operations in only two categories. The first category covers those operations designed to maintain or restore international peace and security, and the second covers those operations that the UN Security Council or General Assembly has declared pose an exceptional risk to the safety of the personnel participating in them. That narrow scope of protection has been heavily criticised, in particular by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called repeatedly for a protocol to extend the protection to those UN personnel not otherwise covered. That call was echoed at the world summit in September 2005.

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Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk

By passing the Bill, Britain will be setting an example for other nations. Does the Minister agree that the optional protocol must also be adopted by those countries where personnel are at greatest risk?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

That is an extremely important point, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right. The Bill is unlikely to have an impact on UK soil, but it will send a very clear message to other nations.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

In a moment, but I want to continue explaining how we came to this point.

As I said, the call by Kofi Annan was echoed at the world summit of September 2005. In response, the UN General Assembly adopted an optional protocol to the 1994 convention in December of that year. That protocol extends the scope of protection to two new categories—to operations for the purpose of delivering humanitarian, political or development assistance in peace building, and to operations for the purpose of delivering emergency humanitarian assistance. As the House will be aware, those measures are—sadly—as necessary today as they have been in the past.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Can the Minister tell us about enforcement? Even without the extension, can she assure the House that the existing arrangements are being enforced? Most people know that, although the UN or this Parliament may say something about Darfur, for example, there is outright defiance of these conventions on the ground.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

It is true that the protocol has to be applied through domestic criminal law, and that we are not able to track whether there have been prosecutions of people who have attacked UN personnel. However, the protocol is designed to correct the weakness in coverage that does reflect the current situation. That is why the Bill is before the House today.

Thankfully, the global conflicts that typified the first half of the 20th century have been avoided, but continuing regional, bilateral and internal conflicts have brought just as much suffering to the people caught up in them. The Red Cross and Red Crescent has worked to minimise that suffering, but the UN high commissioner for refugees told the Security Council earlier this year that the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers in such conflicts has increased. As well as being deeply shocking, that worrying new trend puts UN humanitarian staff in an impossibly difficult situation. Do they act to keep themselves and their colleagues safe, or do they continue to try to deliver effective humanitarian assistance to those desperately in need?

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Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk

I thank the Minister for giving way again. I am asking my questions in interventions rather than in a speech as I have to attend a Select Committee very shortly. When the UN's sixth committee proposed the terms of the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of UN personnel, there was some concern that the term "peace building" was not properly defined. What does she understand the term to mean now?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

The hon. Gentleman is right, and we will miss his presence in the Chamber later. The term "peace building" does not have an agreed definition but, according to the UN, it covers a wide range of activities associated with capacity building, reconciliation and societal transformation. He will know that peace building is a long process that happens after violent conflict has slowed or come to a halt. The Bill is important because it recognises that there has been a change in the work that UN personnel do on our behalf

I said earlier that UN humanitarian workers face an impossible choice, one that none of us would want to make. However, we should do everything possible to make sure that those courageous men and women acting in our name should not have to confront that choice. If they are to continue to fulfil their vital roles in the most difficult of situations, they must have the full weight of international law behind them. When we held the EU presidency, we played a leading role in securing the adoption of the optional protocol by the General Assembly. By ratifying the optional protocol, the UK will once again demonstrate its commitment to protecting humanitarian aid workers—a commitment that I know all right hon. and hon. Members share.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Before the Minister concludes, will she make reference to the European convention on human rights? If my memory is correct, clause 1 of the Bill might be seen as a control on the use of property within that convention, and the clause might therefore fall foul of the convention.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I can assure the House that the Bill stands alone, and gives effect to the points that I have outlined. As hon. Members have pointed out, ratifying will encourage other states to sign and ratify the optional protocol. It will help to convince yet more states to become parties to the 1994 convention. We have the opportunity today to set an example. I commend the Bill to the House.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 1:11 pm, 1st April 2009

I very much welcome the Bill, which fills two gaps in the domestic application of international humanitarian law. If, by any chance, there should be a Division later today, I shall certainly support the Government in voting in favour of a Second Reading.

As there is to be no separate debate on the programme motion that the Government tabled today alongside the motion on Second Reading, I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I start by making a few brief comments on that programme motion. I welcome the Government's decision that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House. That is a welcome departure from a practice that has been too frequent in recent years; Bills that once would have been open to debate in Committee by all right hon. and hon. Member have been shunted upstairs for truncated scrutiny there, so this is a welcome change. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office rarely has primary legislation before the House, and I am glad that it is, on this occasion, setting an example to other Departments. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Gillian Merron, are able to persuade their fellow Ministers that it is an example that other Departments would do well to follow.

I temper my welcome just a little bit by expressing disappointment that the programme motion provides for proceedings in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading to be completed all within a single parliamentary day. The Bill has cross-party support, but in my experience, we could improve our understanding of most Bills through detailed scrutiny and questioning, and the tabling of new clauses and amendments that are intended to probe, rather than to overthrow the principles of the Bill in question. The House of Lords is very insistent on maintaining intervals of a few days between each stage of primary legislation; that is an example that we in this House might profitably seek to emulate.

I note that the programme motion not only provides for Committee and all subsequent proceedings to be taken in a single day, but makes no guarantee that those proceedings will not be strictly timetabled so that they take less than an entire parliamentary day. The Government perhaps need to reconsider that point. I hope that there will be further reflection on that subject before we get to the subsequent stages of the Bill.

As the Minister said in her opening speech, we are debating the application in domestic law of two protocols in international law. The additional protocol was adopted by parties to the Geneva convention as long ago as 2005. That is true, too, of the optional protocol to the UN convention on the protection of United Nations and associated personnel, which was adopted by the General Assembly in December of that year. It is slightly odd that we should have had to wait from the end of 2005 until the spring of 2009 for the Government to decide finally to bring forward the legislation to give effect to their decision to sign and ratify those important pieces of international legislation.

I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate she will elucidate the distinction between the two conventions, which intrigues me. When we talk about the red crystal, we are talking about the ratification of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions, whereas in the case of the amendment to the United Nations convention on the safety of United Nations and associated personnel, we are talking about the ratification of an optional protocol to the original convention of 1994. I am no lawyer, let alone an international lawyer, and I am genuinely intrigued to hear whether the Minister can elucidate the distinction between an additional protocol and an optional protocol. That is not an academic inquiry. We need to be clear in our minds, when we enact the legislation, about whether the difference in title means that there is a difference in the legal effect of the two parts of legislative reform in the Bill.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I wonder whether my hon. Friend could help the House. Who will decide whether the cross or the crystal is used? Will the Foreign Office have a list of sensitive souls who may be offended by the cross, and will it advise aid workers on when to use the crystal, or will someone on the field of battle make that decision? Does he know the answer to that? The Bill does not make it clear.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

No. That is a point that I want to come on to in a little while. My right hon. Friend asks a serious question. My understanding—I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am mistaken—is that in respect of British servicemen and women participating in a humanitarian enterprise conducted under the auspices of the United Nations and falling within the scope of the optional protocol, it would be for the British authorities, or the appropriate commander, to decide what symbol was used. On the general use of emblems more widely than in United Nations humanitarian and other operations, I assume that the decision would be taken by the national society concerned, as it is now. In our case, that is the British Red Cross. It will be for the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies of various countries to decide the symbol, or combination of symbols, that they wish to employ.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

It is Bill, Mr. Speaker, but that is perfectly all right. My father would love to have been called. He longs to be back here, but it seems a prudent family decision that there should be one Wiggin in the House at a time. Thank you anyway, Mr. Speaker.

Does my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington agree with me that the Bill is not about deciding which symbol—a red cross, crescent or crystal—is used, but about making sure that legislation is in place to prosecute people who ignore that symbol? The Bill is about prosecuting people in the UK; that is why it applies to our Government. It therefore matters very much who decides whether our troops open fire on somebody displaying a diamond shape. Does he feel that the measure will really help British troops in their peace-making efforts, or could it simply add to the confusion in the heat of battle, thus putting British servicemen in the dock for trying to do the right thing, which they usually do?

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

There are two elements to my response to my hon. Friend's question. As I understand the Bill, the provision will permit the use of the red crystal alongside or in place of the red cross and red crescent, and will therefore provide an additional symbol that will attract international protection and the respect for that protective function by means of criminal sanctions for those who breach it and for those who, in the terms of the original convention, make "perfidious use" of it—in other words, those who use the protective symbol when they are engaged in military or terrorist operations.

The Bill also provides protection in British domestic law against the use of the red crystal symbol for any purpose other than to designate a genuinely protective humanitarian body—in our case, the British Red Cross. So, as I understand it, the legislation would outlaw the use of the red crystal for any kind of business or commercial purpose. Again, if I am mistaken, I am sure the Minister will intervene or address the point in her concluding remarks.

My understanding is that the additional protocol concerning the red crystal has taken a great many years to negotiate and that there have been many false starts. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will be able to spell out in a little more detail exactly how the additional protocol will finally allow the vexed issue of the red star of David or red shield of David—I have seen both terms used—to be treated in future.

My understanding is that, under the additional protocol, the red star of David will not be treated as on a par with the red cross, crescent or crystal, in that its display will not automatically invoke the right to protection which those other symbols guarantee, but that it will be open to Israeli and, if they so choose, other humanitarian organisations to use the red star of David as an additional indicative symbol of their humanitarian purpose, so that, for example, an Israeli ambulance or relief lorry might travel into an area where there might be a threat of violence displaying the red star of David on the side of the vehicle, but with the crystal clearly displayed on the roof of the vehicle as a signal to aircraft that it was entitled to international protection. That is my understanding, having read the briefing on the Bill, but if the Minister wishes to correct me, I am happy to let her do so.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am curious about what sort of threat might come from the air to the Israelis, in particular.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

In any humanitarian operation, relief workers or troops escorting them are right to be alert to the prospect of attack from any direction, including from aircraft. If my hon. Friend looks into this, I think he will find that there have been occasions where there has been so-called friendly fire, where humanitarian vehicles have been attacked, deliberately or inadvertently, from the air. Clearly, the purpose of displaying the humanitarian symbols prominently is to deter and prevent any such attack.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is making the point beautifully. That is why I turned up this afternoon. If the air power in question is Israeli, which it will be, because there is no air force presenting any sort of threat to an Israeli humanitarian effort, surely the right sort of symbols will be the ones that are most familiar to Israeli pilots. That is true throughout the world. We all know why the red cross is so important. If we were combatants of any sort, we would want to be protected if we were injured. We need to make sure that the sort of people who would ignore that do not take part in such conflicts. Therefore putting a diamond shape on the roof of an Israeli truck to prevent Israelis from blowing up their own truck is unnecessary. They could stick with any sort of Israeli symbol for the red cross, whether it was a star of David, a red crescent or any other symbol. The provision is entirely unnecessary in that example.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

A new symbol, agreement on which has allowed the vexed question of the position of the Israeli and Palestinian humanitarian relief societies to be settled, and allowed them to become part of the global family of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, is a compromise worth having.

Although my hon. Friend is tempting me into my other responsibilities as middle east spokesman, I will not go down that track too far, but I shall respond to the point that he made. If I can look forward to the future of the middle east with greater optimism than he was able to voice in his question, perhaps we could see a day when Israeli vehicles participated in UN multinational humanitarian operations. If the legal framework that we have provided for in the protocol and now in the Bill makes it possible for that to happen, that is a constructive step.

I have two other questions to the Minister about the use of the red crystal—

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Before my hon. Friend moves on to that point, can he give me some assurance that the red shield of David, which was specifically outlawed following the 1949 diplomatic conference, will not be brought back into the equation?

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

It is for the Minister to give a detailed response to my hon. Friend's question. My understanding is that it will be possible to use the red shield as an indicative symbol, but that it would not have the status of a protective symbol. It would have to be used alongside the red crystal, which would have to have the greater prominence, particularly on the roofs of buildings or vehicles, in order to make sure that that protected status was understood.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In that case, does my hon. Friend share my concern that the provision is an unnecessary complication? We are talking about introducing a third symbol, the crystal, but he seems to be saying that notwithstanding that, the Israelis and other countries will carry on using other symbols as well.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

That is a complication, but it is a necessary one. The more I delve into the politics of the middle east, the more I find the need for unavoidable complications. One's wish that the world were simpler is very often defeated when looking at that region.

My second question to the Minister about the red crystal concerns its relationship with the red cross and the red crescent. I heard her say that the intention was that the crystal should not displace those traditional symbols, and I know, too, that in terms of indicative domestic use it will be a matter not for the Government, but for the British Red Cross to decide how to use the symbols in this country. However, I want to put on the record my strong hope that it will not use the opportunity provided by the inclusion of the red crystal in the list of protective symbols to go down the route of saying, "Let's have that instead of the red cross."

The British Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross do a first class job. However, the one thing that I find niggling about the British Red Cross from time to time is its neuralgia about even the slightest reference to religion—right down to banning Christmas cribs from the windows of its charity shops. That is unnecessary; I do not think for a moment that such displays bring its impartiality into question. I hope that it will stick to a tried and trusted symbol that the overwhelming majority of the British public respect and value, regardless of their ethnic and religious traditions. The symbol is also regarded with great pride by the army of volunteers and fundraisers who have participated in the work of the British Red Cross for so many years.

My final comment about this element of the Bill takes me to the point raised by my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight about the Human Rights Act 1998. As I understand it, the Bill prohibits the use of the red crystal for any business or commercial purpose. I would like an assurance from the Government that they truly did their homework on that issue before bringing the Bill to the House. Can the Minister say in terms that the Government have checked that they will not be knowingly extinguishing the patent rights of any individual or company, and that the Bill will not suddenly cripple the trade of some small business that has been innocently using the red crystal as a marketing device or a symbol of its corporate image for many years, only to find itself overtaken by this legislation?

Clause 2 deals with the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of United Nations and associated personnel. In terms of British law, we are talking about an amendment of the United Nations Personnel Act 1997. The amendment is designed to address the fact that the protection given by the current convention is fairly narrow. However, articles 1 and 2 of the original convention show that the definition of a United Nations operation is tightly drafted. To qualify for the protection of personnel, the operation has to be

"for the purpose of maintaining or restoring international peace and security; or...Where the Security Council or the General Assembly has declared, for the purposes of this Convention, that there exists an exceptional risk to the safety of the personnel participating in the operation".

Clearly, that phraseology rules United Nations humanitarian assistance and relief operations outwith the scope of the original convention. Although it could be argued that there is a safeguard in the reference to the power that the Security Council and General Assembly have to declare that there is an exceptional risk to the personnel participating in the operation, I believe that there have been only about four occasions since the convention came into force when that saving clause has been applied in practice.

