Our Government’s foreign policy has two principal aims: to respond to urgent challenges and crises in ways that promote Britain’s national interest and our democratic values, including human rights, poverty reduction and conflict prevention, and to equip our country to be a safe, prosperous and influential nation for the long term. To do that, given the scale of the economic changes that we are seeing in the world’s economic landscape, we are expanding British diplomacy beyond Europe and north America, even at a time of tight resources. We are forging new connections with new and emerging powers while maintaining our traditional alliances and our role in international institutions. We are intensifying efforts to promote British exports and attract inward investments, with strong early results. In 2011, British goods exports to India increased by 37%, to Indonesia by 44%, and to Colombia by 35%, while British exports as a whole last year increased by nearly £50 billion.
I will make a little progress before giving way, if my hon. Friend can wait just a moment.
We are using the National Security Council to pursue a much more systematic approach to Britain’s international objectives across all Government Departments, and the Foreign Office is back at the heart of Government in the making of Britain’s foreign policy, with three clear departmental objectives, instead of the 10 that were in place when we came to government. The objectives are to safeguard Britain’s national security, to build our country’s prosperity and to support British nationals overseas through our consular work.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way and apologise for my eagerness, but I want to pay tribute to the British ambassadors who came to this House two weeks ago sizzling with ideas about how British companies could export to their markets. I refer, in particular, to the ambassador to Namibia, who won the X-factor contest for the most competitive ambassador that day.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. Never before have our ambassadors been described in this House as “sizzling”, so I am delighted by his description—an accurate one—of their commitment to promoting British businesses overseas. They are now backed by the biggest drive to build up the Foreign Office’s diplomatic skills and capabilities that the Department has seen in modern times, with a new language training centre training up to 500 diplomats a year, more economic and commercial training and a new economics unit. Following his intervention, I pay tribute to the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, who work tirelessly day after day in support of our country.
I understand that many of the more junior posts overseas will now be filled by locally engaged staff. How will the Foreign Secretary ensure that staff going on their first posting overseas once they get higher up the scale will have the necessary experience if they have been unable to gain that in other postings?
The hon. Lady is right to say that that is one of the changes in the administration of the Foreign Office. We are saving £100 million in administration, and it is not possible to do that without making some important changes, such as the one she refers to for A and B-band staff. Most of the staff who work overseas, of course, come in at a different level and did not acquire their previous experience at the A or B-band level. Those staff affected by the change will, in many cases, have the opportunity to seek promotion to higher grades—I strongly support that—so we are trying to mitigate the effect on their careers.
I announced to the House on
On that point, may I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the work he has done to expand the diplomatic network, because under the previous Government many of our diplomatic missions were neglected and some were closed? I congratulate him on what he is doing because it is good for business. Are there expansion plans for India, that crucial and vibrant democracy?
Yes, there are, but I will speak about India in a moment because I have a specific announcement to make on our posts there. I can say to my hon. Friend that we will not set out to close any of the existing British embassies or high commissions in the lifetime of this Parliament, although clearly there are extreme circumstances, such as the attacks on our embassy in Tehran and the security situation in Damascus, that have required the temporary withdrawal of British diplomats. Instead, by 2015 we will have deployed 300 extra staff in more than 20 countries and will have opened up to 11 new British embassies and eight new consulates or trade offices.
Not only is that a reversal of the overall policy of the previous Government, who closed 17 high commissions and embassies, but in some instances we are reopening embassies and high commissions that they closed.
No. I want to list them to the House.
In Africa we have reopened an embassy in Côte d’Ivoire and opened a new embassy in South Sudan; we are reopening our embassy in Madagascar, which should never have been closed; we are opening an embassy in Liberia; and we have set aside funds to open an embassy in Somalia as soon as circumstances permit. We have opened a new embassy in strategically important Kyrgyzstan, and we are establishing a new honorary consul network for economic and commercial diplomacy in Turkey.
In Latin America we have already opened a new consulate in the north of Brazil; we are reopening our embassy in El Salvador, which was closed in 2003; and on top of that we are strengthening many links with the people of Latin America, with an agreement for example to welcome 10,000 Brazilian students and researchers to British institutions by 2014. I stress that this focus on stronger ties in Latin America goes hand in hand with our absolute commitment to the rights of the people of the Falkland Islands to self-determination and to develop their own economy.
The right hon. Gentleman, like many, will know that, in some cases, embassies and consulates require new buildings, and this British presence overseas can be an opportunity to highlight the best of British design and architecture. I have been contacted by a constituent with a leading architectural practice who believes that the Government’s new arrangements discriminate against high-quality design and architecture in favour of the cheapest option and, sometimes, in favour of multinational companies rather than British architecture and design. Will the right hon. Gentleman look into that point, about which I have written to one of his ministerial colleagues?
I will certainly have a look at the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course we want to support British architecture, and I think that we do, very well, in many parts of the world. It also has to be cost-effective in this public spending environment, but I will look at the point that he makes.
The expansion of the diplomatic network is important and welcome, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that businesses in the illegal settlements on the west bank should not have European Union grants in any shape or form, and that diplomats should be working to stop them?
I will come to the middle east peace process later in my speech, but at the EU Foreign Affairs Council yesterday, we issued an important new and detailed statement about our approach to the two settlements, in particular. I will come back to that, but perhaps I will take the intervention of my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke on this point.
My right hon. Friend has done a huge amount in his time as Foreign Secretary to go to countries throughout the world and to reinvigorate the Foreign Office, which was sidelined by the previous Government. Indeed, under the Blair Government the Foreign Office was seen more as a nuisance than as a help. Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House some of the countries that he has been to which have not been visited by a Foreign Secretary in a great many years?
We look forward to the Foreign Secretary’s Cook’s tour.
No, I will proceed for a moment.
In Asia we are reopening our embassy in Laos, which will mean that we are one of only three EU member states with diplomatic representation in every single Association of Southeast Asian Nations country; and we intend to open a new British interest office in Burma, in Naypyidaw.
It is vital that we develop a strong, frank and open partnership with China, reflecting our growing shared interests and our support for China’s continued economic success and more active leadership in addressing global issues. Where we differ, such as on human rights, it is vital that we continue our dialogue, so by 2015 we will have an additional consulate, 60 more staff and 40% more Chinese language speakers in our posts in China.
I am just coming to the India point, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Given the growing importance of our relations with India, I can announce today that we have secured the agreement of the Indian Government to open new deputy high commissions in the important cities of Hyderabad and Chandigarh. That will bring the number of our diplomatic posts in India to seven and mean that Britain has the most extensive diplomatic network in India of any diplomatic service in the world. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to explain why those things did not happen when he was at the Foreign Office.
Oh, good. You seemed to be asking somebody.
I want to return the Foreign Secretary to the subject of Colombia. He will know that many people in all parts of the House have profound concerns about human rights issues in that country. The EU is in the process of agreeing a free trade agreement with Colombia. When does he expect that this House will have a right to vote on that ratification?
I know where the country is that the hon. Gentleman was first talking about; I have just announced the reopening of an embassy there. He visited that country without increasing our diplomatic representation; I have done so without visiting it.
On Colombia, yes, there continues to be human rights work to do there. The commitment of the President of Colombia to make further progress on human rights is, I think, very genuine and should be warmly received in this House. I believe that there will be strong support in this House for free trade agreements being extended across the rest of the world, including with Colombia. It is not our normal practice in the House to vote on such things, but of course there is no reason why a vote cannot be created on such an issue, particularly given the rights of Back Benchers to bring about votes. I will look at the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.
The Foreign Secretary has talked about opening embassies around the world. I congratulate him on that, because it is vital for the future growth, trade and investment of this country. Will he enlighten the House on how the Foreign Office is working with UK Trade & Investment to make sure that we bring more trade and investment back to Britain?
Yes. Not only do the Foreign Office and UKTI work very closely together, but we provide UKTI with funding for specific projects, allowing it to expand its presence overseas in the same places where the FCO is expanding its work, with the additional personnel and posts that I am describing, to try to open markets and change policies in other countries so that British companies can gain access to their markets and UKTI can then help them to use that access. In the past year, the FCO and UKTI, working together, helped about 20,000 small and medium-sized enterprises to gain access, for the first time, to emerging markets around the world. That is a very important part of the economic revival of this country, and that effort must be further redoubled over the coming years.
The approach that I have described on India will help to expand our trade and investment relationship by helping British companies, and it will help to deepen our political links with state leaders across India. We are funding this expansion in relation to the emerging powers through the reallocation of FCO resources, the withdrawal of some subordinate posts in Europe, and the reduction over time of our diplomatic footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, where security costs are considerable. We are doing that while making the £100 million per year of administrative savings by the end of the Parliament required by our spending review settlement, showing that it is what we choose to do with our resources that counts the most. I can also tell the House that next month we will publish the Government’s new White Paper on relations with the UK’s overseas territories.