Everyone is clear and agrees that there are plenty of United Nations operations that do not qualify for protection but ought to. I gladly join the tribute paid by the Minister to the courage of military personnel and civilian workers who work under the United Nations banner in the most difficult circumstances, trying to bring aid and humanitarian relief to people in desperate straits and often in the midst of the most savage conflicts in different parts of the world.

The Bill is extraterritorial in scope; it creates offences in the United Kingdom in respect of offences committed elsewhere in the world. Section 1 of the United Nations Personnel Act 1997 defines the offences as ones committed outside the United Kingdom. One detail that troubles me is that the Bill does not seek to amend the list of criminal offences included in sections 1 and 2 of the 1997 Act. I am sure that the Minister knows only too well that since 1997 there has been a long series of criminal justice Acts. We have seen the creation of a long list of new offences and the redefinition of others. I am therefore genuinely puzzled about why the Bill does not seek to amend the list of offences in sections 1 and 2 of the 1997 Act, to bring that Act up to date. New terrorism offences have been created and I would have thought that they would apply to the Bill, especially as the terrorism legislation brought in by the Government specifically includes offences committed overseas and not just those committed here. Why has there been no amendment to the original list of offences in the 1997 legislation?

My second area of questioning is about the definition of United Nations operations. The Bill amends the definition of a UN operation to add in the category of

"delivering humanitarian, political or development assistance in peacebuilding and delivering...humanitarian assistance."

We deserve more detail from the Government about what is meant by "peacebuilding". The original UN convention carefully defines peacekeeping operations. There was much argument and debate among the members of the United Nations before agreement was reached on the precise wording of the optional protocol. It would help us to understand the reference to "peacebuilding" if the Minister filled us in later about what happened during those negotiations and about what the member states of the UN had in mind collectively when they agreed on the use of that term.

Thirdly, I would be grateful if the Minister could explain the reasoning for the opt-out that is explicitly included in clause 2(4) in respect of operations to deliver emergency humanitarian assistance in response to natural disaster. I know that the Government have simply imported it; it is an opt-out that is included in the text of the optional protocol. What are the reasons for that opt-out? I simply cannot understand why any country in any part of the world should think it necessary to disapply the protection of international law from people who are working on behalf of the UN to deliver emergency humanitarian assistance following an earthquake or some other natural disaster.

We had a fairly recent case of that; as I understand it, one reason that people became so dissatisfied with the tight definitions of the convention was that it failed to offer protection to the relief workers who supplied food, medicines and emergency accommodation to the victims of the Boxing day tsunami a few years ago. The optional protocol and the Bill that implements it would appear to provide an opt-out that any country could exercise, applied to its territory, when people were sent in to respond to just such an emergency. I do not understand the logic of any country's seeking to have such an opt-out.

It seems to me that there are still some problems with the definition of UN operations, because, even with the additions proposed in the Bill, they basically remain the same as those set out in articles 1 and 2 of the convention. Let me give a few illustrations of those outstanding problems. The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee of the New Zealand Parliament, which investigated the optional protocol, pointed out that the original convention

"only covers United Nations operations, and"— this seems to me to be the important point—

"excludes regional peacekeeping operations or peacekeeping operations authorised by the Security Council to be conducted under national or regional command and control."

That is a significant lacuna in the optional protocol and therefore, presumably, in the scope of the Bill.

We are now in a world where the UN in Sudan is seeking to work in concert with regional organisations. In the future, the UN might wish to work together with or to give authority to the African Union or other regional bodies to co-ordinate and lead both peacebuilding and humanitarian operations in particular parts of the world. If the concerns expressed by the New Zealand Parliament are correct, we have a gap in the protection we are offering to the people involved in such operations. That might be the product of a diplomatic compromise that was necessary to obtain agreement on the protocol, but I would be grateful for some further information on that point, especially given that the New Zealand Parliament concludes:

"The majority of casualties continue to be among personnel serving in operations not covered by the automatic application of the Convention."

Another criticism was made by the international lawyer, Mr. Huw Llewellyn, who is quoted at length in the helpful research paper provided by the House of Commons Library. He said in an article published in International and Comparative Law Quarterly in July 2006:

"Emergency humanitarian assistance operations established by autonomous organizations within the UN system and by the Specialised Agencies do not fall within Article II(1)(b)" of the optional protocol because

"They are not established by UN Charter bodies" and the protocol makes specific reference to the charter. Mr. Llewellyn also pointed out:

"for example, operations established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), or by the World Health Organization (WHO) would not be within the scope of the Protocol."

So those organisations would not be within the scope of the Bill, either.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Surely my hon. Friend is highlighting a very good reason why the remaining stages of the Bill should be continued on another day so that he can table amendments to deal with that very issue.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My right hon. Friend makes the good point that those are precisely the sort of issues that we ought to be able to explore with probing amendments and proper time allowed for debate and detailed ministerial response point by point, rather than today's debate being truncated by the use of a guillotine.

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Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend think that the problems he has highlighted in those examples arise from a drafting error on the part of someone who has not thought the issue through or does he think they convey the true intention behind the legislation?

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My hon. Friend asks a perfectly serious question. I do not know the answer. I suspect that it is not a drafting error, because it seems to me that the Bill closely reflects the words of the protocol. I would expect that the gaps in the protection are the product of the diplomatic wrangling that was needed to get the UN General Assembly to agree to the optional protocol. It is worth further exploring that point, but of course I understand the diplomatic dilemmas that our Government might have faced in deciding that they had to settle for half a loaf when they might have wanted something rather more ambitious.

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Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that however laudable it is to accept half a loaf rather than no loaf, it waters down and hampers the general intention behind the legislation?

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

That is certainly the case. My hon. Friend and I have learned from our years in this place that one sometimes has to settle for half a loaf or even less and that one advances little by little towards the state of affairs that one hopes to achieve.

My final set of questions about this element of the Bill concerns the practical impact that it might have on existing UN operations. I am clear in my mind that the Bill is binding on British domestic law in respect of offences committed against UN and associated personnel overseas provided that those operations come within the scope of the original convention or the optional protocol. I am not altogether clear about which current UN operations would be covered by the Bill. Some UN operations are extremely controversial and could give rise to some tricky issues of litigation here.

We all watched with horror some of the events in Gaza in recent months. When, a couple of weeks ago, I met Mr. John Ging, the head of the United Nations operation in Gaza, he told me about shelling that had damaged his headquarters building in the Gaza strip. He also told me about military operations in the near vicinity of schools, or attacks on schools, run by the United Nations. I am deliberately trying to keep my language as neutral as possible because there are conflicting accounts of what happened, who was responsible and whether those actions were deliberate or inadvertent, or were in response to attacks on troops.

The basic point is that the Bill creates new offences in British domestic law in respect of attacks on UN and associated personnel operating overseas. If Gaza, to take the most obvious recent high-profile example, is covered by the scope of the additional protocol and the Bill, it surely follows that allegations could be made in the United Kingdom against individual Israeli political or military leaders. I note that the Bill provides a safeguard in that the Attorney-General must give permission for a prosecution to take place. However, one can well imagine that it would be an extremely controversial decision either to initiate or to deny such a prosecution given how the Bill represents and embodies our commitment to the United Nations and to the duty to protect all its personnel.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

What troubles me about my hon. Friend's comments is that they might be interpreted as suggesting that it is more dastardly to kill children who are in a United Nations-sponsored school than in any other school. Surely he is not suggesting that.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

No, I am not. The Bill gives particular protection to United Nations and associated personnel; other civilians are covered by the duties of protection that are guaranteed under more general international law, with which my hon. Friend is familiar. The Geneva conventions and the other forms of humanitarian protection that have been agreed between nations continue to apply. The Bill and the convention protocol on which it is based give additional protection to UN personnel in recognition of the particular duties that they carry out on our behalf.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Would not those protections extend to dissuading Israeli defence forces from murdering UK citizens who are part of a UN peacekeeping force in that part of the world, just as, for example, Israeli defence forces murdered the UK citizen Tom Hurndall?

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully, and the Minister and Members will have heard what he says.

It is disappointing that more than 10 years after the convention was adopted, fewer than half the member states of the United Nations have signed up to it. Does the Minister have reason to believe that the addition of the optional protocol will encourage more states to become parties both to the original convention and to the protocol? That would be encouraging. I hope that she can also clarify whether the offences created in the Bill exist only in respect of acts committed on the territory of a country that is a party to the protocol and to the convention, or whether those offences are more strictly defined so that if an attack that qualified under the Bill as a criminal offence took place on UN personnel in any country of the world, the individuals responsible could be brought to justice here. That is an important point that we need to understand not only in appreciating the virtues of the Bill but in judging its practical efficacy in the immediate future.

I am sorry to have detained the Minister for so long with detailed questions, but I wanted to take this opportunity to probe some of the details of the Bill, which, after all, creates new criminal offences that are binding on all our citizens. However, I strongly support the principle of the Bill, and I will support it if we vote on it.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 1:56 pm, 1st April 2009

I should like to add the Liberal Democrats' support for the Bill. I am pleased that the cross-party consensus seems to be that it is the right way for the Government to go. I do not think that I need detain the House for three quarters of an hour in order to put my views across and ask a few questions that I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with in her summing up.

I echo the commendation that the Minister and Mr. Lidington gave to the British Red Cross for the service it has provided in the 100-plus years of its operations. It is wonderful to see such an institution with such a long and successful history—the International Committee of the Red Cross has an even longer history of nearly 150 years—doing incredibly important work. The need to protect medical workers and respect the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies wherever it is operating is absolutely universal, and I am sure that nobody would disagree with the requirement to do so.

One learns something new every day, as the adage goes, and I certainly did so when I read the Hansard report of the debate in the Lords, which the Minister outlined. I was surprised to learn that the origin of the red cross was a reversal of the Swiss flag as a symbol of the neutrality of Switzerland. It must be recalled that despite it being called the red cross, it is not a religious symbol—although, sadly, it has been taken to mean that in some circumstances. The difficulties that have arisen with the red cross and the red crescent being perceived as symbols that are not neutral have led to the need to adopt a new symbol. The adoption of the red crystal is a sensible way forward in such sensitive areas, although it is sad that that choice may have to be made.

I welcome the Minister's confirmation that the Foreign Office's default option—I hope the same applies to the British Red Cross—will be to continue to use the red cross, which is most familiar in this country in terms of brand recognition. There must, however, be flexibility so that a crystal can be used too, ensuring that it is entirely clear that the medical aid is neutral.

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Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

In what circumstances does the hon. Lady envisage the red crystal being used instead of the red cross?

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I understand that it has already been used in several war zones where it was felt that the red cross or the red crescent might be perceived as religious symbols rather than neutral medical symbols. Although that might be regrettable, it is sensible that we ensure that an alternative symbol can be used. There has been discussion about who should make that decision, and the Minister has already stated that the default would be the Red Cross, but that decision has to be made by those on the ground who are able properly to assess the situation and any sensitivities.

Clause 2 calls for additional protection for those who do vital and dangerous work. We should salute those who courageously do an incredibly difficult job in providing a service to us and to the whole international community. Legal protection for UN personnel on peacebuilding and emergency humanitarian work is long overdue. Unfortunately, with the deliberate targeting of humanitarian and UN personnel in recent conflicts, it is more needed than ever.

I should like the Minister to clarify a point that was made today, and in the other place. My noble Friend Baroness Northover asked whether missions of sister organisations—the World Health Organisation or the Food and Agriculture Organisation—in conflict areas would be included. The Minister's summing up in the other place suggests that any UN agency would be included and that any agency undertaking work with the UN under that umbrella would be included, but that humanitarian agencies would not. The hon. Member for Aylesbury suggested that the WHO and FAO would not be included, so clarity from the Minister would be helpful.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I agree with a lot of what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she think that, historically, sufficient sanctions have been taken against those who have abused the Red Cross—or, most recently, those who abused the United Nations Works and Relief Agency in Gaza? What does she think can be done to beef up that process beyond what is in the Bill?

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I would certainly agree that sanctions have not been effective enough. Indeed, I was just about to say that it is all very well passing a Bill, but if the protection is available but is not used we are providing words rather than action. It is important that legislation is available and provides a first step, but the international community needs the political will to act against breaches. In the recent events in Gaza, the UN gave all the co-ordinates of its facilities to the Israeli authorities, but it still ended up being bombed, and that clearly requires an international investigation.

The difficulty with organisations such as the UN is whether independent investigations will be subject to a veto. Where there is evidence that war crimes might have occurred, I strongly feel that they should be investigated and people held to account, regardless of what country they are from or, indeed, in what country the offences were committed. Legal protection does not solve the problem, but having it on the statute book helps to provide a deterrent and gives us the tools to pursue justice. However, there must be the political will to pursue that justice.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

If a deterrent is to be effective, surely there has to be an effective sanction against non-compliance. Are we not in danger of engaging again in gesture politics, where the substance does not follow what we are saying?

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman will know that getting agreement in international organisations is not easy—it is an art rather than a science. I hope that our passing this Bill will send a message to other countries and encourage them to ratify the protocols, but that does not automatically mean that international organisations will work as perfectly as we want. However, that is not an argument for not giving the Bill a Second Reading, or for the Government not to propose legislation. If the Government are encouraging other countries to sign and to ratify the protocols and the initial convention, as I hope they are, their task will be made a bit difficult if they have not ratified them.

When we talk about the protection of UN personnel under the Bill, we are talking about UN personnel in the UK, where we hope there would never be the sort of problems to which the Bill applies. The message that this Parliament sends will give us the basis on which we can, through our diplomatic efforts, encourage other countries to sign and ratify. I hope that the Minister will update the House on the current situation; I understand that 87 countries ratified the original convention, but that 34 had signed and 16 had ratified the protocols. Those were the figures given in the other place in January. Two months on, it would be interesting to know whether the figures have increased, the number of ratifications needed for the protocols to come into force and how far away we are from that.

The Minister said that the Government signed the protocol in 2005, yet four years later we are finally scrutinising the legislation. It is not exactly the weightiest measure for which the Government have needed to find parliamentary time, so I find it difficult to understand why it has taken so long. Given that the red crystal has been in use since 2007, it would be helpful if the House had put things in order beforehand. I should like the Minister to outline the difficulties.

Lord Malloch-Brown wrote a letter to my noble Friend, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in which he seemed to suggest that even when states had failed, international courts might be able to uphold this law. I wanted to press the Minister on how that could be the case if the states in question had not ratified the protocols. Clearly, some of the states we most want to ratify the protocols are those for which the issue might not be top of the agenda. Any information on the Government's efforts to encourage them would be welcome.