Our focus on stronger political and economic ties with the growing economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America in no way comes at the expense of our role in the European Union or our alliance with the United States. We will never have a stronger ally than the United States of America. We make a vital contribution to each other’s security, and our co-operation in foreign affairs will always be one of the absolute pillars of our foreign policy. Nowhere has this been more visible in recent years than in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to all the British personnel who have lost their lives, including, sadly, in recent days, or have been injured serving our country there. We are in Afghanistan to protect our own national security by helping Afghans to take control of theirs.
The process of transitioning security control to Afghan forces agreed at the Lisbon summit in 2010 is on track; it is realistic and it is achievable. Transition has begun in areas that cover about 50% of the Afghan population and in 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. With the latest announcement this weekend, that will rise to 75% of the population and involve areas of all 34 provinces. In mid-2013, when the final stage of transition begins, the Afghan national security forces will lead security responsibility across the whole country and the international security assistance force will begin to move to a supporting role, focusing primarily on training, advising and assisting the Afghan national security forces. ISAF will be in a combat role until the end of 2014, when the transition process will be completed.
The main focus of the Chicago summit this weekend will be to agree a plan for the size, shape and funding of the Afghan national security forces beyond 2014. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has announced that Britain will contribute £70 million a year from 2015 to fund the Afghan forces after ISAF’s combat operations end. That will be in addition to our leading the Afghan national army officer academy, which was announced by the Prime Minister last year. We will continue to support the Afghan Government’s efforts to achieve an inclusive, representative and sustainable political settlement through their reconciliation process, and to urge Afghanistan’s neighbours to support that objective.
The European Union remains central to our prosperity, both internally through the single market and externally through its programme of free trade agreements. The European debate about growth and austerity has intensified in recent days. We should not artificially frame this as a choice. The Government have long pressed for a more growth-oriented EU policy to go alongside the necessary fiscal measures that are being taken at the national level, including in the UK. That work has been developed with our many allies in the EU, following the publication of the Prime Minister’s pamphlet “Let’s choose growth” more than a year ago. That policy has won the support of countries comprising a majority of the EU’s population.
The most recent European Council agreed a comprehensive growth agenda for the EU based on those arguments. The agenda is not about spending money that we do not have, which is the unsustainable folly that put this country in such difficulty; it is about expanding trade within the EU and beyond, lifting regulatory burdens and making structural reforms to European economies. Our future prosperity cannot be driven by Government spending or consumer spending, but will be created by earning our way in the world through trade and competitiveness.
On a recent all-party parliamentary group trip to Brussels, it was clear that the Prime Minister’s letter of last February had struck a chord with many countries. I urge the Foreign Secretary to push ahead with the deregulation agenda at Commission level, because I was not convinced that it was accepted totally by all the countries involved.
I agree that it is important to push ahead, for instance with the agreement in the European Union to exempt the smallest businesses in Europe from new regulations. It is important to ensure that that happens in practice. That is an example of what we are achieving with the growth agenda. Sustained effort is needed to bring it about.
The financial uncertainty caused by the eurozone crisis is the biggest single obstacle to our economic recovery. Although each eurozone member must make its own decision on how to handle the crisis, our view remains that it is only through the control of public finances, an increase in productivity and competitiveness, and structural reform that Europe’s economies will obtain the lasting economic growth that will take us out of these hard times.
In this Session, the Government will bring forward two items of European legislation. The first is a Bill to amend the EU treaties and confirm the legal basis of the eurozone-only European stability mechanism. During negotiations on that treaty change, we ensured that the UK will not be liable through the EU budget for any future eurozone bail-out once the ESM comes into force. The second is a Bill to ratify the accession of Croatia to the European Union.
Of course, today we welcome the new President of France to his office. We look forward to working with him as a close ally.
Just as Britain will make full use of its unique network of partnerships, including the Commonwealth, we want the EU to use its collective weight in the world to good effect. We must continue to place pressure on the authorities in Belarus to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners and commit themselves to real reform, and we must continue to urge the Ukrainian Government to demonstrate that they respect fundamental democratic values and principles. Our Government are dismayed by the alleged mistreatment of former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko.
In the western Balkans, we look forward to the opening of accession negotiations with Montenegro and to Croatia’s expected accession in July next year, and we welcome Serbia’s EU candidate status, awarded in March after progress towards normalising relations with Kosovo.
We have made very clear representations about it. I have discussed the case personally with the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, and our ambassadors right across the EU have made strong representations about that case and other trials that do not appear to have followed what we would regard as due process. While the difficulties remain, the stabilisation and association agreement that has been negotiated between Ukraine and the EU is not being brought into force, so there is a standstill in progressing relations between EU countries and Ukraine. We welcome the recent developments such as the provision of medical care to Mrs Tymoshenko with the assistance of Germany, and we will continue to pursue that case and others vigorously with Ukraine.
Returning to the subject of the Balkans, continued progress in relations with Kosovo will remain vital to Serbia’s path towards EU membership. We also want Bosnia-Herzegovina to be able to make its own leap forward to EU candidate status and full membership of NATO. We intend to develop our co-operation with Russia where it is in our interest to do so, particularly in our economic relationship and in addressing key issues affecting global security as members of the UN Security Council, and I will shortly visit Moscow again.
My right hon. Friend failed to mention one country in the Balkans area, which was Macedonia. Given that the Greeks might not exactly be as strong as they used to be in negotiations in the EU, surely we can give a bit of oomph to Macedonia’s negotiations to enter the EU should it want to?
The whole of Europe wants to see the name dispute resolved, of course. That requires an agreement with Greece, which of course requires a Greek Government to be able to take the initiative and come to such an agreement. My hon. Friend will be aware that as we came into the Chamber for the debate, the news was that a caretaker Government would be appointed in Greece pending fresh elections on 10 or
The EU has an important role to play further afield, including in Burma. The House can be proud that we never wavered in our support for democracy there and insisted on real political and human rights reform as the condition for any move towards an open relationship between Burma and the EU. We are starting to see real reform, although the gains are not yet irreversible and serious human rights concerns remain. The bold leadership shown by President Thein Sein and by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has finally placed the country on a hopeful path, and every Member will have been moved by the sight of Aung San Suu Kyi taking her seat in Burma’s Parliament on
I visited Burma in January, and our Prime Minister was the first western leader to visit after the recent by-elections. We led the way in calling for and securing the suspension, rather than the complete lifting, of EU sanctions, and we have announced that we have lifted our policy of discouraging trade with Burma, although we maintain an arms embargo. We believe that at this moment, the right kind of responsible trade and investment can help aid that country’s transition.
I am glad that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister went to Burma to meet that great leader, and we all look forward to her being able to visit London, but she might be alone because although we are open to one or two personalities our nation is shutting down. Does the Foreign Secretary know that, according to today’s report by the European Tour Operators Association, France now attracts 50% more visitors from India than we do; that 26% of all Indians and 30% of all Chinese who apply for a visa to come to the UK give up because it is too expensive and the application is eight pages long; and that everyone goes to the Schengen area, which now includes Switzerland? We have the reputation of being desirous of business, but closed to foreigners. Is that wise?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will, as always, want to take your advice, Mr Speaker. Of course, I will look at the report that he mentions—I have not seen it—but I do not think that that picture of this country is accurate. Indeed, when we discussed relations with China and India in the Cabinet this morning, we considered the number of Chinese students in the UK. The figure is currently 95,000—the largest number of Chinese students in the world in any country outside China apart from the United States. We are only narrowly behind the United States, and we have more Chinese students than any other country in Europe. That is an example of our openness to people from the rest of the world, and the right hon. Gentleman should bear it in mind.
As the Foreign Secretary knows, the Inter-Parliamentary Union campaigned for many years for the political prisoners in Burmese jails. Although we welcome the release of some of them, hundreds are still in prison. Will he make a particular point of asking for the release of all political prisoners in Burma?
Yes, we certainly do that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development was in Burma before me last November, and he made that point strongly, as I did in January. Indeed, several hundred more prisoners were released the following week. I had asked that they be released in time to be nominated as candidates for the by-elections on
We also want the EU to play a determined role on Iran’s nuclear programme. Next week, on
The Foreign Secretary knows that Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and that a conference is due in Helsinki in December. Will he confirm that that will go ahead, with the idea of promoting a nuclear weapons free middle east, and that Britain, Israel and Iran will all be present?