Finally, much as I welcome additional legal protection for UN personnel, we need to remember non-governmental organisations, such as Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children and so on. Other humanitarian agencies are delivering aid and relief efforts but will not be protected. A lot of those organisations work in conflict zones where even the UN has pulled out, deeming it too dangerous to work. I hope that the Government will pursue legal protection for aid workers who work in a neutral capacity, providing humanitarian assistance and not getting involved in the politics of individual countries. On 11 March, three staff were kidnapped from Médecins sans Frontières in Darfur, and I am sure that the whole House hopes they will be safely returned. Attacks against humanitarian workers can never be justified, but we should be concerned that our valued international institutions are sometimes regarded with hostility. It is incumbent on all of us, particularly the Government, to do everything possible to uphold the United Nations and its partners as just and non-partisan.

I hope that the Minister will address my points, and I am delighted to support the Second Reading of the Bill.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 2:07 pm, 1st April 2009

Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to be here today, supporting the Red Cross. Let us remember that the Red Cross wants the new international sign of the red crystal to protect its operatives in the field. It is wonderful to reflect at this time of huge global tension that the Red Cross operates to the highest ideals possible. We live in times when we have to be religiously sensitive—and when the cross and the crescent can unintentionally ignite religious passions—but the Red Cross is free of any ideology. When people are in need, it does not question who they are, their reasons for being on a battlefield, or their reasons for being in that location—it offers help at the direst time of need and emergency.

We live in dark and dangerous times. The Red Cross was founded nearly 140 years ago, but the need for the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the derivatives of those organisations is greater than ever before. We have a number of global conflicts, in places such as the Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are numerous flashpoints in the middle east, where aid is needed daily. We also have the spectre of global climatic events impacting on people living near sea shores. A few years ago the tsunami laid waste to large parts of Asia. Again, the Red Cross was at the forefront of delivering aid. The need is greater than ever, and if the Red Cross believes that it needs a new global symbol to protect its people in the field, it should have our full support. I am pleased that there seems to be a consensus about that today, as there was in the other place.

We must examine the Bill carefully to ensure that it is as good as it can be. I have one concern, which I think many Members will share. The red crystal will come into force, and I imagine that our troops whom we send to far-flung parts of the world will understand exactly what it means very early on. They will be educated to recognise it. But will people in the Congo, for example, understand what the red crystal is? We will be dealing with youngsters who have had no formal education at all, as they have been denied it. They are taken from their homes, conscripted into youth armies and brutalised. What will the red crystal mean to them? Will it offer any protection to those who fly the flag? Terrible events are also unfolding in Swat valley in Pakistan.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Surely in the scenario that my hon. Friend paints, another symbol would be used. Does he not think that the Foreign Office would have a list of countries where it is most appropriate to use a different symbol, and that the UN would be guided accordingly?

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and that is why Parliament has such an important role to play through the Bill. When concerns are raised, parliamentarians turn their attention to addressing them, and I hope that the most appropriate symbol will be used. We have a duty to ensure that the brave men and women who go into dangerous places get the maximum possible protection. That is an absolute, and we must never shy away from trying to ensure it.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

My hon. Friend is, of course, entirely right about the proliferation around the world of events at which the Red Cross or its derivatives are needed. Does he share a corresponding concern about the abuse of the symbols in the countries where those events are taking place? I understand that under the existing 1957 legislation, unauthorised use of the emblem is punishable by a fine up to level 5 on the standard scale, which is currently £5,000. I do not know whether he knows how many times that has been enforced, but does he regard that as a sufficient penalty?

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

The penalty sounds very small and out of date, but as my hon. Friend will know, we can have all the penalties in the world, but if they cannot be enforced they amount to absolutely nothing. In response to the intervention by my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight, I point out that there are too many parts of the world where the Red Cross and the Red Crescent are abused, and where people no longer respect the mission of those brave organisations. Like many other Members, I have read the Library briefing and watched the news. Unfortunately, brave men and women working tirelessly for the benefit of others under the flag of the Red Cross or the Red Crescent are losing their lives.

My hon. Friend Mr. Swire will know, as he is a former soldier, that the battlefield is a dangerous place to be. We see that week in and week out, when we hear of journalists and other non-combatants being killed. Deliberate attacks on people flying an international symbol of aid and help must no longer be tolerated. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, Jo Swinson, touched on the fact that when people working for the Red Cross come under deliberate attack, there must be global indignation and those responsible must feel the full weight of global law fall upon their shoulders.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I am sorry that I was not here at the outset of the debate, but I have thus far followed it with interest from a distance, and I have read all the materials provided. My hon. Friend talks about indignation, but that must find its form in the appropriate reaction of Government. If they do not take a lead on these things, he is fanciful in expecting others to do so in their place. The Government must take a lead, and there is not much evidence that they are.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I shall be more charitable than my hon. Friend to the Government, because I think that there is a desire and a mood in all parties to provide the necessary protection to men and women operating in the field under the red cross and the red crescent. However, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Today, we have the G20, and 66 per cent. of the world's population is represented by the global leaders who are in London. The economy is absolutely critical and deserves their attention, but they should also focus on how to alleviate the suffering of the hundreds of millions of people who are living in war-torn parts of the world. I mentioned the Congo earlier, and it is outrageous that more than 6 million people have been allowed to perish there. How many more would there have been without the Red Cross?

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I have been pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman relating his remarks and concerns to the Bill, and I hope that he will continue to do that.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

How many more would have perished without the Red Cross, and how many more would be suffering? The organisations, guerrilla groups and people who wilfully attack the Red Cross must be brought before a court of international law and tried. If convicted, they must serve time in prison for their crimes against not just the Red Cross but humanity.

I conclude my short speech by paying tribute to those who work for the Red Cross and Red Crescent. They are ordinary men and women who do extraordinary things. We normally hear about them only when a tragedy occurs, but day in and day out they bring aid to parts of the world where there are unimaginable levels of suffering. We in this House need to do as much as possible to ensure that the Red Cross and its people can continue to deliver on their mission, and I am pleased that the Bill is before the House today and that we are supporting the Red Cross in its aims and objectives.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:17 pm, 1st April 2009

May I say how nice it is to see how many colleagues are present who also served on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, including the Government Whip, Ms Butler, who unfortunately cannot speak for herself today?

I begin by welcoming the tireless efforts of the humanitarian personnel who act selflessly to save lives and alleviate suffering. Humanitarian workers operate in the most hostile and dangerous parts of the world and show compassion and bravery that, along with the character of our armed forces, is unparalleled. We must of course do what we can to protect them and ensure that those who risk their lives are reassured of our support.

However, emblems and conventions may not be enough. It saddens me that in recent years there have been many examples of humanitarian workers being harmed and killed, often in the most callous and brutal ways. I am concerned that those involved in the conflicts in which the UN and humanitarian personnel are engaged are already failing to respect the existing laws of war and morality. Whatever we legislate for in this Parliament, and across the world in other decent and democratic countries that respect the laws of war and the Geneva conventions, that does not mean that others will necessarily extend the same protection and respect. There are immoral people in conflict zones across the world who show utter disregard for the laws of war. They make no distinction between those acting in a humanitarian capacity and military personnel, who may be viewed as being legitimate targets.

A number of high-profile examples have been brought to my attention that highlight the need for the international community, the United Nations and other international organisations to take action against those who refuse to be bound by the letter and the spirit of the conventions.

In October, we were all horrified by the actions of the Taliban gunmen who brutally murdered three women aid workers, including one Briton, 40-year-old Jacqueline Kirk. The aid workers were ambushed by gunmen 30 miles outside Kabul in the province of Logar, while travelling from Gardez in the east of Afghanistan to Kabul. The gunmen ignored the laws of war and did not feel bound by conventions. Ms Kirk and her colleagues were working for the International Rescue Committee. They were not soldiers, part of the coalition of the willing or there to wipe out the Taliban—that is the job of our soldiers. Ms Kirk was there to support innocent civilians. She had no knowledge of warfare, but expertise in children's education programmes. The Taliban gunmen did not care. Their spokesman went as far as to claim that they attacked the vehicle in which Ms Kirk and her colleagues travelled because it was carrying military personnel, "most of them women." He added to the Associated Press by phone:

"They were not working for the interests of Afghanistan and they belonged to those countries whose forces... took Afghanistan's freedom."

Although the introduction of the red crystal symbol is welcome, I do not believe that the Taliban would show it any more respect than it has shown existing aid workers. It is not clear that the red crystal would have protected the five international aid workers who were kidnapped or held hostage in Afghanistan in the first half of 2008, or the dozens of Afghan aid staff working daily for non-governmental organisations.

There are other examples of aid workers being brutally attacked and mistreated in conflicts. Sadly, the case involving Ms Kirk is not a one-off, but an all-too-regular occurrence. In 1996, three International Committee of the Red Cross relief workers were killed in Burundi, despite travelling in a vehicle that was clearly marked with the red cross emblem. Four ICRC staff were killed in south Sudan by the Sudan People's Liberation Army in 1999—they were abducted in February and executed a few weeks later in April. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001, two vehicles clearly marked with the red cross emblems were attacked, resulting in the deaths of six ICRC workers. The co-pilot of a Red Cross plane was killed after his plane was shot down in Sudan in 2001. Peace activist Ken Bigley was brutally beheaded in Iraq. In March 2007, a German aid worker was shot dead by gunmen in northern Afghanistan. In July 2007, two South Korean aid workers were shot dead. Suicide bombers in Iraq have attacked ICRC headquarters. In February, two aid workers for French organisation Aide Médicale Internationale were ambushed and shot dead south of Darfur. Only last week, a 39-year-old Sudanese relief worker was shot by gunmen in Sudan, who were attempting to steal a satellite phone facility. In Sri Lanka, a CARE International humanitarian worker was killed in a no-fire zone in the Vanni area in the north.

The Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief—ACBR—has reported that there was a 50 per cent. increase in insurgent attacks in 2008 compared with the previous year. Those actions and the contempt that some show towards humanitarian workers and the emblems under which they act undermine efforts to bring peace to areas of conflict.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The ghastly list that my hon. Friend has read out will cause everybody much concern, but to what extent have the perpetrators been prosecuted?

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I do not think that there have been any prosecutions. The Government's efforts in the legislation enable British people to be prosecuted, but not the perpetrators of the atrocities. Although it is right to have the legislation in place here, I emphasise that no one has been punished for the atrocities.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Let me repeat my earlier point. Although it is important that the international community comes down hard on those who ignore the symbols—incidences of that have unfortunately increased of late—it should also come down hard on those who misuse the symbols in times of war. Does my hon. Friend agree that existing provisions for fines and so on are woefully inadequate unless they are enforced, and also, as they stand, inadequate law?

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I agree with my hon. Friend—I usually do; he is very wise—but, tragically, enforcement is not possible. Aid workers are needed and they go into those areas because there is lawlessness, no enforcement and humanitarian need. Food for the world exists; bad governance means that it does not get to the people who need it most.

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Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is not it a sad fact of life that the legislation could include as harsh a punishment as one wanted, but many areas are so lawless and experience such a breakdown of law and order that, unless one catches the perpetrators of the atrocities, little can be done?

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is right. However, all that should not stop members of the ICRC making the sacrifice, taking the risk and putting themselves in danger to deliver humanitarian aid because that is what they do, and we should support them. It is sad that whatever we say and do here is unlikely to have an impact. I hope that I am wrong, but I fear I am not.

We must do what we can to ensure that vital aid and resources get to innocent civilians who need it. In Afghanistan, our aid workers and those who wear the respective red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems would have their safety and the security in which to operate and carry on with their tremendous work strengthened if the Taliban were further weakened. That means that our military personnel must receive the right equipment to ensure that they can do their job to the best of their abilities. It also means that the many other countries that have an interest in peace and security in Afghanistan, including members of NATO and the EU, commit their fair share of military resources to that conflict zone. By improving the security situation on the ground for aid and humanitarian workers, we can reduce the dangers posed to them and the threats and brutal actions of those who show no regard for the emblems that we are debating today.

When my constituents donate money to the Red Cross or to Oxfam, they expect their aid workers and the operations that they fund with their contributions to be protected. When our constituents decide to become aid workers, often as volunteers, while aware of the risks, they nevertheless expect that the purpose for their presence in conflict zones affords them some protection. People support aid agencies because they want to see them bring kindness and good to parts of the world where conflict has turned lives upside down and left innocent civilians—men, women and children—with little or nothing.

Whether in Palestine, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Iraq the work that humanitarian workers and aid agencies undertake needs to be supported. I therefore press on the Under-Secretary the importance of taking the appropriate steps to ensure that those who disregard the laws of war and deliberately bring harm to aid workers are brought to justice and do not undermine the great efforts taken to support civilian populations.

We also need to know from the Government that, aside from the introduction of the red crystal, more is being done to protect aid workers. How can we guarantee protection for our aid workers and humanitarian personnel when there are people in conflict areas prepared to disregard the rules of warfare, morality and decency? In lawless Somalia and large parts of Afghanistan, the conventions may carry little force or protection. Delivering further measures to protect humanitarian workers through the amendments to protocols and introducing a new emblem may look adequate on paper, but their true test will be seen in the conflict areas.

The Geneva conventions and the protocols relating to UN personnel are not only designed to protect aid and humanitarian workers and civilians. The Geneva conventions were originally established to provide protection to wounded soldiers and military personnel—to ensure that those who need help and medical aid are given it.

My constituency is home to the finest soldiers anywhere in the world. Their record of achievement and their skills are unparalleled anywhere in the world. They are the bravest and they are the best. As with aid workers, however, when our soldiers are wounded in battle, there are those in some conflict areas who will not abide by international conventions. How confident can we be that our injured soldiers will be afforded the same rights, the same dignity and the same care by the enemy as those whom we capture are? When the Taliban or the insurgency in Iraq capture our soldiers, abiding by international law and those conventions does not appear to be at the forefront of their thoughts. The best way we can protect our military personnel in some conflict zones is not necessarily by relying on the enemy to observe international law, but by providing our personnel with the equipment and resources they need to protect themselves.

Our efforts to promote international law and those conventions are, however, undermined by some of the actions in which this Government may have been involved. The Government's alleged complicity in acts of extraordinary rendition and the recent allegations made concerning torture are deeply worrying. We cannot go around lecturing others about international law and protecting civilians when there are questions that the Government may have to answer about not upholding such rules themselves. Such matters must be resolved to restore this country's credibility. The UK has a proud tradition of upholding and promoting international law. This Government must not be allowed to undermine it.

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Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 2:31 pm, 1st April 2009

As I understand it, the Bill has two objectives: to amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and to amend the United Nations Personnel Act 1997. That is extremely relevant. Only a few weeks ago, I was with my hon. and gallant Friend Mr. Swire in Gaza, looking at, among other things, the enormous damage done to the UN compound in Gaza city and hearing about the deaths of about a dozen UN personnel during the recent conflict there. Also, as a television reporter at ITN, I spent considerable time in Bosnia, where I saw the importance of UN organisations operating effectively and saving many lives. I am therefore acutely aware of the need for both unambiguous markings and the protection of personnel.

The first aim marks a new stage in the use of protective and distinctive emblems to cover the work of people who bring relief to the victims of battle, whether civilian or military—the scenes are all too familiar on our television sets. The legislation does that by introducing and legalising the new additional emblem, which is intended to be both protective and indicative, being marked on vehicles and on the armbands and uniforms of personnel in the field. As we have discussed, the legislation also covers penalties for the misuse or abuse of the new symbol and, as I understand it, the existing symbols.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Does my hon. Friend share my slight concern that the new symbol could be mistaken for a military marking?

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Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which I shall come to a little later in my speech, but I absolutely agree. The first time that I saw the symbol, it took me back to the platoon commander's battle course at Warminster and the sort of markings that people might put on maps in an operations room, as well as the sort of markings used for directing military convoys. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point to which I shall return.

The second aim is to strengthen the safety of the UN and associated personnel by extending their legal protection against attack in a wide range of operations. Both those aims are obviously thoroughly commendable and, as has been said, extremely relevant to the modern world. The bravery of those who work under those badges and emblems of neutrality and mercy is clear; they do a fantastic job. I strongly support the aims, but I have a number of questions for the Minister, which I hope that she can answer. The expansion of symbols from the simple red cross to the red crescent comes down to us from the 19th century, as she has said. We have also heard that at one point there was the red lion and sun for the Persians, and I think that there was even a red flame at one time for Thailand. All manner of religious and ethnic concerns have been reflected by such symbols.

Let us remember, however, that the original red cross was never intended to be a religious symbol. As the Minister has said, it was simply the reversal of the Swiss flag, which is a white cross on a red background. The red cross became the emblem of that precious and nowadays abused concept of true neutrality. That was a long time ago, but this is where we are today. If the cross and the crescent have served us so well, I do not really see the reasoning for the new symbol.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend might be understating the risk. It is true that part of that risk lies in confusion of the type that he has described, which might arise. However, the history of the subject, which he will have looked at in some detail, shows that it has previously been suggested not simply that there should be one or two more symbols but, as he has implied, that there should be a multitude of symbols. Indeed, it has been suggested in debates on such matters since the 19th century that each nation might have its own symbol. That would lead to a disaster, whereby the universality that he has described would be lost for ever.

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Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

That is an interesting point. Indeed, my very next line is about whether the essential quality is in any way weakened or diluted by a third or more symbols.

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Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Does he accept that if one were to have too many symbols, it would dilute recognition and understanding? To answer an earlier point, it may well be a problem for Jewish people from Israel to have a red crescent and, possibly, a red cross. It may also be a problem for Hindus in India to have a red crescent or a red cross. Surely the way forward is to have a third, all-embracing symbol for those cultures and peoples who find Christianity and Islam not acceptable, but not to dilute it by having regional, religious or ethnic variations, which could cause total incomprehension.

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Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I am now concerned that the Whips Office is breaking into my hard drive, because the very next line of my speech is about the Israeli preference for the star of David. Now that the Israelis will be or have been admitted—I am not sure which—into the international federation, the idea seems to be that they can have the star of David with the crystal around it. If that is correct, I assume that that symbol would provide exactly the same protection under international law as the red crescent.

Who exactly decides who can use the new symbol and where? Will the combination of emblems, such as the star of David and the crescent, be fully operative for indicative and protective purposes in all cases? How will the new emblem affect the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement? Will the crystal be included in any of their titles in future? Will there be a new international crystal organisation?

How do we get the message out there that the symbol means what it means? There are two issues, the first of which is recognition. When I was with ITN in Bosnia, I remember that we had four white, armoured Land Rovers that said "ITN unit" on the side, but the word "unit" was bigger than "ITN". I remember people in a village one day assuming that we were a military unit because the Land Rover had the word "unit" on the side, so whether or not people recognise the new symbol is not a trite point.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My hon. Friend has raised some interesting points, particularly about how we should educate people about the new symbol. We must not forget, however, that the Red Cross is in favour of the red crystal, as it believes that it will provide further protections to people operating in battlefields and war zones.

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Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I thank my hon. Friend; I sincerely hope that that is the case. I think that everyone in the House wants this to work well. However, there is a possibility of misunderstanding, because the crystal shape is very similar to the markings on maps in operations rooms and to the symbols used on vehicles and in relation to military units. I wish that I had had time to look out some examples, so that I could describe these instances in more detail.

Clause 2 deals with United Nations personnel. The provision obviously reflects the expansion of the UN's work in places such as Rwanda and Bosnia throughout the 1990s. The move to introduce a protocol gained added momentum in 2003 when Iraqi insurgents blew up the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing 20 people including the special envoy. The expansion of the automatic application of the convention to include peacekeeping operations and emergency humanitarian assistance is obviously very welcome, but will the Minister tell us whether any UN bodies will remain outside the scope of the provision? Emergency humanitarian assistance organisations established by organisations within the UN system and by specialist agencies do not seem to be covered, and I would like some clarification on that.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Other examples that my hon. Friend might cite are the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation. I understand that they would not be within the scope of the protocol.

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Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

Would they not? Forgive me; I could not establish that before the debate. I thank my hon. Friend for that.

There is also some concern about the number of states that are signing up to the provisions, and perhaps the Minister will clarify that. I think that only 79 countries have signed up, out of the UN membership of 191, and that some of the countries in which the UN is operating have not signed up—I understand that only four of the 16 countries in which UN personnel are operating have done so.

Echoing the concern expressed by Lord Howe in another place, I want to ask whether the UN protocol will cover all bodies. Will it, for example, cover the refugee centre in Gaza that my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon and I visited recently? There have been comments about the scope of the previous personnel convention, and it has been suggested that it did not give the amount of cover that it needed to.

How many states are party to the convention on the safety of UN personnel, and how many will be party to the enhancement and extension of it? Also, the new protocol now extends to UN personnel working in more clearly defined circumstances of exceptional risk. That problem has led to complaints by a number of people, including the former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. Now that it will extend beyond the narrower concept of peacekeeping into humanitarian work, how many current operations will be included? There are many such operations in the world at the moment. All reasonable people will wish the measure well and hope that it will have positive effects in the darker corners of the world.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee 2:43 pm, 1st April 2009

I should like to start by thanking Mr. Speaker, who was in the Chair at the beginning of our proceedings when I raised a point of order. The main act, the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which we are seeking to amend today, was not available in the Vote Office and the Speaker indicated that he expected action to be taken in that respect. We now have proof of the power of the Chair, because the 1957 Act is now available. I am grateful to the Speaker for facilitating the availability of the original Act.

It is sad, but perhaps an accurate indication of the slim chances of world peace, that we have heard today that the world cannot even agree a single symbol for humanitarian activity. The measure is important, and it raises a number of important questions, some of which my hon. Friends have already raised. Concern has been expressed, for example, about the lack of prosecutions. My concerns run in the other direction, however. I am worried that unnecessary and unreasonable prosecutions might take place if the Bill becomes law.

If we see a white vehicle with a red cross on the side with the words "Red Cross" painted underneath, we know what that vehicle is. The words "Red Cross" are deeply embedded in the collective memory of the nation and, indeed, that of many nations. However, would we understand that a vehicle bearing the words "Red Crystal" represents the same organisation?

It also occurs to me that commercial companies might already be using the name, and perhaps even a similar logo, although they have nothing to do with providing aid or humanitarian services. What will happen to those companies? Will they be prevented from trading as they are doing now? In the field of commercial law, there exists the term "passing off". If a company sets up in business and seeks to emulate an existing, successful company, the new company can be prosecuted for trying to dupe customers into believing that it is the original, successful company. However, if a company using a similar name is operating in a completely different part of the world, and perhaps dealing with an entirely different product, it is often allowed to continue to do so. What would be the position in this case?

The explanatory notes to the Bill are woefully inadequate. Indeed, the Bill itself does not make it clear what will happen. Page 2 of the explanatory notes refers to clause 1, the part of the Bill about which I am concerned. The notes state that

"unauthorised use of the emblem will be punishable by a fine up to level 5 on the standard scale."

There are no words to suggest a limitation on the arena of use. The notes do not refer to a battlefield or war zone, for example; they simply refer to the unauthorised use of the emblem. The Bill itself refers not only to the emblem but to "designs or wording". We can assume from that that the words "Red Crystal" could be banned from use by any organisation other than a wing of the Red Cross.

I have suggested that commercial companies might already use the name "Red Crystal" and a similar logo. I decided to find out whether that was a fanciful view on my part, so, before the debate, I went on to the internet and typed in the words "Red Crystal". Lo and behold, up came an advertisement for a display of ladies' gowns made by a company called J Style. The range of gowns shown was called Red Crystal. I also discovered that Clare Francis has written a book called "Red Crystal", which is already on the bookshelves. Those products both use the two words that we are being invited to approve in the Bill today. We are also being invited to approve the imposition of a level 5 penalty on anyone using those words without authority. Will Clare Francis and her publishers have to remove all those books from the shelves, because the book happens to be called "Red Crystal"?

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

My right hon. Friend is talking about the words, as opposed to the emblem, but they largely amount to the same thing. According to the Library research paper, page 4 of the impact assessment for the Bill published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 26 November 2008 clearly states:

"There were no registered trademarks for goods or services which were the same as or confusingly similar to the red crystal emblem."

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Of course my hon. Friend, who is very experienced in the field of business, will know that not every business registers a trade name for a word or collection of words that they may use for a particular product or range of products. Quite clearly, the company called J Style has probably registered the words "J Style" as a trade name, but it is nevertheless currently selling a range of ladies' dresses called Red Crystal and has been doing so for some time. It seems to me that if it is to be prevented from doing that—my hon. Friend Mr. Swire made this point—it should have registered the trade name. If it is to be prevented from selling that range by our changing the law, does he agree that there should at least be some provision for compensation and that there should be no question of that company being punished? It was using the name first, so the Minister needs to make it clear that people are not going to be prosecuted for doing something that is lawful today, that will be lawful tomorrow, but that will not be lawful from the day when she decides to invoke this Bill into law, if we pass it, as use of the words "Red Crystal" will be unauthorised.

I have also discovered that there is apparently a group of musicians—I do not know whether it is a rock group or a pop group—who call themselves "Red Crystal". [Interruption.] No, I am not a member of that group, but there is a band called Red Crystal and it has already released, I believe, a number of records. Will it be prevented from using that name in future?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has given way, but I am surprised, given his encyclopaedic knowledge of such matters, that he knows nothing about the group Red Crystal. Having said that, he has made a serious point about universality. As I am sure that he will acknowledge, the point is that if we compromise universality, which lies at the heart of the principle of displaying a red cross or a red crescent, we will endanger lives.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

My hon. Friend makes a very serious point at the end of his intervention—yes, indeed.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Having regard to the previous short discussion, does my right hon. Friend accept my concern that what is described in the regulatory impact assessment as the small firms impact test is a wholly inadequate account of what issues are raised by the wording of the Bill and the use of the red crystal symbol?

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is woefully inadequate, and we need to hear some assurances from the Minister before we decide whether we can let this Bill go ahead.

I asked the Minister in an intervention whether she would assure the House that there is no conflict with the European convention on human rights, as the effect of clause 1 is such, in my view, that it might be considered a control on the use of property within the meaning of article 1 of the first protocol of the ECHR. She said that she felt that it was fully compliant and that there was no problem in that respect, but in the light of the cases that I have indicated, where we have a book, a business and a group of musicians all using the name Red Crystal—this is just on the basis of page 1 of my search, as I did not have enough time to do any more research, so there may well be many other companies in the UK and outside it using the same words—I want to know whether, if those bodies are operating in such a way that is quite clear that they are not seeking to pass themselves off as a division of the Red Cross and are not in any way involved in humanitarian aid, they will be allowed to continue to use those words either for a product range or as a trading name.

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Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

My right hon. Friend has raised an incredibly important and perceptive point, as this could lead to the oppression of people who are just following their normal business. The problem is not just for this House, however, because this is an international agreement that will affect other countries. Surely the Minister should answer not only for this House and this country, but for the other parties to the agreement.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

As I expect from my right hon. Friend, that is a telling intervention, and I hope that when the Minister later answers the points that I have raised—should the House give her leave to reply to the debate, which I hope that it will—she will also cover my right hon. Friend's particular point. It is important that those charged with maintaining authorised use of the logo and the words do not go over the top and seek to interfere with perfectly innocent commercial operations that may have been using the words for some considerable time.

My other question to the Minister relates to the use of the new symbol. I asked her in an intervention—now that she has had a bit more time to think about it, perhaps she will reply in her summing up—who will decide where the new symbol is used and where the new phrase "Red Crystal" is implemented? Will it be the British Foreign Office, where British aid workers or British personnel are involved? If so, the Foreign Office will presumably keep a register of sensitive countries that do not like the Red Cross. Will that document be accessible to the public? Will we all be able to know which countries, should any conflict arise therein, will not have a detachment sent there called the Red Cross, but will accept the red crystal? Will that information be available to the public? As two of my hon. Friends have already asked, will there be a new international organisation calling itself red crystal that will actually be used in such situations?

I hope that I have not sounded too much of a discordant note in this debate. There are very real concerns regarding the commercial sector, so I hope that the Minister can satisfy me when she answers the debate later. I hope to hear what she has to say later, but I should perhaps say out of courtesy that I am due to chair a Select Committee in about an hour's time, so I may miss some of the proceedings.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art 2:57 pm, 1st April 2009

I do not intend to detain the House very long on what I think is a fairly uncontentious Bill. This is one of those debates in respect of which, as it is has progressed this afternoon, hon. Members have made points that warrant discussion in greater detail. Although I understand the history and evolution of the Red Cross brand, it is worth pausing to think, if only for a moment, whether we are on the way to diluting that brand, thus rendering it more ineffective than effective in so many of the countries in which it plays so critical a role. How long will it be, I wonder, before someone says that the Red Cross is no longer the appropriate term to cover UN aid agencies, given the fact that we have the Red Crescent, the red crystal and other organisations? Will we have to go through a rebranding exercise? I am sure that nobody would want that to happen, but some might argue that it is the next logical stage.