I certainly hope that that will go ahead. The hon. Gentleman is right; there is a Finnish co-ordinator, which is why we are looking towards a conference in Helsinki. A meeting was held on
The UK is one of the strongest advocates of the sanctions being applied by the EU, including the ban on EU imports of Iranian oil from
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that even if the Iranians make constructive proposals in Baghdad next week, which would be very welcome, it would be premature to consider any suspension of sanctions, except in the unlikely event that the Iranians propose to suspend, as of that date, their further enrichment of uranium?
We will have to see what, if any, proposals Iran makes in Baghdad on
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking time to negotiate the position in Iran, which contrasts starkly with when former Prime Minister Blair stood at the inquiry and said that we should take immediate military action against Iran. The Foreign Secretary’s approach should be commended, and I very much hope that he carries on developing those relations, especially with Russia and China, which will have such an important role to play in helping Iran out of this situation.
One hundred per cent. of our efforts are devoted to a peaceful, negotiated, diplomatic solution to this problem, although we have never taken anything off the table. The House endorsed that approach by an overwhelming majority when we debated it in February. We will maintain the pressure of intensifying sanctions until genuine progress is made, and that includes the sanctions I just described.
We will also continue to raise our concerns about the state of human rights in Iran, which are documented in the FCO’s annual report on human rights that I published two weeks ago. We are increasing the funding of FCO human rights work by 30% in the coming year, with an additional £1.5 million of funding devoted to projects to promote freedom of expression online and the implementation of the UN guiding principles on business and human rights.
I very much support the Government’s renewed and increased commitment to their human rights work. The Foreign Secretary mentioned that he would be travelling to Moscow. Will he raise these human rights issues with his Russian counterparts, with particular reference to the judicial system? A string of European Court judgments has gone against the Russian authorities. I think of the Magnitsky case and others in the north Caucasus. Indeed, it is not in Russia’s security interests for such impunity to rain down on the citizens of Russia.
We have not set the agenda for the forthcoming visit to Moscow, top of which will be Syria, to which I am about to come, but we regularly discuss such issues with our Russian counterparts. Indeed, on my first visit to Moscow as Foreign Secretary, I specifically met human rights groups in Moscow to highlight some of these issues. That work will continue.
The whole House will abhor the violence and systematic violations of human rights in Syria today. More than 10,000 people—perhaps 15,000—have been killed, with many thousands more displaced or detained. The threat grows of civil war or extremists supported by al-Qaeda seeking to take advantage of the crisis. Progress is being made in the deployment of UN monitors to Syria, in accordance with Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, which continues to offer the best hope of ending the crisis. I discussed the latest position with Mr Annan last night. Some 189 observers are currently on the ground, and the full mission of 300 should be deployed by the end of the month. The presence of UN observers has had some impact on the scale of the violence; however, we should be clear that violence and brutal repression continue. Heavy weapons are still being used, and there has been an increase in the use of snipers, night raids, attacks by militia and systematic detentions.
The Syrian regime has not yet implemented the six-point plan, nor has it shown any sign of being prepared to begin a credible political dialogue or transition. This is unacceptable. The Syrian regime should be in no doubt: if it thinks it can murder, kill and torture its way back into favour with the Syrian people or that the world will turn a blind eye to its actions, it is mistaken. The Annan plan is the Syrian regime’s opportunity to accept the need for a better future for its country and to enter into political dialogue to bring that about. If the regime does not do that, we will be ready to return to the Security Council, and it will find itself facing mounting international pressure and, ultimately, the long reach of international justice.
Those are—I mean this genuinely—very fine words, but Reuters reports that 32 people were killed in Syria yesterday. The Annan plan is not working at the moment. I am not saying that it should not be given a chance to work, but what else are the Government doing to stop the killing in Syria?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to refer to the number of people killed yesterday. As I have said, the violence continues. What the deployment of UN monitors has meant so far is that tens of people, rather than hundreds of people, are being killed every day. However, the situation is still completely unacceptable. What else are we doing? We are intensifying our support for bringing opposition groups together. I announced in Istanbul last month a doubling of our financial support to the opposition. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has allocated humanitarian aid—as much as has been asked for—to international agencies dealing with people who have fled from Syria. At the next meeting, which I expect to be held in France, once the new French Government have established themselves, and which I hope will be the largest meeting yet, we will join the Friends of Syria group to co-ordinate international pressure. We stepped up our sanctions on Syria at the EU Foreign Affairs Council yesterday. Of course, we also continue to discuss, with Russia, the Russian position and the need for Russia—as it is in a position of crucial leverage on the Syrian regime—to recognise that only a political transition of the kind set out in the Annan plan is a viable way forward for Syria.
Ten per cent. of the Syrian population are Christian. The only redeeming feature of the Assad regime is that, like Saddam, he has protected them. There have been numerous violations against the Christian population in opposition areas. For the first time in centuries, the Easter liturgy was not celebrated in many areas this year. What are the Government doing to bring the plight of Christians in Syria to the attention of the world?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this matter. I can assure him that one of the top items on our agenda in all our meetings with Syrian opposition groups is this very issue and the need for them to make clear—as they did at our meetings in Tunisia and Istanbul over the last few months—their commitment to human rights, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression in Syria. That is crucial; indeed, it is a vital part of the future of a country that includes many different religious groups and many different cultures, which is one of Syria’s great strengths. I think opposition leaders are serious about that, and if and when they are ever in power we will look to them to hold to their commitments on that.
In addition, Members in all parts of the House will have concerns about Bahrain.
Does not the sad overflow of the civil war between the Sunni and the Alawis into Lebanon, which does not have a tyrannical Government, indicate that the real basis of what is going on in Syria is precisely that: a civil war between the Alawis and the Sunni? The Sunni countries of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the Sunni, who are deeply anti-Israel, and the 350,000-strong Christian minority are supporting the Assad regime because they know that if that regime were replaced by a Sunni Government, they would be the chief victims. Is it not time that the United Nations began to understand the realities of the situation in Syria?
My right hon. Friend and I have discussed this matter on the Floor of the House before. His point is well made, and he is right to say that the situation is complex. I believe that that is understood in many of the countries of the United Nations and embraced by Kofi Annan’s plan. No one thinks that there is a simple, magic solution to this, which is why the deployment of monitors and the attempt to embark on a political process that will take account of all the relevant groups in Syria is the right way forward, rather than the violent overthrow of the regime or the violent suppression of the opposition. There is a great danger of the conflict spilling over into neighbouring countries, and the violence that we have seen in Tripoli in Lebanon in recent days is an example of that. The international community is reacting with an awareness of the complexity and dangers of the situation, and my right hon. Friend is quite right to point them out.
I was about to mention the situation in Bahrain. We welcome the fact that the Bahraini Government have committed themselves to a reform process. They have taken some positive steps, including the introduction of a police code of conduct, a special investigations unit and a media oversight body. They have also announced a review in a civilian court of the convictions of 20 activists, and we urge the court to take that forward urgently with due process and transparency. We continue to press the Bahraini Government about the welfare of the detainee Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and the need to find an urgent compassionate solution. We also urge the Government of Bahrain to implement the independent commission’s recommendations in full, including bringing to justice those responsible for human rights abuses, rebuilding the Shi’a mosques that were destroyed last year and integrating representatives from all communities into the security forces. We are ready to offer British support in areas such as judicial training and implementing international human rights law.
Despite the situation in Syria and the difficulties being faced by countries in transition, our Government remain on the optimistic side of the Arab spring. It represents the most significant opportunity for the advance of human rights and freedoms since the cold war, and we must, in general, give it our support. Yes, there are great difficulties and uncertainties in all those countries, but we should not lose sight of the great opportunity that the Arab spring represents. Libya, for example, is on course to stage its first democratic elections in 40 years this summer, and Egypt’s citizens are about to choose their next President in elections later this month. Countries such as Algeria, Jordan and Morocco have embarked on peaceful reform. Last year, the joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office-Department for International Development Arab partnership fund funded more than 50 projects in 11 countries in the region. This included grants to social entrepreneurs in Tunisia and help for civil society groups in Morocco, and we will continue to increase that help.
The events of the Arab spring make the need for a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict ever more pressing and urgent. A solution is urgently needed to give the Palestinian people the state that they need and deserve, and the Israeli people the security and peace that have eluded them for so long. We urge both sides to avoid any steps that could undermine the prospects for peace, whether rocket fire from Gaza or decisions by Israel to legalise settlement outposts.
I returned yesterday from a visit to Israel and the west bank. Can my right hon. Friend give me the details of any recent discussions he has had with the Israeli Government on the settlements, the security fence and, in particular, the condition of the prisoners who are on hunger strike?
Yes, I discussed all those issues with the new Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Mr Mofaz, when I called him last Friday to congratulate him on the new coalition in Israel. My hon. Friend will be aware that the issue of the hunger strike appears to have been settled yesterday, with important changes to the way in which the prisoners will be treated by the Israelis. That is welcome. I reiterated the long-held position across this House on settlements, and we have condemned recent settlement announcements. We have continued to urge both the Israeli Government and the Palestinians to enter negotiations under the auspices of the Quartet to work towards a two-state solution. The creation of a Government in Israel with a huge majority in the Knesset provides an unusual opportunity to take forward such negotiations.