I think it is worth pausing—with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I do not want to depart too much from the meat of the Bill—to recognise the role that men and women under the umbrella organisations of the UN are playing in countries around the world. It is rather sobering to read what the noble Lord Malloch-Brown, a shadow Foreign Office Minister in the House of Lords, said. [Interruption.] As the Minister has recognised, I made a Freudian slip in saying that he is a shadow Minister when he is of course the real thing. He said:

"One of the darkest clouds of my latter years at the UN was the severity and growing frequency of attacks on UN humanitarian workers."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 197.]

That is, of course, regrettable and wholly unacceptable.

The increase in the number of attacks is worth bearing in mind. In 1996, three ICRC relief workers in Burundi were killed while travelling in a vehicle clearly marked with Red Cross emblems. In 1999, four ICRC staff were killed by the Sudan People's Liberation Army in south Sudan. They had been abducted in February, and were executed in April. In 2001, six ICRC workers were killed in Ituri Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while travelling in two vehicles marked with Red Cross emblems. Also in 2001, a Red Cross plane was shot down in Sudan and the co-pilot was killed. In 2003, five ICRC staff were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq following the bombing of the ICRC's headquarters in Baghdad in a suicide attack. In 2007, a Red Crescent driver was seriously injured in an attack on a Somali Red Crescent pick-up truck clearly marked with the Red Crescent emblem.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to those outrages, but I hope he will consider a question that seems to me to be at the heart of our discussion: whether the attacks were motivated specifically by the symbolism of the cross or crescent, or whether they would have happened regardless of the symbol. If the second is true, the adoption of a new symbol will not help one jot.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

My hon. Friend has made an extremely good point. I am not privy to information on why those convoys, individuals and headquarters were attacked, but they were clearly marked in a way that showed them to be part of the UN family, and I should have thought that anyone who attacked them would know that. But my hon. Friend is absolutely right: the idea that a red crescent, a red cross or a red crystal constitutes some form of armour protecting people from a would-be attacker is wishful thinking and, alas, an erroneous assumption.

I can cite no better example than the bombing of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency headquarters in Gaza, which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, and which is now being subjected to international examination following the visit to Gaza of the head of the UN. Allegedly—I stress the word "allegedly"—white phosphorus was used, in direct contravention of the laws of warfare. I do not know whether white phosphorus was used or not, but UN workers showed me where in the compound it had allegedly been used. I was told that it was white phosphorus and that it had definitely been used. I was also shown the burned out storage facility where medical supplies, in particular, were stored for the people of Gaza. What is worse, the Israeli defence forces knew exactly where that compound was. Of course they did. I had been there myself only the previous year, as had many other Members.

Furthermore, UNRWA had provided the Israeli defence forces with the co-ordinates of that building when it first came under attack. There had been a remote triangular conversation between UNRWA, an Israeli general and Jerusalem, but that did not prevent a sustained attack on the compound, with accompanying damage to UN vehicles and properties which were clearly marked as such.

The answer to my hon. Friend's question is no. It is not possible to say whether the emblem performed the role of litmus paper and attracted an incoming attack like a magnet, but it is certain that in that instance it provided no protection whatsoever.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

That suggests that had the marking been a crystal, it would not have made any difference at all.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

No, it would not have made the slightest difference. I do not believe that even the most resilient crystal could resist the pressure of an incoming attack. I do not think a crystal affords any protection at all. I shall say something shortly about the punishment for those who misuse such emblems in war and those who abuse them by not recognising the international sanctity that should surely be afforded them.

Perhaps I could have the Minister's attention for a moment. She might wish to hear what I am about to say. Under the heading "Territorial Extent and Application", the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill state:

"The provisions of the Bill extend to the whole of the United Kingdom. As far as Scotland is concerned, the Bill relates only to reserved matters."

I do not quite understand what that means. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the updating of the legislation should be a reserved matter.

The explanatory notes continue:

"Under clause 3, there is power to extend the provisions to the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and British overseas territories."

Do the Government intend to extend that power, and if so, when? Would it not be logical to do everything at the same time?

Let me turn briefly to an issue on which I have been intervening this afternoon: the issue of punishment for abusing those labouring under the protection of the UN, in whatever guise, and for misusing the emblems in a time of warfare. We have discussed what punishments are available. According to the research paper I have here:

"Clause 1 of the current Bill and its Schedule would add the red crystal to the list of emblems protected by the 1957 Act."

That is good. It continues:

"A grave breach of the Protocol (perfidious use of the emblem for the purpose of killing injuring or capturing an adversary during an international armed conflict) would be punishable by up to 30 years' imprisonment (or, if the offence involved murder, life imprisonment)."

I wonder whether the Minister can cite, under the existing legislation—I thought she might be rising to give me an answer, but no such luck—a single example of a grave breach of the protocol being punished either with 30 years' imprisonment or by life imprisonment. Assuredly there have been such grave breaches, and they continue to take place.

The paper continues:

"Unauthorised use of the emblem will be punishable by a fine of up to level 5 on the standard scale (currently £5,000) and the court may order the forfeiture of any goods or articles upon or in connection with which the emblems or designs were used."

I do not think the courts will do much in some backward valley in Afghanistan if someone is driving around with a red crescent, or even a red crystal, painted on a pick-up truck, but here we have a wonderful international legal framework to punish those who abuse the UN, either by misusing its symbols or by attacking those who are protected under them.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Clause 1(5) refers to "a design or wording". I mentioned that when I spoke earlier.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Indeed, and my right hon. Friend made an extremely good point. His quick trawl on the internet produced, straight away, two examples of companies which I think would be adversely affected by the introduction of the red crystal. It is stated somewhere in the Bill that it would have no financial implications—a standard statement in Bills—but it could clearly have adverse financial implications for those two companies, and perhaps for many others, including the rock group cited by my right hon. Friend. I think that the Minister needs to drill down into this issue, and come up with some answers.

This afternoon, we have heard the history of the proliferation of emblems and about the countries that wanted to adopt symbols over the years—those that tried and then dropped the idea. It is regrettable, although understandable, that we have embarked on this journey in that it involves diluting the brand of the Red Cross. We have to live with it, and I of all people understand the sensibilities of those countries to which a cross is in some way offensive or not necessarily representative. It is regrettable but of course it is understandable.

We spend a lot of time lauding the incredibly important work that aid workers and non-governmental organisations do around the world, often with little protection. What is most important at this point is that, rather than making gestures in order to accommodate the arrival of a new sub-branch, if you like, of the UN, we spend a little time remembering that a lot of the protection offered to UN agencies under international law is simply not available to a range of other organisations staffed with very brave men and women throughout the world. They have no protection under international law or certainly not to the same degree as the UN. However, a law is only as good as its enforceability or the proven protection that it provides, so we owe it to all those working under the family of the UN—be they working for the Red Cross or the Red Crescent, or for the red crystal in future—to ensure that if they are in any way abused in warfare, the perpetrators of that abuse will be brought to the highest courts of the land, perhaps the International Criminal Court in The Hague or somewhere else appropriate; or that a fine, if a fine it is to be, is imposed and seen to be imposed, so that these symbols, regardless of how many there are, mean the same thing to people throughout the world.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) 3:12 pm, 1st April 2009

This debate is about symbols, protocol and convention. In the end, it is about the meaning of all those things. Much of the work of a politician is in discerning the difference between symbols and truths, spin and substance, emblem and reality, so I want to start my brief contribution by speaking about symbols, for that has preoccupied many of the previous speakers. Jung said:

"Symbols are ideas. Whenever we use one we are pointing to the idea behind that symbol".

He went on:

"the sign is always less than the concept it represents, while a symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning."

One of my inspirations, my favourite thinkers and writers, G. K. Chesterton, said specifically on the cross:

"in criticising Christian symbolism, they talk much of dead churches and decaying creeds. They talk of a creed as a cant but their own talk itself is cant. They do not dislike the cross because it is a dead symbol, but because it is a live symbol"— and so it is with the symbols that we are debating today. They have meaning beyond their image. They have a significance that is widely understood; they are indeed alive. No more could be said—or perhaps needs to be said—about the red cross than to point out that it is so widely recognised and so universally understood as to have a significance that is special and worthy of protection.

I shall speak at some length about the Geneva convention, which is critical to this debate, and about the 1957 Act, but before I do so perhaps it is worth debating for a moment what was said in the other place about this Bill. The Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Malloch-Brown said:

"the scope of the convention is relatively narrow, applying to only two categories of UN operations: those maintaining or restoring international peace and security; or those where the Security Council or the General Assembly has declared that there exists an exceptional risk to the safety of the personnel participating in the operation." —[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 190.]

The Bill is indeed narrow. None the less it is important that we understand the context in which we debate it. For that reason, I want to speak at some length, although not at inordinate length, about the 1949 Geneva convention, which is critical to our consideration and about which I have to say, without meaning criticism of hon. Members, we have heard too little so far this afternoon.

The following briefly summarises the provisions of the 1949 Geneva convention that govern the use of the red cross, red crescent and, as was mentioned earlier, the red lion and sun flags. Geneva I governs land warfare. Geneva II governs warfare at sea. There are also Geneva III and IV, but they have no provisions concerning flags, so we must not waste time on them today.

Article 138 of Geneva I provides for the use of the Swiss federal arms in reverse colours—the red cross on a white ground—as the

"emblem and distinctive sign of the Medical Service of armed forces."

That was originally provided for in article 7 of the first Geneva convention. As Members will know, that was signed on 22 August 1864. The red crescent—or red lion and sun in lieu of the red cross—was recognised for use by countries already using such devices when the 1949 convention was adopted.

Geneva I, article 39, requires the emblem—the red cross and those others—to be

"displayed on the flags, armlets and on all equipment employed in the Medical Service."

The same provision is contained in Geneva II, article 41.

Geneva I, article 42, limits the display of the distinctive flag of the convention to

"medical units and establishments as are entitled to be respected under the Convention".

It is permitted to be displayed in conjunction with the

"national flag of the Party...to which the unit or establishment belongs."

The 1864 convention required it to be displayed with the national flag. When medical units fall into the hands of the enemy, they display only the flag of the convention. Indeed that is detailed, as Members will know, in the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, about which I shall speak at some length later. It was specifically referred to in the Second Reading debate on that Bill, which I shall also be speaking about later.

Geneva I, article 44, bans all uses of the red cross or equivalent emblems, including flags, other than

"to indicate or to protect the medical units and establishments, the personnel and material" under the Geneva conventions, except that the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies may use the emblems in peacetime for other activities in conformity with the principles of the Red Cross Movement. That reinforces the universality that I have argued previously is critical to our considerations today. In wartime, they may use the emblems for their activities only if they are clearly not implying the protection of the convention. International Red Cross organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross may use the red cross emblem at all times.

Geneva II, article 43, requires hospital ships to make themselves known by

"hoisting their national flag and further, if they belong to a neutral state, the flag of the Party to the conflict whose direction they have accepted. A white flag with a red cross shall be flown at the mainmast as high as possible.

Hospital ships which...are provisionally detained by the enemy, must haul down" their national colours.

"Coastal lifeboats" operating from a base which is occupied by the enemy may

"continue to fly their own national colours along with a flag carrying a red cross".

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

In the case of a ship, which is by its very nature moving and may move from one arena to another, where the favoured emblem is different, it might be necessary for the ship to haul down the red cross and haul up the red crystal. That process might have to be repeated for each change in territorial waters.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That is indeed a problem. It was partly such arguments that stimulated the debate some 60 years ago, in which it was asserted with some force—for me, it was a compelling argument—that the red cross should be a universal symbol. My right hon. Friend will know why that is not the case. In the early days following the establishment of the conventions in the 1860s the Ottoman empire objected to the use of the cross, and it was as a compromise that the red crescent was introduced. My right hon. Friend could still, however, make a compelling case for the universal use of the red cross.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Conversely, the wounded on board a hospital ship could come from a variety of religious backgrounds, and there might be reason to fly the red cross, the red crescent and the red crystal. Does my hon. Friend understand whether anything would prevent any vessel from being marked with the three main emblems?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I have just been thumbing my copy of the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, following the first inspection. It states clearly in article 18:

"Civilian hospitals organised to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.

States which are Parties to a conflict shall provide all civilian hospitals with certificates showing that they are civilian hospitals and that the buildings which they occupy are not used for any purpose which would deprive these hospitals of protection in accordance with Article 19."

More pertinently perhaps, it continues:

"Civilian hospitals shall be marked by means of the emblem provided for in Article 38 of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field of 12th August, 1949, but only if so authorised by the State.

The Parties to the conflict shall, in so far as military considerations permit, take the necessary steps to make the distinctive emblems indicating civilian hospitals clearly visible to the enemy land, air and naval forces"— which addresses my right hon. Friend's intervention

"in order to obviate the possibility of any hostile action."

There is a clear responsibility, whether on land or sea, for the states concerned to take all reasonable measures to ensure that a hospital or hospital ship is identified as such, so that no confusion can arise.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Although it would not create a difficulty for a ship to fly the three flags at once, if the example given by my hon. Friend Mr. Swire were followed in respect of a vehicle and it had to carry the three emblems, they might have to be smaller in size in order to be accommodated, and would therefore be less easy to identify by aircraft flying overhead.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That is true, and for that reason I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the further provision in article 18:

"In view of the dangers to which hospitals"— and, presumably, mobile facilities and ships—

"may be exposed by being close to military objectives, it is recommended that such hospitals be situated as far as possible from such objectives."

The convention makes it clear that the eventualities described by my right hon. and hon. Friends are less likely to occur if adequate precautions are taken.

The plain red cross or red crescent flag is primarily used to identify medical units for military forces, as provided by the 1864 and subsequent Geneva conventions. I have referred to the 1957 Act which supports the conventions. If I had more time, I would like to speak about the 1997 Act, but it would not please the House were I to continue for too long, so I shall not go into that in any great detail.

Although national Governments may authorise red cross or red crescent societies to use the flag provided, there is no possibility of confusion with the primary use of the flag. The convention also allows the various international Red Cross organisations, such as the ICRC and IFRC, to use the symbols as I described earlier. Therefore, the plain red cross is not a unique identifier of the ICRC. The basic right to use the red cross and red crescent flags does not derive from either of those organisations—it is the inherent right of all states that are party to the Geneva convention of 1949.

Having said that, there has always been some disagreement. I mentioned the disagreement that followed the original arrangements, when there was a tension between the members and the Ottoman empire, which led to the compromise of the red crescent, but there have been many disagreements—almost for the whole life of the conventions—about the precise use of the red cross and, subsequently, the red crescent, and indeed about symbols per se.

Earlier in the debate, my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight talked about the possibility of many emblems being used and the confusion that might ensue. That specific suggestion has been made over the years by several states, not in order to cause confusion, but as a means of representing national interests in those parts of the world where the use of a crescent or cross might be seen to be invidious. We could speak at some length about Israel in that regard. There has been significant tension, because Israel would prefer to use a variation on the star of David. Of course, the obvious difficulty with that route is that it is Israel's national emblem—indeed, it is on its national flag—and the confusion that that would cause speaks for itself. The virtue of the red cross and the red crescent is that they are detached from the symbols of nation states; they have the universality that I describe.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend Mr. Burns is anxious to intervene, but I must make progress, so I shall frustrate him on this occasion.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his blatant favouritism in giving way to me. What he says about Israel is absolutely right. Indeed, in 1949, when Israel signed the Geneva conventions, it clearly said that

"while respecting the inviolability of the distinctive signs and emblems of the Convention, Israel will use the Red Shield of David as the emblem and distinctive sign of the medical services of her armed forces."

That is a recognition by Israel that, somehow, the red cross or the UN's emblems have some universality. It concedes that point and uses the red shield of David, which was originally its preferred option, for its armed forces. That is worth pointing out.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That is indeed so, but as my hon. Friend will know, Israel's Magen David Adom society uses the unrecognised red star of David as its emblem. As a result, the society is still not a member of the international Red Cross movement—something that many Israelis think is unjust. As my hon. Friend invites me to say more about Israel, I will do so, with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend has made the point that the star of David is an integral part of Israel's flag and is used by its military; but on the other side of the coin, of course, Arab and middle eastern states have the crescent on their national flags—Pakistan, for example.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That is indeed true, and as a brief examination of the minutes reveals, it was one of the arguments used at the end of the 19th century against the adoption of the red crescent. Many of those who resisted that demand made precisely the point that my hon. Friend makes. Indeed, many people in Israel understand the difficulty, and Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva shares that opinion. He would like to be a member of the international Red Cross and points out that the MDA is active all over the world. He says that it is often the first on the scene—for example, following the tsunami or earthquakes—and that it deserves to be part of the international movement. There is a thirst on the part of Israelis to be part of the movement but a resistance to the use of the symbols that are adopted by the movement.

As I have said, the problem is that the star of David is primarily Israel's national symbol, rather than an emblem of humanitarian relief. Even though it is true that the crescent appears on the flags of many states, I am not sure whether one could convincingly argue that those crescents are as intimately associated with the very identity of the nation as is the star of David with Israel. Lest any hon. Member or anyone elsewhere should think that I am critic of the state of Israel, I want to put on record that the opposite is the case. I am a staunch defender of that place and its people, but as a friend, one has the right to be critical on occasion. It would be better if Israel joined that international community and perhaps compromised in the use of universal symbols.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I hope that I can assist the hon. Gentleman by confirming that in 2006 the Israeli national society joined the international movement, because of the very subject that we are discussing today—the addition of the red crystal, along with the red crescent and the red cross—so it is not true to say that the Israeli national society is not a member of the international movement.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Yes, that is most helpful of the Minister. Indeed, I have a further note to that effect. Arab states have made it clear, however, that they will never accept recognition of the red star under the Geneva conventions. At the same time, the conventions stipulate that the national relief societies must use only recognised symbols, as she has made clear.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

That certainly makes the case for supporting the Bill, for which I thank the hon. Gentleman.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

There is a case for the Bill. I do not start from the presumption that it is implicitly unwelcome, but we need a thorough debate about it. Scrutiny in this place needs to be real and thorough, and the Executive need to be held to account. Opposition Members have made brief interventions, and we hope to hear more from Labour Members—

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I am optimistic that we will hear more from Labour Members, as we must have detailed and thorough scrutiny.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My hon. Friend will recall that we have just served on a Public Bill Committee whose evidentiary sittings allowed us to put our questions and concerns to the bodies that would be directly impacted by the legislation. Today's debate on the Bill is rather truncated: does he agree that it would be better for us to break today so that we can have evidence sessions and a proper Public Bill Committee? We could then speak to representatives of the Red Cross and its derivative organisations and get answers to some of our very real concerns.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Indeed. Part of the problem in modern representative democracy is the balance of power between Executive and legislature. I could speak about that at immense length, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but you would not allow me to. I will therefore not be encouraged down that tributary because, although fascinating, it would not be relevant to this debate.

I have been encouraged to speak about the difficulty of Israel. That difficulty has been exacerbated by the current circumstances of the middle east, which make it hard for Israel to cross borders and work in the occupied territories. The Minister has said that Israel is prepared to use the red crescent sign outside its borders, once the negotiations are over. Indeed, it has signed an agreement to that effect regarding the occupied territories.

If we are to speak about Israel, it would be perverse not to speak about Syria also. On the surface, and given what the Minister said in her intervention, everything looks promising for the approval of a new emblem. If we had debated the matter a while ago, it would have been possible to assume that it would have been plain sailing.

Switzerland is the repository state for the Geneva conventions. It sent out invitations for a conference on the matter, and the Swiss diplomats who played a key role in getting the agreement between the MDA and the Palestinian Red Crescent were optimistic. One issue might get in the way, however, and that is the fact that many Arab countries already see the third element as an unnecessary accommodation of Israel.

Some people are suggesting that, now that the MDA has agreed to work with the Palestinian Red Crescent in the occupied territories, a similar agreement is necessary for the Golan heights. [ Interruption. ] Is my hon. Friend Mr. Walker keen to get in?

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My enthusiasm is purely for my hon. Friend's line of argument.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I mistook my hon. Friend's inherent enthusiasm and energy for a desire to intervene. I am always happy to accept interventions from him— just as I am from my experienced and sagacious colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, but I wish to express a different view from the one expressed in the previous intervention. What on earth has the position of Syria to do with whether we approve the Bill?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Syria is important because we are debating the establishment of a new emblem. If that emblem is to have the effect that we all want, it must attract a degree of universal acclaim.

I accept that the red cross has not always done that, and a few moments ago we talked about the Ottoman empire and the subsequent evolution of the symbols concerned. None the less, the cross and the crescent combined at least seemed to enjoy a universality and a widespread recognition across borders that it is not clear that the new symbol will enjoy. That is why I raised the issue of Syria and the doubts in the Arab world about the motives and effects of the new symbol.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My hon. Friend has an enormous intellect, but is there not one slight flaw in his argument? We are not forcing the red crystal on to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent; they want it to be introduced. Is that not the case?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

There are three things to note about that intervention. The first is that I do not have an enormous intellect; I am a pygmy among giants in this House. Secondly, of course there are flaws in my argument, because we are all flawed and faulted. We fell from a state of grace a long time ago. It is only having accepted our frailties that we can claim any kind of wisdom or accomplishment. The third point I did not entirely grasp.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Well, I repeat my point. We are here in support of the Red Cross, which wants to bring the red crystal into being. We seem to be frightfully concerned about the position of the Red Cross, but it is very much in favour of the use of the red crystal. That is why we should have an evidence session before the Bill goes into Public Bill Committee, as it should do. We could then hear from the Red Cross, and it could make its case directly to us.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That is a good point, and I now understand it. Perhaps my intellect is growing by the moment. It is true that the Red Cross seems comfortable with the proposal, but I am not entirely sure whether that is a defensive response, or whether it is positively in favour—whether it would have sought the measure had circumstances been different from those that I am beginning to describe. It may be that the measure is an accommodation to deal with difficulties, rather than something that the Red Cross would have promoted of its own accord.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

To what extent has my hon. Friend had regard, in making his argument, to the preamble to schedule 7 to the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which is inserted by the schedule to the Bill? That preamble emphasises

"that the distinctive emblems are not intended to have any religious, ethnic, racial, regional or political significance".

Any country that signs up to the protocol will have to accept that preamble.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend anticipates an aspect of the main part of my argument, which I will move on to when I finish these introductory remarks. When I spoke of the significance of symbols, I did not go on to describe in detail the fundamental character of the cross. Chesterton may be right about the reality that lies behind symbols. The reality of the cross is that it was used long before it was associated with Christian imagery. Its universality depends on that ancient lineage.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

Talking of ancient lineages, we all know that ancient symbols can be hijacked by movements. I refer my hon. Friend to the events of 1977 when, as he will know, the Indian Red Cross Society consulted the International Committee of the Red Cross about using as its symbol a red swastika—a symbol long familiar in India—on a white ground. That symbol was, of course, hijacked long after it was invented, and became wholly unacceptable to most of the civilised world.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

The swastika was hijacked, as my hon. Friend puts it, from the Greeks, was it not? It is a reference to the Nazis' desire to emulate the tokens and symbols of the ancient world. It is true that it has been used in India from ancient times, but it was as a Greek symbol that it gained the admiration of the wicked masterminds of the Third Reich. However, my hon. Friend is right that the hijacking of symbols is important in our considerations today. Indeed, the red cross was used as a symbol relatively recently by terrorists posing as serving a humanitarian purpose when they were, in fact, malevolent in their intent, so symbols in themselves are no guarantee. None the less, it is important that we understand their significance and defend their use where they serve a moral purpose, as I believe the red cross and the red crescent do.

I must press on to say another word about Syria before I move on to the main body of my argument.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. His last point encapsulated the core of what I was seeking to say to the House earlier—that where someone deliberately uses the symbol and the name to masquerade as a humanitarian unit and then opens fire, perhaps on other people involved in the conflict, that is when the full 30 years' imprisonment mentioned in the Bill should come into play. Does my hon. Friend agree that where there is a totally unconnected use of the symbol or the name, as I suggested in my remarks, it is doubtful whether that should even be an offence?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

It is not merely malevolence but confusion that we are dealing with. That is why I was attracted by the arguments that my right hon. Friend advanced when he said that he had been on the internet—not a practice that I personally indulge in, but I understand that there are those who have the kind of lives that allow them the time to do so—and found that the red symbol was used for all kinds of purposes, none of which seemed to relate to humanitarian aid or any of the purposes of the Red Cross or the Red Crescent.

There is a real risk of confusion resulting from the use of many symbols, combined or separately. The Bill makes it clear that they can indeed be combined in all sorts of ways. I am not sure in how many ways three symbols can be combined.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That would take a mathematician of the skill of my hon. Friend to calculate and briefly inform the House. I give way to him so that he can do so.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My hon. Friend may be premature in bringing his opening remarks to a conclusion before he has addressed concerns about organisations using the red cross in a way that diminishes its value—that is, organisations not connected with bringing aid to the third world and war-torn parts of the world.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

To confusion and malevolence we may add, I suppose, mischievous use of symbols. It is entirely possible that they might be used for not a criminal but an unhappy, mischievous purpose. The risk is likely to be exacerbated the more symbols we have. I am strongly committed to the principle of a universal symbol, as I highlighted earlier and will speak more about shortly.

I must say a word or two more about Syria. The disputed territory of the Golan heights is what took us to the subject. Because it is disputed territory, some argue that the Syrian Red Crescent should have a role there. We look forward to hearing the Minister's thoughts about that in due course, as we draw to a conclusion later this evening.

"The Syrian Red Crescent cannot operate there", insisted the Israeli head of the MDA.

"We have no diplomatic relations with Syria, the issue is simply not in the debate. But I'm not excluding that some Arab countries will try to raise it, and if they do, the losers will be the Palestinians," he went on to say. So Geneva, usually a peaceful place, has become a hive of activity as officials have desperately tried to reconcile these conflicting views about the use of the cross, the crescent and other symbols.

The ambassador for Pakistan is negotiating on behalf of 56 countries belonging to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and he said, with notable understatement, that it is all "very complicated". It is, and although the Bill looks uncontentious on the surface, it is also complicated. We have no desire to make life difficult for the Government; we want to hold them to account, but only in a way that is appropriate. However, we do expect from them a full explanation of some of those complicated matters.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

One solution that would do away with all these territorial problems—it would be wholly ridiculous and unacceptable, but would need to be addressed at some stage—would be for us to do away with the red cross and the red crescent altogether as symbols and merely have a non-contentious symbol such as the red crystal. That gets us back to the original idea of having one universally recognised and uncontentious symbol.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

We have come to expect such inventiveness from my hon. Friend; we have not heard that argument thus far in the debate, but it has some merit. None the less, I do not agree with it, so I shall move on.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My hon. Friend cannot casually dismiss that excellent contribution without exploring it a little further. Why is he dismissing it so out of hand?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I do not want to be unnecessarily contentious, but I dismiss the point for the reason that I offered at the outset of my contribution. The virtues of the red cross are that it is widely recognised, easy to understand and well established. I know that there are not only conservatives on the Conservative Benches of the House, but I would have thought that my hon. Friend would understand that pretty intrinsic to the Conservative appreciation of the world is the notion that what is time-honoured should be valued, and that changes should be made only when absolutely necessary. By and large I try to resist change, but even I recognise that sometimes it is absolutely necessary. However, surely that does not apply on this occasion.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My hon. Friend has slapped me in the face and laid down the gauntlet. Seriously, we must be pragmatic and not ideological about this. The role of the Red Cross is to save as many lives as possible and alleviate suffering wherever it can. At some time in the future, the red crystal may have more resonance in more parts of the world and should be the universal symbol of an organisation bringing aid. Religious baggage should not be attached to the Red Cross because it came from Switzerland. However, such baggage is being attached to that symbol—and to the crescent, and to the flag under which Israel operates.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That is a perfectly reasonable argument and it would, I suppose, be a way out of this mess. However, the cost of abandoning a well-established emblem such as the red cross would be an expensive price to pay to deal with the albeit important matters implicit in my hon. Friend's intervention. There is just as strong an argument for the universal adoption of the red cross, and it has supporters and weight within the international movement. Indeed, as my hon. Friend will know, that argument was made forcefully at the end of the 1940s.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I do not want my hon. Friend to read anything into this; I am not abandoning the idea that the Red Cross should be the umbrella organisation. However, he needs to reflect that an enormous number—if not the greatest proportion—of the countries where the aid agencies operate, and are likely to be needed in future, are non-Christian. In other words, the number of countries where the Red Cross will operate under the symbol of the red cross must surely diminish in direct proportion to the number where it will operate under the symbol of the red crescent or the red crystal.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I was going to say that perhaps I made myself unhelpfully unclear in my earlier argument. Perhaps, and this is more likely, my hon. Friend Mr. Swire was not listening carefully enough when I said that the red cross is not solely a Christian symbol—indeed, it is arguably not one at all. Of course, the cross is a Christian symbol but the use of the cross relates to a much more ancient recognition of the symbol as a symbol of peace. Let me take the use of the white flag as a parallel example. Since time began, the white flag has been recognised as a symbol of submission or surrender. The symbol of a cross has ancient lineage, as I have described, that predates its use as a Christian image. I made that point once. I have now made it twice. I do not expect to have to make it a third time.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

My hon. Friend is in robust form. The cross is perceived to have religious connotations. In a battlefield, there will not be time for my hon. Friend to deliver one of his forceful and robust speeches to explain the complexities of the cross. It is perceived in the heat of battle to be a Christian symbol. Yes, that perception is wrong, but it is the perception. Surely my hon. Friend recognises that in framing his argument.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That was the argument when the red crescent was adopted. In the 1870s, the Ottoman empire made precisely the arguments that are being made by my hon. Friends and the international community agreed to establish the Red Crescent as a response. I am not sure that the argument was compelling then and I am not sure that it is compelling now. The cross, to a certain mind, might be perceived in the way my hon. Friend describes, but that probably says more about that mind than it does about the cross. I remain convinced that the use of the cross has immense value in the universality it provides, with all the protection that that brings. We want those who are serving noble purposes and offering humanitarian relief, aid and medical services to benefit from the protection given by a symbol such as the cross.