I will not give way much more, as I am conscious of taking up a lot of the House’s time and I want to conclude my remarks.
Across the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, we are determined to improve our ability to take fast, appropriate and effective action to prevent conflict and to help build stability overseas—the last subject I want to address.
I shall give way just once more, in a few minutes’ time, so hon. Members should stand by!
The joint FCO, DFID and MOD conflict pool provided funding last year to strengthen the electoral process in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire and funded local conflict mitigation projects in Sudan and many other projects. We have established a new £20 million early action facility to enable a rapid response to crises, building on the example of the successful deployment of a stabilisation response team in Libya.
Let me proceed; otherwise, I will feel that I have detained the House too long.
We also held a highly successful London conference on Somalia, injecting new momentum into Somalia’s political process and setting out plans to strengthen support for the African Union mission in Somalia to help the country develop its own security forces, to help build security at a local level and to take effective action to tackle piracy and terrorism. We look forward to the follow-up conference in Istanbul later this month, which I will attend.
Elsewhere in Africa, we are very concerned by the rise in military tensions between Sudan and South Sudan. It would be catastrophic for both countries if this were to lead to serious conflict. We support the full implementation of the African Union’s action plan to resolve the crisis and the outstanding issues between Sudan and South Sudan.
My right hon. Friend is generous. He refers to the conflict between the north and south in Sudan, but this is not an equal match at all. It is the populations of the Nuba mountains who are being targeted by the Sudanese Government. Many of them are innocent people living in villages and there is not the slightest evidence of their participating in military activity. What are the Government doing to make it absolutely certain that the Sudanese Government know that they are condemned by all civilised people for their victimisation of the Nuba people in particular?
We are very clear about that, and we have been very clear with both Governments—in Khartoum and in Juba—about recent events. Frankly, both have been at fault in various ways. Our ambassador in Khartoum has been clear to the Sudanese, and I met a South Sudanese delegation here two weeks ago and was clear about the message. We agreed a common position of the whole United Nations Security Council, spelling out to both countries the consequences of conflict and the actions, including sanctions, that would be taken by the UN if they went further into conflict. That includes the issue that my hon. Friend talked about. I will give way one last time, but then I will conclude my speech.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, may I ask him why, in an eloquent speech that has lasted for 53 minutes, he has still said nothing about the risk to our security from climate change? It is not just me saying this. People from the UN downwards are saying that climate change poses a greater threat to our national security than terrorism or conflict. It is in the Government’s own security strategy, yet in 53 minutes we have still heard not a word about climate change. Is that because he does not think that it is a risk to our security?
No, not at all, and I thought I mentioned climate change earlier—unless I missed out that part of my speech. I am sorry, but it is not possible even in 53 minutes to do justice to every issue that every hon. Member wants to ask about, but that is why we have a debate—
Order. The Foreign Secretary has been on his feet for only 50 minutes.
I am most grateful, Mr Speaker, for that clarification. I will take a few minutes more. The hon. Lady can be absolutely assured—I am sure she knows—that we are strongly committed to international work on climate change. For example, when I visited Brazil a few months ago, I pursued our opportunity to work together on development and on climate change issues. Of all the Foreign Ministries in the world—
The Foreign Office is one of the best-equipped Foreign Ministries anywhere in the world to pursue climate change issues and to alter the views of other countries and Governments. I hope the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is now satisfied that we are very much committed to that.
We are also working with the Government of Nigeria on counter-terrorism policy, doctrine and legal frameworks, managing the consequences of attacks and addressing underlying grievances that leave communities vulnerable. We are increasingly concerned by the threat to the UK from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated groups in Africa, and a year on from the death of Osama bin Laden, and with al-Qaeda under pressure in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we are determined not to let it emerge in strength anywhere else. We continue to operate with Governments across the Sahel to try to reduce the threat from al-Qaeda.
This summer, we will celebrate Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee and welcome the world to London for the Olympic and Paralympic games. In the run-up to the games, we have already set an Olympic record: in an unprecedented show of support, all 193 UN member states co-sponsored the UN resolution for the Olympic truce. That was in itself an Olympian feat of diplomacy—it has never happened before—as well as a demonstration of our practical commitment to the peace-building ideals of the Olympic truce.
So, even in difficult times, it is right to be proud of our country and what it stands for in the world, and to be optimistic about our potential for the future. With our many great assets and advantages, our country’s approach to foreign policy must be one of confident advance and diplomatic expansion, not of a defensive crouch. We remain one of the very best places to visit, live, work, study, invest and do business, and the Olympic season will advertise that fact to an audience of 4 billion people around the world.
I believe we can forge new opportunities for our nation while standing up for human rights, development and freedom around the world, and this will be our approach over the coming year, dealing with urgent crises and challenges while working for the long-term future of our country and for a peaceful and stable world.
Order. I remind the House that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, but those contributions will be preceded by that of Mr Douglas Alexander.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the many Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, both at home and abroad. Their contribution is significant, their skills considerable and their efforts very much appreciated by Members on both sides of the House.
This debate takes place at a time when Britain’s influence in the world has rarely been more needed, but when threats to that influence are growing. We meet in the shadow of a Europe convulsed by a continuing currency, banking and economic crisis. We have seen changes in the Arab world that have brought down old orthodoxies, but which have thrown up new challenges that the global community still grapples with today. Also, as we have just heard, we witnessed the death of Osama bin Laden, which marked a decisive moment in the struggle against al-Qaeda, but also signalled the emergence of a new era, defined more by the events of 2011 in the middle east than 9/11.
Such dramatic events alone would be enough to shake the foundations of the global order in which we operate, but underlying these moments in history is a far deeper historical trend that we in this House would be irresponsible to ignore. In recent years, there has been an ever-accelerating movement of wealth and power from north to south, from west to east. It is unlikely that our generation will witness a more profound reordering of geo-economics, and, potentially, geo-politics, than the one currently under way. It means that today Britain risks becoming less relevant in the two key relationships that have for decades defined our place in the world: less relevant in a European Union that has focused on the crisis and consequences of a currency that the last Labour Government rightly decided not to join; and less relevant to a United States that is weary of 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and that is now consciously rebalancing its priorities and focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Yet at this time when our influence risks being undermined, this Government do not appear to have a compass by which to navigate the changes we are witnessing.
I say this with respect, but self-congratulation, schadenfreude and a hint of imperial delusion are not a recipe for a serious strategy in these troubled times. Only this morning, The Times quoted from a newly published report that sets out the Government’s failures in stark and graphic terms. The Atlantic Council report, compiled by some of today’s foremost foreign policy practitioners, offered a damning judgment on the incoherence that has marked this Government’s foreign policy. It stated that the
“coalition government has yet to develop a coherent strategic vision for the United Kingdom’s role in a changing global landscape…Aside from pursuing a policy of ‘commercial diplomacy’ and robust development assistance, British foreign policy vision and strategy remain unclear.”
Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to congratulate British business, whose exports were more than £50 billion extra last year, across 2011?
I am only too happy to congratulate and applaud British business, but if the hon. Gentleman is urging people to say the right thing to British business, he might direct his remarks to the Foreign Secretary, who chose to insult British business this weekend in
. If the hon. Gentleman wants a job in government, he should, to quote the Foreign Secretary, work a little harder.
This Government’s inadequate foreign policy approach is being exposed by analysts concerned by the path that the Government have chosen, as well as by events that the Government are unable either to navigate or to predict. They have sought a foreign policy of conscious minimalism and strategic shrinkage. They emphasise trade and bilateralism—we heard it again today—because a clear strategy of our interest is not being articulated and because of a limited ambition for what we, as a nation, can today hope to achieve. Such an approach risks our being left unprepared and ill equipped to face the new challenges that we may face in the coming years. Regrettably, we saw that in the Government’s approach to the strategic defence review, which was not anchored in any clear view of Britain’s role in the world and so left us with significant and, indeed, dangerous gaps in defence capability, which were all too quickly exposed in the Arab spring. This Government are careless about the influence of the United Kingdom and complacent about the risks to the United Kingdom.
Before I discuss the areas where our concerns are greatest, let me first generously acknowledge those areas where we are in agreement with the Government and there is common ground across the House. First, on Afghanistan, an issue that I will address in more detail shortly, we continue to support the mission and we will continue to seek a bipartisan approach as combat operations move towards their conclusion. I also, of course, echo the Foreign Secretary’s condolences to the families of the fallen.