I remain doubtful that extending the number of symbols is likely to offer such blanket protection. Not only is there the possibility of malevolent or mischievous use, but, almost more significantly, there is the possibility of confusion. Until my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne can answer that charge, I feel that his argument has less strength than he might assume.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

If my argument lacks strength, I apologise, but the red crystal is being brought forward by the Red Cross. Will my hon. Friend please address his remaining opening remarks to the Red Cross and explain to the Red Cross why he is opposed to its bringing forward the red crystal, which it believes will enhance its mission in the field, not devalue it?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

When a right hon. Gentleman as eminent as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire tells this House that he has been—I think that this is the phrase—surfing the net and has discovered the use of the red crystal as a symbol for a combination of bordellos, fashion houses and rock stars, we, as responsible Members, have a duty to hear him and to consider that evidence. We should do that not just because of my right hon. Friend's sagacity but because of the evidence that he provided. If my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne chose to surf the net, he might find even more examples of the use of red and other crystals for all kinds of good and more nefarious purposes.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene; he is making a very powerful speech. Does he agree that, in designing a new symbol, if so much effort goes into making it totally non-contentious and impossible to interpret, so that no person, group, country, religion or faith could be offended by it, there is a danger that the result will have none of the power, impact or values of the traditional symbols, which creates the dilemma that we may lose all the associated features of the red cross in a non-contentious red crystal?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

As ever, my hon. Friend brings fresh insight to the debate. In that interesting intervention, she reminds the whole House of Proust, who argued that the dilution of symbols robs them of meaning. It is important to appreciate that the cross is not only widely accepted and easily recognised but has substance. The symbol that we are presented with may be so anodyne that it has neither substance nor meaning for many of the people who see it—except, I suppose, those who have surfed the net.

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Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

I seek a little clarification on two points. First, my understanding is that the symbol used by the Red Cross was a reversal of the national flag of Switzerland, so I cannot see the religious connotation. Secondly, I thought that the whole point of the red cross and the red crescent was that they were not aligned with a religion or a faith but used as symbols of humanitarian aid and assistance. If I am right in those two suppositions, how are my hon. Friends right in theirs?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend is right. The red cross was adopted not because of its connotation with any particular creed or belief but because it was not so associated, being an ancient symbol that predates the use of the cross in Christian imagery.

There is a certain type of guilt-ridden bourgeois liberal who is so defensive about our Christian heritage that they see ghosts around every corner and doubt wherever they turn—I was about to say reds under every bed, but I suppose I do not quite mean that. I hope that that is not true of my hon. Friends, but they are being slightly too defensive about the perceived relationship between the red cross and the Christian faith, and possibly too defensive about the Christian faith per se.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I am happy to be accused of being a liberal, but certainly not bourgeois. I largely agree with my hon. Friend, but he must recognise that these symbols can be hijacked. Back in 1864—this predates my hon. Friend—the Ottoman empire made representations under the Geneva convention because it claimed that the red cross emblem

"gave offence to Muslim soldiers".

From that point on, the red cross stopped being the universal symbol. He must recognise that some symbols can cause offence to some communities in a way that he may not have thought through.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

That is true. However, if we were to be cowed by everyone who took offence at the use of these symbols, the red cross might never have been established as it was, with the immense benefits to all concerned, and we would have ended up with symbols from every nation or state without the universality that I recommend to the House so strongly, and which is increasingly significant in a world that is global in character in respect of conflict, tension, terrorism, humanitarian aid and many other things. That was recognised by the Liberal spokesman in the House of Lords, who described the increasingly international nature of these matters as a reason for the adoption of the red crystal. I take the opposite view that the increasingly international nature of the things I described reaffirms the case for a single symbol. That might be the crescent, as my hon. Friend suggests, or more properly and logically, it might be the cross.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I have the highest regard for my hon. Friend, but why will he not recognise in his argument that we live in complex times?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

The times are complex for all of us, but particularly for my hon. Friend. I do not disregard his argument; it is just one with which I cannot agree. The red cross, with all that it means and has meant, brings immense benefit as a symbol in the manner identified by the convention, and in the way envisaged by the architects of the original international agreement in 1864. To abandon all of that which is time-honoured would be unwise.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

I was here at the beginning of the debate, but was unfortunately called away. I saw some of it, however, through the television apparatus in my office and I followed my hon. Friend's arguments with considerable interest. I mentioned at the beginning of the debate the vexed issue of the red star of David—the Magen David Adom. Does my hon. Friend agree that if people attempting to give aid to those in the Gaza strip were seen climbing out of a vehicle so marked, it would be unacceptable to Hamas, and dangerous for those giving the aid?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

We had a brief debate about the occupied territories, and about the Golan heights, although I did not mention the Gaza strip—

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am reluctant to intervene on the hon. Gentleman's preliminary remarks, but he is getting a little repetitive and I wondered whether he could move on to the main body of his argument.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I will not give way to my hon. Friend again because I fear that he is attempting to seduce me—oratorically speaking, of course—by taking me down all sorts of roads I do not want to go down. He has had a fair crack of the whip, and I must make progress.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I must make progress. I will give way in a few moments' time, once I have dealt with the issue raised by my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant as briefly as I can, and before moving to the main thrust of my arguments.

Earlier, I quoted Masood Khan, the ambassador for Pakistan, who has the matters that my hon. Friend raised at heart because the tensions over Israel are highly pertinent to our consideration of the Bill and the wider considerations of the international community about the use of these symbols. However, I did not quote Mr. Khan as extensively as the House would wish me to. He says:

"All sides are making honest endeavours to reach agreement. We must create the right kind of environment where we have understanding between the Israeli and Syrian national societies, because of the question of occupied Golan and whether the Syrian Red Crescent can operate there."

When I spoke of that earlier, the Minister intervened to suggest that there were indeed signs of progress and hope of a breakthrough. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield was right to raise the issue because Israel—a country with an outstanding record on humanitarian aid, which we saw during the tsunami and other events mentioned earlier—wants to be a member of the international community in these terms, and the efforts of Mr. Khan and others are designed to ensure that outcome.

I must move on, because—

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Very briefly, but my hon. Friend is, I hate to say, becoming rather mischievous.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Does he not agree that if Israel wishes to be taken seriously in aid matters, particularly as far as the UN is concerned, it needs as a priority to clear up what went on at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency compound in Gaza?

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand that he would now be right to resist some interventions and move forward a little.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Thank for your instruction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that my hon. Friends will not attempt to divert me from my principal argument.

Before we started down this long tributary, I was going to speak a little about the Geneva convention, and particularly—

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

No, I am not going to give way again. We have had a good run on these issues, and I want to move to the main thrust of my argument. I have quite a good deal to say about the Second Reading of the 1957 Act, which has not yet had a proper airing. There will simply not be time to finish before 7 pm if I give way continually to my hon. Friend, much as I admire him and, more than that, have deep affection for him.

Léon Nyssen received a letter in French from the ICRC, quoting the acts of the Geneva convention of 1949. The conventions of this House will not allow me to read any French, nor will my imperfect grasp of that language, so with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall read it in translation. It states:

"On purpose it has been desired not to determine the shape of the red cross, which determination would have given way to dangerous abuses...If the shape of the cross had been determined in an immutable way, would not one try to justify attacks against buildings protected by the Convention, arguing that the symbols did not have the settled proportions?"

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford said, nowadays it is normal in ordered, peaceful conditions for the red cross to be modelled more or less on the Swiss flag, or its reverse. However, it seems from old documents that before the 1950s the shape of the cross was usually much thinner, even one third of the width of the Swiss cross. Indeed, I had a look earlier and found out that even in the past 20 years, there have been small changes to how the cross is routinely presented.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is not the cross always represented with equi-length arms so as to distinguish it from the Christian cross, or have I got that wrong?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

No, that is precisely the case. That reinforces the argument that I have made at considerable length in response to the interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne. That is precisely why confusion should not, and for the most part does not, arise. The cross is drawn in essence not from Christian imagery but from a much more ancient image. The sign of the cross was used long before the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross and so saved us from our sins. The misunderstanding that has arisen has surprised me, given the incisive and intelligent contributions that my hon. Friend normally makes. He has repeatedly come to the wrong conclusion.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Having been slightly critical of my hon. Friend, although I have said that I am immensely fond of him, I shall give way to him again.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I am greatly enjoying my hon. Friend's speech and I hope that he does not cut it short because I have nowhere to be this evening. If there were a vote on the programme motion, I would vote against it because I believe that the Bill should go into Committee and that we should conduct pre-legislative evidence sessions with the Red Cross. However, if we were voting on Third Reading tonight, would my hon. Friend vote with the Red Cross to introduce the red crystal or put his concerns on the record by voting against the measure?

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Like all responsible Members, I would listen to the evidence. I would not have a preconceived view of such a significant subject. I would listen to the measured arguments that the Red Cross and others made. It is odd that my hon. Friend argues for witness sessions but asks me to say what I would do before I heard the witnesses. That is no way to conduct our affairs and he should know better. I will not give way to him again—it merely encourages him.

If I do not make progress, I will have no chance to speak about the contribution of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport division (Miss Vickers) on Second Reading in 1957. Unless we consider that, I do not understand how we can reach any conclusion.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. He is aware—although some other hon. Friends are less so—of the power of the original red cross symbol and knows that any attempt to dilute it will remove some of its almost magic qualities on the battlefield of ensuring that those under it are protected. I congratulate him on his view. He is also right that we need to hear more evidence. As my hon. Friend Mr. Walker said, we need to hear from the Red Cross, and driving through a programme motion today is singularly inappropriate.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has not joined that army of guilt-ridden bourgeois liberals to whom I referred earlier. He has no doubt in his heart about the use of the cross because it might be perceived as Christian. Not only does he accept my argument that its lineage is much longer, but he has no guilt about the Christian heritage of western civilisation. I must not go down that track.

Let me refer to the 1957 debate because the then hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport division made a major contribution to Second Reading of the Bill, which became an Act and which the measure amends. She spoke with considerable authority because, as she told the House on that occasion, she had worked for the Red Cross in this country and overseas for many years. She was therefore especially enthusiastic that the Bill should become an Act. She described the work of the Red Cross—barely 11 years after the last great war—as invaluable, not only in war but in peace. She wanted to address her remarks particularly to the work in which she had been involved with civilians. We would now call it humanitarian aid, although I am not sure whether that term existed then. She drew attention to the articles that specifically applied to civilians and discussed article 100, which deals with civilians in times of war.

Stimulated by a brief examination of that speech, I took a close look at the 1957 Act itself. I hope that other hon. Members have done that. I do not mean to sound critical, but I hope that the Under-Secretary will say rather more about that measure in her summation than she did in her introductory remarks. The Bill can be seen only in that context and the wider context of the conventions that had their genesis in the 1860s, but still apply, in their form and practice, throughout the world today.

The pressures of time and my anxiety for this debate to finish before the House rises are such that I will not say a great deal more about the 1957 Act at this stage. However, I want to conclude my remarks with a number of questions for the Minister. They are questions that have arisen not only from today's debate, but from the consideration of the Bill, the international debate about such matters and the context that I have described. The questions focus on five or six areas.

The Minister needs to tell the House what evidence exists of attacks on Red Cross or Red Crescent personnel that have their origin in resistance or hostility towards those emblems. I have yet to hear any evidence in this debate that those attacks have been about the emblems, rather than about something more fundamental or more contextual. Unless evidence is brought forward that those emblems have stimulated hostility, the argument for a new symbol will be less persuasive.

The second question to which I want the Minister to respond relates to the timetable and the costs of the change. It is perfectly reasonable for the House to want to know what time scale the implementation of the new measures will be governed by. The Minister will also want to bring to the House's attention the notional costs of implementation, which her Department will surely have drawn up.

To reflect this afternoon's debate, the third question for the Minister to answer is about how much consideration was given to the accommodation of those who are hostile to the symbol of the cross and about how much counter-consideration was given to the adoption of the cross as a universal symbol. I do not want to reprise the argument of the 1870s today, but one understands why a compromise was reached to deal with the complaints of the Turks then.

However, if a new symbol were to be established that was designed to have universal appeal, it is as good an argument to say that it should have been the cross as it is to suggest that it should be a new crescent. There are perhaps even stronger arguments for reverting to something that is already well established, because the battle is half won, if I can put it that way. The crescent would take considerable time to gain the kind of recognition that the cross already enjoys.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I will give way very briefly, because like an indulgent father, I seek to learn from and to teach my hon. Friend.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I only try to be helpful. In his last sentence, my hon. Friend talked about the red crescent, when I think that he meant to say "red crystal".

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I did mean to say that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has illustrated my very point: that I learn from him almost every day.

The final question relates to scrutiny of the legislation. We have had a brief debate, and the argument has been made that we should have had more time to consider the Bill. It has even been suggested that we should have had witnesses. I do not necessarily agree with that, but I would be interested to hear the Minister's perspective on it. Could we have benefited? Might the debate have been better informed if we had been able to scrutinise the Red Cross in the way that hon. Members have suggested? I make no judgment about that, but it is at least worthy of a ministerial response.

I am sorry to have had to abridge my remarks in the interests of the whole House, because there is much more that I wanted to say. I know, however, that these matters will be aired fully in the summations. It is to be hoped that, as the Bill wends its way through this House and the other place, we will have longer and more detailed discussions about its origin and its effect, and about the possible problems that it might give rise to. Having said that, this is a relatively non-controversial measure, and it is not one that the House will want to hear too much more about, either from me or any other hon. Member.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure, the Ayes were 362 and the Noes were 21, so the Question was agreed to. I also have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day on the motion relating to the May day Adjournment. The Ayes were 304 and the Noes were 103, so the Question was agreed to.

[The Division lists are published at the end of today's debates.]

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 4:26 pm, 1st April 2009

Mr. Deputy Speaker, that last result that you read out will be of great interest to people outside the House. We are increasingly getting a reputation for wanting to curtail our proceedings, but that vote shows that no fewer than 103 of our colleagues want the House to sit on May day bank holiday in order to hold the Government to account.

I want to express my disappointment that my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes has curtailed his remarks. I hope that he did not do so in order for me to take over from him, because I cannot follow his act. Indeed, if there were a crystal award for conciseness and clarity—whether a red crystal or an ordinary one—he would receive it.

I want to make a few comments about where we are getting to with the red cross symbol. I was rather depressed to read the summing up by Lord Malloch-Brown in the other place on 27 January, in which he explained what he expects to happen as a result of what a number of colleagues have called a dilution of the symbolism of the red cross. He asserted that it was not the Government's intention to destroy the Red Cross, stating that

"the British Red Cross is safe with this Government".

[ Laughter. ] I note that that has caused derisive laughter among some of my colleagues. Lord Malloch-Brown went on to say that

"over time, we expect more and more countries to avail themselves of the Red Crystal because unfortunately the polarisation around religion and religious symbols seems likely to grow rather than dissolve as the world moves forward."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 197.]

He sees that process as inevitable, but I find that outlook very depressing. He effectively said that the Government are engaging in appeasement. Indeed, the whole of the British and international Red Cross movement now seems unwilling to hold the line that the red cross and red crescent symbols are not religious or political symbols. That line has now been abandoned, and we shall increasingly find ourselves in a mess.

This will mean that the great intentions of the founder of the Red Cross movement, Henry Dunant, will not be able to be realised. In 1863, he set out the basis for a new symbol, stating that it needed to be simple, identifiable from a distance, known to everyone and identical for friend and foe. The emblem had to be the same for everyone and universally recognisable. It is apparent from today's debate that there will be a proliferation of different symbols, which will inevitably not be so clear or identifiable from a distance. Those symbols will not be the same for everyone, and it will be even more difficult to obtain universal recognition for them. I therefore think that this is a retrograde step.

One of my hon. Friends has said that the red crystal symbol could easily be mistaken for other symbols already used by the military. My recollection from driving across Salisbury plain is that the red crystal symbol relates to roads that are used by tanks. I am sure that there are all sorts of other uses of that symbol, which could create confusion rather than clarity. One is left wondering why the principles enunciated in the first Geneva convention passed in 1864, which is popularly regarded as the time when modern international humanitarian law was begun, are now being undermined. I fear that the Government and the international community have not thought this through. I am not sure whether appeasement will get us anywhere—in fact, I am certain that it will not.

My second point relates to scepticism about the United Nations and other international organisations that use high-flown words and phrases. The Bill inserts schedule 7 into the Geneva Conventions Act 1957. The preamble contains all that language with which we are so familiar, but which does not mean anything whatever. If it meant something, relatively few countries would want to sign up to the schedule.

The preamble says, among other things, that the signatories to the schedule would have to note that

"this Protocol is without prejudice to the recognized right of High Contracting Parties to continue to use the emblems they are using in conformity with their obligations under the Geneva Conventions and, where applicable, the Protocols additional thereto".

It goes on to stress

"that the distinctive emblems are not intended to have any religious, ethnic, racial, regional or political significance".

In order for countries to sign up to the schedule, they have to accept that the existing symbols of the red cross and the red crescent do not have

"any religious, ethnic, racial, regional or political significance", but it is quite apparent that they do not actually believe that. Will that prevent them from signing up to this convention?

The preamble goes on, emphasising

"the importance of ensuring full respect for the obligations relating to the distinctive emblems recognized in the Geneva Conventions, and, where applicable, the Protocols... thereto", while recognising

"the difficulties that certain States and National Societies may have with the use of existing distinctive emblems".

These are the typical weasel words that we find in so much of this type of legislation.

What concerns me as much as anything is the fact that those symbols are not going to be enforced. We have had the recitation of a number of horrific incidents across the world where no respect whatever has been shown to these symbols, whether they be a red cross, a red crescent or, indeed, a red crystal. What is happening now is that people risking their lives on overseas expeditions in order to serve the cause of humanity are being picked off, and the people who attack them are beyond and above the law because there is no way of enforcing the sanctions against them that should be entered into under the Geneva conventions and associated protocols.

I feel that, in a sense, the debate is taking place in a vacuum, under the illusion that somehow it will make some difference on the ground, when we know that in almost all the areas in which the United Nations currently operates, the "host countries" have not even complied with, or put their signatures to, the conventions that we are discussing. I wonder whether we should tell the United Nations that it should not enter those countries unless or until they are prepared to sign up to what are very basic humanitarian agreements. That might concentrate some minds.

The Government have done the House a disservice by producing a regulatory impact assessment which is far from adequate. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight has pointed out, the section on the small firms impact test does not take account of the fact that a fair number of organisations already use the expression "red crystal". Although that symbol has not been recognised as a registered trademark, many organisations would not have wanted to register it, because they would not have thought it worth registering. Small firms using that symbol may be caught out by the legislation, which will criminalise the use of that symbol or those words. I hope that the Minister will respond to the real concerns on that subject.

I shall make my remarks extremely brief, but I find it extraordinary that, for the second time in as many Bills, not a single Government Back Bencher has participated on Second Reading. The first occasion was the Second Reading debate on the Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill, which took place two or three weeks ago—on the very day on which the Government Chief Whip addressed the Press Gallery, saying that he wanted to enter into a new compact with members of his party involving their participating in our affairs. That compact may have just been spin, and it is certainly not working. I find it extraordinary that the Government, or their Back Benchers, seem to have given up.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

One issue on which the Minister has given no answer to those Conservative Members who have raised it is the date of commencement for the proposed legislation. If the Bill is as welcome and as overdue as the Minister would have us believe, why does clause 3 not specify a commencement date?

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I hope that the Minister will respond to that question. When I examined the detail, it was apparent to me that as soon as the Bill was passed the Government could ratify the protocol, and that under the terms of the protocol the measure would come into effect six months after ratification. I am not sure about the significance of the fact that we have no clear commencement date, but perhaps the Minister will clarify the matter.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be unfair to point out not only that few Labour Members have spoken—[Hon. Members: "None!"]—but that Labour Back Benchers have been entirely absent from the debate? Would it be unfair to put that on the record, or shall I do so?

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I do not think that putting the truth on the record can ever be regarded as unfair. My hon. Friend has effectively criticised me for being unduly generous to Government Back Benchers by failing to draw attention to the fact that none are present, let alone participating in the debate. But let us hope that they will support us in the Lobby and oppose the programme motion, which will enable more of them to participate in the remaining stages of this very important Bill.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that we must look for every opportunity to allow Labour Members of Parliament to engage in Parliament, especially given the fact that the Leader of the House has said that 5 per cent. of Labour Members are "bone idle".

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We have probably dealt sufficiently with the question of attendance in the House. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will move on to the Bill.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is worth pointing out, however, that, by convention, a Second Reading debate in the House takes up one whole day. Earlier we saw some movement on the Government Benches suggesting to me, if not to others, that there might be some move on the part of the Government to try to curtail this very important Second Reading debate, just because no Government Back Benchers wanted to participate. I hope that we will not have a situation where, because one side does not wish to participate, the other side is prevented from being able to exercise their democratic right to hold the Government to account.

That is the situation with this Bill. A series of important questions have been raised. Were the Government to try to put the Question, it would deprive the Minister of the opportunity to respond to those real concerns. Because a lot of time is still available, I hope that the Minister will not feel inhibited in any way and will respond as fully as possible to the concerns that so many Conservative Members have properly made about the Bill.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 4:41 pm, 1st April 2009

We have had a comprehensive debate. We have heard immense support for the British Red Cross and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which I welcome. In the round, I will take from the debate that the Government have support from most, if not all, of the House to implement these measures. Doing so, as I said earlier, will help to safeguard the invaluable work of UN, medical and other personnel worldwide.

In picking up the main themes of the debate and reminding the House why we are here, particularly in respect of clause 1, I can do no better than to refer to the letter and briefing that were made available to every right hon. and hon. Member from the chief executive of the British Red Cross. I am sure that it has been widely read in advance of today's debate:

"Ratification of the Protocol will give the United Kingdom Armed Forces the ability to use the red crystal emblem in situations where it may provide them with greater protection. It will also consolidate the United Kingdom's position as one of the leading States in respect for and implementation of international humanitarian law. The British Red Cross is fully supportive of these provisions and hope that we may be able to count on your support in ensuring their safe passage through Parliament."

I want to pick up some of the questions that have been raised today. Clause 1 refers to the extension of the emblems to include the red crystal. First, on the important matter that right hon. and hon. Members have raised about getting better recognition through a newer symbol than the red cross and red crescent, I do not foresee, nor has the international movement made me aware of, any of the difficulties that right hon. and hon. Members have outlined. It is true, however, that recognition of the red crystal will have to increase, and we will train our armed forces. I know that the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will play a full part in the through training and promotion of that important emblem. It will take time, but we have to start somewhere. Ratification is our contribution to that start.

The question of which emblem should be used has been raised, and I reiterate what I said in my opening remarks. That is a decision for those who will use the emblem, whether it is the national societies or the military commanders in theatre. We do not keep a list of countries and their likely attitudes to that matter and believe that such decisions are best made by those who use the emblem.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

It is my understanding that the emblems can be used alone or in combination, which could lead to an extraordinary range of approaches in different countries. Is that likely to be confusing?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I have a lot of respect for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and its experience, and it has requested this change. When emblems are used as protection against attack in a conflict situation, they cannot be used in combination. Only one of the three distinctive emblems will be used for protective purposes. But in non-conflict and domestic situations, a national society could choose to use the red cross, the red crescent or the red star of David within the red crystal in conformity with the relevant national legislation, which is another reason why the Bill is important. The British Red Cross could, therefore display an emblem showing the red cross within the frame of the red crystal, but only to promote its activities within the UK.

A further area of questioning concerned what would happen if there were attacks on those using the new or existing symbols, which relates to the issue of protection. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, the emblem is not a literal shield around people, much as we might like it to be. Prosecution will be a matter for national prosecuting authorities, and by ratifying these protocols we will send a message to others to do likewise and give impetus to the promotion of a third protective symbol.

Reference has been made to existing users and the regulatory impact assessment. We do not foresee any impact on businesses or charities, and there has been full consultation across Government. There are protections in clause 1(5) for existing users of the red crystal, which apply except where there would be confusion in armed conflict. Not only does that reflect article 6.2 of the protocols, so other countries will have the same rules, but it is unlikely that a ladies dress shop or a book title will cause confusion in armed conflict situations.

On the issue of control of use in the future, that would only apply where it is justified in the public interest.

On definitions in respect of clause 2, the important point is that those categories represent a sensible widening of scope, something that we do not have at present. It is true that there is no single agreed definition for peace building, but we do not anticipate a problem in practice. Peace building, as right hon. and hon. Members will be more than well aware, is the phase after peace making and peacekeeping when a violent conflict has slowed down or halted.

Humanitarian assistance is, as right hon. and hon. Members know, deployed at times of humanitarian crisis, such as natural disasters. Political and development assistance is always part of a long-term solution to provide a lasting strengthening of a nation's capability and capacity to recover from times of trouble.

Several points were raised about procedure, such as the time taken to bring the Bill before the House. Right hon. and hon. Members know that, as with any legislation, we need to find a place for it in the legislative programme. We prepared the Bill by working closely with the British Red Cross, to which I again extend my appreciation and thanks. Once the parliamentary process is complete, the UK will ratify the protocols as soon as possible, and statutory instruments will be laid to give effect to them. There are no significant financial implications.

On the question of scrutiny, right hon. and hon. Members know that the Bill started life in the other place and that it is not practice to take evidence on Bills that do so. However, this Bill is destined for the scrutiny of the whole House in Committee, so there will be no parliamentary opportunity for an evidence session. I repeat that the Bill has been prepared and drawn up in full consultation with the British Red Cross, which has used its expertise to bring many great aspects to the Bill.

On clause 2 and the Bill's coverage, the protocol covers only UN workers. However, we continue to press for a fuller set of protections—for example, for those who work for Save the Children or Oxfam. Of course, other criminal offences can be committed by people who attack humanitarian personnel, whoever they work for.

On the international legislative position, I reiterate that five countries with UN missions in their territories have signed the protocol. For us, the adoption of the protocol is a very serious matter and a demonstration of the importance that we place on it. In reality, we are seeking to lead by example, but we will continue to lobby international partners to do likewise. As we have heard, 87 countries have ratified the convention. A further 34 countries have signed the protocol, and 16 have ratified it. The protocol will come into force once 22 countries have ratified it.

A question was asked about the protocol's application. The convention and the protocol apply not only in states that have ratified them, but wherever a UN operation is taking place, so people can be brought to justice in the UK for acts committed elsewhere.

A question was asked about whether the Bill should amend the list of offences in the United Nations Personnel Act 1997. No further change is needed under the Bill, and any necessary consequential amendments were made when sections 1 and 2 of the 1997 Act were changed.

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Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

The Minister is being very generous in giving way—I appreciate it—but will she tell the House whether this is the first Bill that we have ever debated that contains a logo in the schedule?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

It is tempting to answer, but I am afraid that I cannot. I will happily write to the right hon. Gentleman to give him an accurate reply, but I would not describe the red crystal as a logo; it is an emblem of protection, which is certainly how the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies seeks to present it.

A question was asked about the difference between optional and additional protocols. There is no such difference in legal effect. The truth is that the terminology is not always consistent, contrary to what one might like. The word "optional" is used because Governments can decide whether to become party to such a protocol, which commits only those who ratify it.

Further questions were asked about why this is a reserved matter, the extension to the overseas territories and other areas. Such things are, of course, quite normal in the UK legislative framework.

In closing, I ask the House to join me in paying tribute to all those courageous men and women who continue to work under the most difficult and dangerous conditions to save and improve the lives of others. The majority of us have been spared the horrors of war, but for those caught up in conflict, we can only imagine their sense of relief and gratitude for the humanitarian support provided by the UN, the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the many other organisations that do such work. In passing the Bill, we will make our own small but significant contribution to their efforts. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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