On the issue of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, there is clear support on both sides of the House for the islanders’ right to self-determination, a principle set out in the United Nations charter and recognised in the Falkland Islands constitution. More broadly, we share the Government’s concerns about the continued repression of human rights in countries around the globe. Where those injustices continue, as in the case, as was mentioned, of Belarus, Burma, Russia and Colombia, the Government can rely on our full support in seeking to tackle them.
On Ukraine, the case of Yulia Tymoshenko casts a continuing shadow that country. The circumstances of her trial and the treatment she has received in custody are, of course, matters of grave concern. In light of that, can the Minister say what the British Government’s policy will be towards UK Ministers visiting Ukraine during the European football championships? On the accession of Croatia, we support the Government’s Bill. On Turkish accession to the European Union and on the recently negotiated French defence treaty, we also have a clear and bipartisan approach.
On the continuing combat operations in Afghanistan, we will discuss a number of countries in today’s debate, but only in one country are the best part of 10,000 British troops still in harm’s way. It is right that we take this opportunity to praise the professionalism, courage and sacrifice of our armed forces and of their families back home. Let me also pay tribute to our diplomats and aid workers, who, in challenging circumstances in Afghanistan, are doing truly outstanding and important work. The Prime Minister came to office promising that Afghanistan would be his No. 1 foreign policy priority, so why is it now 10 months since he made a parliamentary statement about the situation in Afghanistan?
We welcome the fact that the Government have been clear in their commitment to withdraw British combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but a strategy for withdrawal is just one element of what we need if we are to have an end state in Afghanistan to match an end date. To honour the sacrifices that have been made over the past decade, an exit strategy cannot afford to be all exit and no strategy. The coming days will see the NATO summit at Chicago, and as a bare minimum we suggest that it must have four key achievements. The first is a co-ordinated timetable for the withdrawal of NATO forces, a matter that the Foreign Secretary chose to glide over in his remarks about the summit. British troops are currently expected to stay in Afghanistan in a combat role until the end of 2014, the newly elected President of France has said that he wants all French troops to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year and the US Defence Secretary claims that American forces will end their combat role by mid 2013, so today there remains a very real risk of a disorderly rush for the exit as NATO countries announce unilateral and divergent withdrawal dates. I hope sincerely that that is addressed in Chicago.
Secondly, there needs to be a stable and sustainable funding arrangement for Afghan security forces, and I welcome what the Foreign Secretary had to say on that matter. Thirdly, more clarity is needed on the status of forces agreement required between Afghanistan and international forces in the country post-2014 draw-down. We welcome the signing of the strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan earlier this month, but many issues remain unresolved, not least the position of British forces. Fourthly, the summit must surely agree a new diplomatic effort to match the scale of the military sacrifice. We need a standing meeting of Foreign Ministers to lead on the political process and a serious attempt at closed-door diplomacy, even at this late hour, on the scale of Camp David, Sunningdale or Wye River. An inclusive political settlement is needed with the tribes in, and, of course, al-Qaeda out, and regional partners need to be engaged and involved.
When I met Prime Minister Gilani on his visit to London last week, it was clear that Pakistan, just like China, Russia, India, the central Asian republics and Iran, would be ill-served by a chaotic Afghanistan that is a stage for the kind of problems that were encountered following the departure of Soviet troops in the early 1980s. It is now apparent, however, that Pakistan will not even be present at the coming Chicago meeting. Will the Minister tell us what actions the British Government are taking to get relations with Pakistan and key members of the international community on a better and more sustainable footing?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the international community comes together at next week’s Chicago summit to discuss the future of Afghanistan, it should also discuss the issue of women in Afghanistan? A recent survey by ActionAid showed the concern that many women still have about their futures once NATO troops leave.
I am happy to give the assurance that my hon. Friend is looking for. Indeed, she anticipates what I was about to say. The gains that have been made by many Afghan civilians, particularly women, as regards their political rights, access to health and education and basic human rights are significant, of course, yet any of us familiar with that country knows how fragile those rights are, particularly for women and girls. I hope that the Minister will set out what steps are being taken at Chicago to ensure that the process is embedded, not eroded, in the coming years.
If that is the case, I welcome it. Of course, Pakistan is not a member of NATO, but anyone who is familiar with the challenge of trying to secure an end state as well as an end date in Afghanistan knows that Pakistan will have a key role to play. As well as attendance rates at the NATO summit in Chicago, land transportation for ISAF forces is an issue. In recent weeks, there has been a significant issue with the ability of land convoys to supply troops. If attendance has now been secured by the US Department of State that will anticipate further changes in Pakistan’s attitude to supply lines coming into Afghanistan.
All of us who have engaged with such issues will know that there is neither a military-only nor a development-only solution to the challenges faced by Afghanistan. Only politics can complete the bridge between where Afghanistan is and where we need it to be by the time of the NATO transition. We have heard too little on that matter from the Government today and over recent months.
It is not the Labour party’s position that troops should be withdrawn by the end of this year. We want a co-ordinated approach. I understand that the discussions within NATO reflect the fact that some countries have already unilaterally announced that they are going to withdraw, with France saying that it will withdraw troops by the end of this year, the Americans talking about the end of the 2013 fighting season and the British Government holding to the position of having a NATO transition by the end of 2014. I hope that there will be greater clarity on taking a genuinely co-ordinated approach because if one has the opportunity to see, as I have, the work that British troops are doing in Helmand, it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which American combat operations could cease in July, August or September of 2013 and Britain could maintain its current presence in central Helmand after that.
In the same way that we have been able to benefit from a strong bipartisan approach to the Government’s conduct in relation to Libya, I hope that we can continue to speak with one voice in the House on Iran, about which the Foreign Secretary said more this afternoon. The threat that Iran poses to Israel, to the wider stability of the region and to international security as a whole is real and deeply concerning, and it warrants urgent and concerted diplomatic efforts. We are clear that our objective in Iran is a change of policy, not a change of regime, and we support the steps taken by the Government to introduce and impose strict sanctions on the regime. However, I would welcome more clarification from the Minister in summing up than the Foreign Secretary was able to offer on the issue of providing insurance for ships carrying Iranian oil. There were many words, but not many answers. Given the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, I think that oil prices are a material consideration in determining the timing on when Britain chooses to impose sanctions on Iran. I would be very grateful if the Minister could confirm where the balance of authority on this lies within Government and whether this is a decision being led by the Treasury or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because many allies and many in the international community will have been troubled by the Foreign Secretary’s remarks. If some of the reports—they are only reports—are to be believed that Britain is one of the back markers and that this is being driven by a view from within the Treasury, that would be of great concern to Members on both sides of the House.
More broadly, we all welcome the fact that the next meeting of the international community—the P5 plus 1 process—will take place in Baghdad on
A negotiation path has now been opened up and the UK has a key role to play within it, but as surely as the temperature on this issue has dropped in recent weeks, so it could rise again in coming weeks. There may well be voices claiming that negotiations have stalled and that military action is therefore required immediately. Will the Minister assure the House that Britain will be unyielding in its commitment to advancing the case for negotiations as a diplomatic settlement in the immediate months ahead? To assist the negotiations, all options must remain on the table, but we are firm in our view that this opportunity must be seized by all sides so that military action can be avoided.
Let me address the pressing issue of Europe and the eurozone crisis.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on, may I ask him about Zimbabwe? I wanted to ask the Foreign Secretary about this, but he
did not give way. If we had been having this debate two years ago, the Foreign Secretary would have mentioned Zimbabwe. I think that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Bellingham, who is responsible for Africa, has done a very good job, but should not the Secretary of State be saying how he is going to ensure that pressure is put on South Africa to continue the work needed to get a global political agreement brought to fruition and get Zimbabwe back to being a fully democratic country?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the salience of Zimbabwe. In that, of course, we are as one. I had the opportunity in recent weeks to meet Morgan Tsvangirai when he visited the United Kingdom and was able to emphasise on behalf of my party our continuing interest, concern and deep worries about some of the developments that endure within Zimbabwe. When I was in the Foreign Office and had the opportunity to meet Morgan Tsvangirai long before he took office in the Zimbabwean Government, there was a constant tension between Britain’s capacity to make public statements and its capacity to exercise private influence in relation to the South Africans. The Minister may be able to comment on that. We were constantly aware that if we made some of the statements that we were minded to make in relation to Zimbabwe, we were vulnerable to their being used to offer succour, encouragement and a propaganda advantage to Mugabe. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the Government are following a path of quiet diplomacy and making sure that the regional leaders who bear a heavy responsibility—principally South Africa, as my hon. Friend suggests—recognise their heavy responsibility as we anticipate the potential for further violence and intimidation ahead of further elections in the country.
On the pressing issue of Europe and the eurozone crisis, there are many in the House who would like any discussion of Europe to focus on the question of an in/out referendum. If we are to believe the blogs and the briefings, our part-time Chancellor of the Exchequer is spending more time considering the electoral implications of such an approach than he appears to be spending on helping to solve the eurozone crisis that is engulfing parts of the continent. Let me be very clear about this. Opposition Members believe that Britain should now be focused on jobs and growth and leading the recovery in Europe so that many millions of British jobs that depend on Europe are secured, even in these turbulent times.
Within the eurozone itself, forecasters are predicting that Spain, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Belgium would all miss the EU deficit target next year, as well as Ireland, Greece and Portugal, which are not expected to be able to comply with the terms of the EU bail-out programmes. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting shrinking economies and rising debt. No wonder firms are reluctant to invest, with such bleak prospects. An austerity-only economics—the voodoo economics of our time—driven by 23 out of the 29 Governments of Europe being held by the centre right, has been shown to have failed both here at home and abroad in Europe, yet have this Government shown themselves to be worthy of this moment? I would argue, far from it.
When British exporters and firms desperately need influence, the Prime Minister last December chose isolation instead. Why did he make that choice? Perhaps he was following the advice that was attributed to the Foreign Secretary on the eve of that fateful summit:
But at what cost has this political party bargain been struck? They claim that they used their veto to stop a treaty that would harm British interests, but even the Deputy Prime Minister, who is not present in the House today, begged to differ. He said:
“The language gets confusing. Veto suggests something was stopped. It was not stopped.”
What of the so-called protections that the Government secured for British jobs and for British business? The Foreign Secretary was totally silent today on the fact that not one of the measures included in the fiscal compact would have applied to Britain, and still the Government are unable to point to a single extra protection that their so-called veto managed to secure for Britain’s financial services. But he need not take our word for it. It was no less than Lord Heseltine who summed it up so well in the week of the summit when he stated, “You can’t protect the interests of the City by floating off into the middle of the Atlantic.” We now know that this is not a Tory party following in the tradition of Macmillan, who applied to join the EEC; of Heath, who took us into Europe; of Thatcher, who signed the Single European Act; or of Major, who signed the Maastricht treaty. This is a Conservative party being followed and not being led by those on the Government Front Bench.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when he was Minister for Europe in the last Government he gave away £7 billion at the last European Union budget negotiations? Does he not accept that it is rather difficult to take him seriously when it comes to negotiations with Europe?
I am flattered and touched by the interest that the hon. Gentleman takes in my record as Minister for Europe. If he had been in the House at the time, he would have known that there was broad bipartisan support for the accession of the eastern European countries to the EU. If he is respectfully suggesting, seven years on, that somehow there would not be consequences for the European budget from the accession of 10 former eastern European countries, I would respectfully differ. If he wants a job for reading out the Whips’ briefing, he has to work a little harder than that.
What we managed, which most people would recognise, was the successful integration of 10 former eastern European countries into the world’s largest single market. There were also some changes in the common agricultural policy in 2008, which followed as a consequence of the budget deal that was struck in December 2005. But, as I say, it is simply an attempt to rewrite history for Government Members to suggest that there would never be consequences for Europe’s budget from the inclusion of 10 former eastern European countries.
I think I am with my right hon. Friend in all of his remarks. Perhaps I shall write to him on the final phrase of his intervention.
In all seriousness, isolation can sometimes be a price worth paying for getting one’s own way in international affairs, but isolation achieving only defeat is surely unforgiveable. Even at this late stage, the Government must set out what steps they will take to ensure that real and urgent progress is being made at this month’s EU Council meeting. Alongside the welcome measures—
Indeed. On a positive note, it is certain that at least one member of the eurozone, and almost certainly several others, are about to recreate their own national currencies. Given that we sensibly have our own national currency, is there not a good case for us building strong relationships with these countries with their new national currencies? We could work with them to mutual benefit and help them in their difficulties.
There is a rare moment of unity between myself and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in saying that I am not sure it is entirely wise to speculate today about which countries have a future within the eurozone. But I would certainly concur with my hon. Friend’s point that the Labour Government did make the right choice in saying that the economics did not make the case for Britain entering the euro. I know that it was the present Foreign Secretary who argued that we had 24 hours to save the pound. I checked, and I think we have had 90,192 hours since he made those remarks, and as far as I am aware, we all still have a pound in our pocket, thanks to the actions of 13 years of a Labour Government and a little time from the Conservatives thereafter.
I have been generous and I am keen to make a little progress.
Alongside the welcome measures set out in the Bill to allow for the establishment of a eurozone-only bail-out fund, further steps are needed if we are to have hope of a genuine recovery in Europe, including a real capital lift for the European Investment Bank, new infrastructure bonds and a comprehensive review of how EU structural funds operate.
Before I leave the subject of Europe, let me ask the Foreign Secretary another question that curiously he omitted from his lengthy remarks today. The Government defined themselves in opposition and in the early days of government by their commitment to publish a White Paper on the repatriation of powers from the EU back to Britain. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary will update the House on when we can expect that White Paper to be published. With great flourish, he announced another White Paper was due to be published on the overseas territories, but he curiously omitted any mention of a White Paper in relation to repatriation. The last time he mentioned it in the House was November 2011, when, in a written answer to me in February, he said:
“The Government’s stated intention is to examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences. That review does not have a pre-determined outcome.”—[Hansard, 9 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 366W.]
Can he at least confirm to the House whether it has a pre-determined time frame? I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will be able to share that information with the House.
If there is one example of where the European Union could serve to amplify Britain’s voice and maximise our influence, surely it is in the middle east and north Africa in the wake of the extraordinary events we have witnessed over the past 18 months. In the early part of last year we saw protests spread, from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east, with the success of one set of demonstrators giving energy and inspiration to others. But the Arab spring has not been uniform in its impact, and nor are its outcomes guaranteed. We see continuing and very different challenges in countries as diverse as Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. In the case of Syria, I can assure the House that there is bipartisan support for the continued efforts the Foreign Secretary spoke of to stop the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on its own people.
At a time when the waves of change are sweeping through the region, it is surely a matter of deep regret to us all that progress on the negotiations in Israel and the Palestinian territories remains frozen. Our shared goal across the House is to secure a universally recognised Israel living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state. The international community and the majority of Israelis and Palestinians share a common view of what the principles of a final agreement should be based upon: land swaps around the 1967 borders, Jerusalem as a shared capital, and a fair settlement for refugees.
Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that Prime Minister Netanyahu has once again refused to countenance a settlement freeze as a precondition for opening negotiations? Does he accept that while settlements are being built there are unlikely to be meaningful negotiations?
Of course I regret continued settlement building, because the position of the previous Government and, to be fair, that of the present Government are the same: settlement building in the occupied territories is illegal. That is why it was a matter of some pride that, when Secretary of State for International Development, I was able to commit funds to the Palestinian Authority to allow them to map the settlements themselves so that in the subsequent negotiations—alas, we are still waiting for them—there would be documentation allowing justice to be achieved and a proper settlement to be secured. It is a matter of regret, which I am sure is shared on both sides of the House, that so little tangible progress has been made in that regard. Progress seems to have stalled and efforts are needed to reinvigorate it.
I think that we all agree that a two-state solution is the answer, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that leading conflict resolution experts from Israel who are trying to come to the UK to promote a two-state solution, such as Dr Moti Cristal, are being denied a voice by certain organisations in the UK? Will he condemn that?
I am not familiar with the specific case of which my hon. Friend speaks, but I am clear that I do not regard boycotts on the basis of nationality as in any way constructive or helpful in achieving the two-state solution that we all want to see. That, in part, informed the position we took on the issue of universal jurisdiction when it came before the House, because surely we cannot be in a position in which those parties that are committed to a two-state solution are physically barred from countries and so are unable to enter them and facilitate that dialogue and those discussions. I will be very clear that those who continue to argue that the way forward is to seek to isolate and somehow delegitimise the state of Israel, whatever political party or organisation in the United Kingdom they are in, do a disservice to the pursuit of peace, and the absence of hope about those negotiations is one of the greatest threats to seeing and securing them.
When I put this question to the Foreign Secretary he dodged it and said that he would address the issue later in his speech. What is your view on the use of EU grants by businesses in the illegal settlements in the west bank? Do you not agree that those grants should be stopped once and for all?
Order. I am sure that you will not presume to speak for me, Mr Alexander. I think that Alex Cunningham was asking you for your view, not mine, and when you answer him will you make sure that you address the whole Chamber? Thank you.
Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. I listened with interest to my hon. Friend’s question. I am not familiar with the grant of which he speaks, given that the principal EU grants I encountered when in government, as I recollect clearly, both related to the EU Co-ordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support and provided facilities, training and support for the Palestinian Authority to develop their own security capability, something that has been one of the glimmers of light in the enveloping darkness of recent years. Significant support has also been provided for economic development in the west bank. Alas, that has not proved possible in relation to Gaza, because of the continuing security blockade there, but there has been real economic development that has been secured in part thanks to EU funding.
I find myself echoing the spirit of the Foreign Secretary’s words on that point. Of course, all of us must hope that as broad a degree of support as Prime Minister Netanyahu has now secured in the Knesset can be the foundation on which he takes steps that he has previously chosen not to take.
There needs to be engagement from both sides on the way forward, but I have listened carefully to, and read with interest, the remarks about the opportunity that the inclusion of Kadima members of the Knesset affords the Prime Minister, and I sincerely and genuinely hope that he takes that opportunity, because honestly, as someone who for many years has advocated a two-state solution, I am concerned that time is not on our side.
This situation represents perhaps the greatest diplomatic failure that we have seen in the middle east for many decades, and I am deeply concerned by the number of voices now being heard in the region itself, arguing that a two-state solution is no longer feasible. In that sense, all of us who remain resolute in our view that a two-state solution is the way forward have to ensure, through whatever channels are available to us, that a real sense of urgency is brought to the need to create an effective and credible re-engagement in negotiations.
When we speak in this House of a middle east peace process, we are in denial of the fact that meaningful negotiations are not happening, so I very much hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu, Abu Mazen and others will seize the opportunity afforded by the new Government to advance negotiations.
To take my right hon. Friend back to the issue of European trade with Israel, does he agree that it would be completely inappropriate to upgrade the EU-Israel trade agreement while Israel continues its settlement policy and the imprisonment of Palestinians, and that there should be no stealth by which any other agreement opens up European markets to, for example, Israeli pharmaceutical companies and others, given that it would undermine the whole resolve behind trying to enforce human rights through the EU-Israel trade agreement?
I have just spoken of the important role that economic development can play on the west bank, and I genuinely believe that, if we are to offer young Palestinians hope and an opportunity to renounce violence and to build a better future for themselves, economic development and trade will have a key role to play. It would therefore be difficult to argue that part of the solution to the conflict is to encourage development on one side of it while on the other hand saying that the way to secure an advance in the peace process is to deliver greater isolation to the Israelis. Instead, we have to say, “How do we use what political pressure we can to encourage both sides to seize the moment and to recognise,” as I have said, “that time is not on our side?”
Let me turn briefly to an issue that my shadow ministerial colleague and hon. Friend Mr Lewis will address more extensively in his closing remarks this evening. As a previous Secretary of State for International Development, I know the vital role that aid plays in embodying the values of this country, as well as in securing and protecting our vital interests. That is why I regret the fact that the Government have broken yet another promise by failing to include in this year’s Queen’s Speech legislation on the 0.7% target, despite promising to do so in both the Tory election manifesto and, indeed, in the coalition agreement.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point. Was he not a little surprised, as I was, that the Foreign Secretary, during his rather long speech, could not say a few kind words about his colleague the Secretary of State for International Development, and even more so that the Foreign Secretary failed to explain this very important omission of something that we know has been dear to the heart of the International Development Secretary, namely introducing legislation on the 0.7% target?
I am entirely in favour of people being very nice about past and present Secretaries of State for International Development, and in that sense it was a curious omission, given the close friendship that the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary enjoy and their close working relationship, which I hope is of genuine benefit to the United Kingdom.
Today’s foreign policy environment poses grave challenges to this country that are hard to resolve but even more difficult, at times, to predict. It is true, as the Foreign Secretary said, that the United Kingdom has significant strategic and economic interests that are dependent on engaging and influencing countries that vastly outstrip us in terms of population, natural resources or the scale of their militaries. However, I would argue—I think that this is a divergence of views between those on both Front Benches—that bilateral relationships can take our country only so far. We need a coherent approach to conducting multilateral foreign policy in an increasingly multi-polar world, and yet this is where the Government’s current approach is surely falling short, at least on the basis of the speech that we have heard today, in lacking any real defined strategy for demonstrating leadership at a multilateral level.
The threats that we in the United Kingdom face today transcend borders—threats to do with global security, climate change, terrorism, and food and water supplies—and they all require international co-operation to an extent that was not previously required. Later this week, as leaders of the G8 meet at Camp David, they will be contemplating the need for international consensus in the face of many of these global challenges. Co-operation requires leadership, and yet we heard little from the Foreign Secretary about what this Government hope to achieve and plan to deliver as a result of the G8 summit that is only a few days away, and even less about what their agenda will be when they take the leadership of that grouping in 2013.
Before the shadow Secretary of State leaves the question of strategy, will he at least acknowledge the excellent work of the stabilisation unit in many parts of the world today, and the role of the building stability overseas strategy, which is widely acknowledged as something that we can all support? It is setting very high standards and giving the UK some credit in many places where there has been conflict.
I am entirely in favour of the stabilisation unit, and I am always happy to pay tribute to the Government when they continue a successful policy that was begun under the previous Labour Government.
On all these multilateral fronts, the Government are failing to meet the demands of the moment. It was a genuine disappointment that no leadership role was set out as regards the G8 meeting later this week, and that we heard nothing about the 2013 meeting of that grouping. Nor has any clear strategy been set out for the forthcoming G20 meeting that takes place next month. There was no mention of how the Government intend to try to engage in the World Trade Organisation talks, despite the fact that if we were to see progress in the WTO, that would surely offer a shot in the arm for the global economy at a time when that is vital. There is a continued failure to set out the steps that the Government need to take to ensure that the NATO summit does not merely deal with the build-up of the Afghan forces but ensures the far more comprehensive political settlement that is required. In relation to Europe, where we have a responsibility to help to lead and shape the agenda because of its impact on British jobs, British manufacturers and British firms, the Government seem content with isolation at the expense of Britain’s influence and interests.
At a time of great risks and peril, Britain deserves better. Impotence, not splendour, is the consequence of isolation in today’s world. The price, I fear, will be paid in British jobs, British growth and British leadership. We need leadership worthy of these troubled and challenging times.
Mr Alexander sees an expansion of diplomatic posts and embassies abroad and draws the lesson that ambition is contracting. Only he, who was party to an illegal invasion of Iraq, could talk about this Government’s imperial delusions. He made a particularly chippy and mean-spirited speech; I have come to expect better from him.
I want to touch on four topics in the brief time available: Iran, the events of the Arab spring in the middle east and north Africa, the current events in the horn of Africa, and Syria. First, however, I should like to welcome the Government’s commitment to delivering 0.7% of gross national income to people much less fortunate than ourselves around the world. Indeed, this coalition Government are the first Government in history to set out in black and white in their spending review, as reconfirmed last month in the Budget, that we will be giving less than 1p in every pound to help some of the poorest people around the world.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the UK has still not delivered on that commitment, given that it signed up to it at the United Nations 40 years ago?
I was just explaining that the coalition Government are delivering on that commitment. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have had the good grace to welcome that.
What will that commitment mean? It will mean that 11 million children will start going to school and that 55 million children will be vaccinated against preventable diseases, and it will prevent 250,000 babies from dying of preventable diseases each year. It is a welcome step forward.
The situation with Iran poses a real and present danger to international order. It is right that the UK is committed to supporting, strengthening and extending the rules-based international system of counter-proliferation treaties, regimes and organisations that underpins global security and prosperity. We must continue to take practical steps towards those objectives, including by redoubling our efforts to find a peaceful solution with Iran.
I and my hon. Friends have serious concerns about Iran’s expansion of its near 20% enriched uranium production. In March, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran had rapidly expanded its production of that material. We know that Iran has no civilian use for such significant quantities, so that step should alarm all parts of the House. That is why I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that the UK will continue to approach the E3 plus 3 talks with Iran determined and committed to finding a peaceful negotiated solution to the nuclear issue. I hope, along with other Members, that progress will be made at the next round of talks in Baghdad next week. The House needs to see urgent, practical steps to build confidence that Iran will meet its international obligations and that it does not intend to build a nuclear weapon. The dual process of pressure in the form of robust sanctions and engagement through dialogue offers the best chance of success.
I say to the Foreign Secretary that we have to consider the worst-case scenario. I hope that the Government have a clear, agreed and consistent line in response to aggression from any side. When the phone rings at 4 am, we must know how we will respond to different circumstances and there must be an agreed response across Government. The language in that response could be pivotal in setting the tone for the development of any conflict in the region. We must ensure that all parts of the Government sing from the same hymn sheet. I seek his reassurance that that process is under way behind closed doors.
Much of the discussion on the Arab spring today has focused on the political dimension. I have said before that it is right for us to stand with the people in these countries who are seeking nothing more than self-determination. We cannot underestimate the extent of change in the region—it has been dramatic. Four long-ruling leaders have been ousted in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. There is reform in Jordan and Morocco. Syria, however, seems to be in the midst of an horrific civil war. I will make further remarks on that later.
As well as extending the benefits of political pluralism to that region, it must be the Government’s aim to extend to it the benefits of economic pluralism. A failure to change the economic prospects of the people of that region would risk limiting the extent of the political change. A new concerted approach to the region would help to cement the changes that we have seen, while helping to drive Europe out of the economic doldrums. If our Government and others fail to help the new Administrations in that region to confront their structural economic problems, it will be all the harder to address the public’s core concerns about jobs and social advancement.
Far from helping in economic matters, the Arab spring has damaged the region’s economy. Growth in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia is flat or negative, while Morocco and Jordan are growing only slowly. Tourism in those countries is down by between a third and a half, and foreign direct investment is also down. Overall, the Arab spring is estimated to have cost those countries combined almost $100 billion. I urge the Government to redouble their efforts to help those nations reform the structural weaknesses in their economies by examining their tax systems, introducing banking reform and significant banking competition, tackling corruption in their states and introducing greater transparency.
In those respects, I welcome the Arab Partnership, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary described. It is good news that its funding was expanded last May to £110 million, but the partnership is such an important step in cementing the changes in the region and delivering better prospects for its people that I ask the Government to consider whether more funds can be made available.
We also have to make our own markets more open to goods from the region. The EU’s Barcelona process once promised the creation of a free trade zone in the wider Mediterranean region, but it has sadly disappointed. Overall, the European approach remains fundamentally bilateral. Real economic dynamism demands a more extensive region-to-region approach. I welcome the European Commission plan, set out in September, to start free trade talks with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, and I urge our Government to remain committed to delivering that process. The prize for us here, and for all of Europe, is a peaceful, stable and economically prosperous region that boosts our trade, delivers growth domestically and helps to secure our borders. That is a prize worth fighting for.
I turn to today’s events in the horn of Africa. We would all agree that instability there has had a devastating effect on the region and its people. There has been famine, fighting and considerable public displacement, which clearly affect British commercial interests and those of other nations around the world. Today’s step of striking at the pirates’ land bases is a welcome step forward and a proportionate and considered response to an ongoing serious problem. More than 400 vessels have been attacked and more than 100 hijacked by pirates, so the current situation is unsustainable. It will require a twin process of sorting out the conditions in Somalia itself and dealing with the symptoms of piracy.
Finally, I turn to Syria. I share the frustration of every right hon. and hon. Member at the fact that we continue to see scenes of utter barbarism on our television screens each evening. I absolutely support the Foreign Secretary when he says that the British Government’s response must be to work with Kofi Annan and the Arab League on ensuring that there is a diplomatic solution and that the six-point plan is delivered. I think
I speak for many hon. Members, and many people in the country, who see the scenes on their TV screens each night and demand that we do more to help innocent people who are fundamentally only standing up for their right of self-determination.
I apologise to the House for the fact that, because of a pre-arranged engagement, I will not be able to stay for the wind-ups.
I have just returned from Palestine, where I went with a number of colleagues as part of a delegation from the all-party Palestine group and the Council for Arab-British Understanding, for which I will of course make an entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. We saw much that gave rise to great concern, but time does not permit me to speak about the expansion of settlements, the land grabs, the house demolitions and the wall. Today, I want to touch on how Israeli justice is administered in Palestine.
No one disputes Israel’s right to protect its citizens and to arrest, try and imprison criminals and terrorists, but the rule of law must prevail, and I have no doubt that it does within Israel itself. However, that cannot be said to be true of justice within Palestine. Since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967, Palestinians have been charged with offences under military law and tried in military Israeli courts. Around 4,800 Palestinians are in prison today. Until yesterday, more than a third were on hunger strike.
The mass protest began on
Yesterday, as the Foreign Secretary said, the strike ended. Following Egyptian mediation, Israel delivered significant concessions. Solitary confinement is to end, and 400 prisoners from Gaza are to be allowed family visits. Significantly, those prisoners who are held without charge or trial will not have their terms automatically renewed, as was common practice. Instead, fresh evidence and information will have to be brought before a military court. In return, the prisoners have agreed that they will end any
“terrorist activity inside Israeli jails”.
I want to draw hope from that development, but it comes against a background of increasing despair. Despite the Palestinian Authority’s considerable achievements in demonstrating its preparedness for statehood, no peace talks have been reconvened.
Instead, the pressure of occupation increases, relentlessly pressing down on every aspect of Palestinian existence. Nowhere is that more poignant than in the treatment of children—those who throw stones at the wall, at passing military vehicles, at the symbols of their oppressors. For those offences, children as young as 12 are arrested, taken from their homes in night raids, interrogated with no parent or lawyer present, tried in military courts and imprisoned in Israeli jails, where their families cannot visit them.
Defence for Children International recently published research using the testimonies of more than 300 children. Harriet Sherwood has written extensively on the subject in The Guardian. However, no amount of reading can prepare anyone for the actual sight of children in the military court, or for meeting the families of those who have experienced the system.
Last week, I visited Ofer military court. The proceedings were chaotic. Several children were brought into the court at the same time. They were handcuffed together and their legs were shackled. They immediately looked around for their families and started to try to communicate with them across the courtroom. It was clear that no one took the court seriously, with deals being openly struck to plead guilty rather than mount a defence.
We saw the sentencing of one 16-year-old, a small nervous boy accused of stone throwing, car damage and making two petrol bombs. Asked by the judge whether the accusations were true, he looked utterly bewildered, and looked to his family for help. His lawyer was doing a deal and told him to say yes. He had already served four months; he got a further 20 months.
We got a further insight into the treatment of children by the military when we visited Beit Ummar, halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron. Every Saturday, the residents hold a peaceful protest near the settlement of Karmi Zur against being denied access to their agricultural land.
We met Hamda, whose husband is a member of the committee that organises the protest. She told us about the treatment of her son, Yusef, who was first arrested and imprisoned when he was 12, and has been jailed three times since. On the last occasion, the soldiers came for him at 1.30 am. They surrounded the house and banged on the door, their faces masked. They tied Yusef’s hands behind his back, made him lie face down, and then hit and kicked him. As he screamed in pain, his mother attempted to go to him, only to be hit in the chest with the butt of a gun, which fractured her rib. Yusef was blindfolded and led away. The family was forced back indoors, and the departing soldiers threw tear gas canisters into the house.
Hamda’s story is typical of those documented by DCI. Following terrifying night raids, children are taken to police stations, often on local settlements. The transfer process to the interrogation centre is often lengthy and may involve further ill treatment. At the centre, children are questioned alone and rarely informed of their rights. The interrogation techniques frequently include a mix of intimidation, threat and physical violence, with the clear purpose of obtaining a confession. Once the interrogation stage is concluded, the majority of children remain in pre-trial detention, awaiting their prosecution. The primary evidence against most children will either be their own confession or that of another child. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the children will plead guilty whether they are or not. They just want to get out of the system. The conviction rate is over 99%.
Clearly, I do not know whether Hamda’s 16-year-old son, who has been in prison for the past three weeks awaiting trial for stone throwing, did it or not, and I do not know whether Yusef, now 19, was guilty on four occasions, but I do know that the father of the family has repeatedly protested against the settlement that has taken their land and that the family feel they are being targeted. I also know that young Palestinian boys and men must feel a constant sense of humiliation and frustration.
But whether they are guilty or not, the issue is one of justice. Israel is in breach of several international conventions in the actions it is taking. DCI recommends minimum standards to ensure that no child is interrogated in the absence of a lawyer of their choice and a family member; that all interrogations are audio-visually recorded; that all evidence suspected of being obtained through ill treatment or torture be rejected by the military courts; and that all credible allegations of ill treatment and torture be thoroughly and impartially investigated and those found responsible for such abuse brought to justice.
I urge Ministers to raise these issues with their Israeli counterparts and to monitor the effect of the promise of no more automatic renewal of administrative orders when they expire.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I did not want to interrupt her, because she was making such a powerful case. What more does she think the Government can do? As someone who has campaigned for the suspension of the EU-Israel association agreement, I wanted to ask her about that, because it is one of the very few tools we have. The agreement has a human rights clause. It seems incredibly ironic that we are not using the one tool we have. Does she agree that the UK Government could do more to persuade our EU counterparts to do that?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution, and I agree with her. I want to end on this note about what more can be done. We cannot stand aside and fail to use whatever tools are at our disposal. We have a responsibility. We are all signed up to the human rights convention, and what is going on is an absolute denial of human rights.
I urge the Government to take up these issues, but also to monitor the effect of the promise of no more automatic renewal of administrative orders when they expire. Most of the 27 Palestinian MPs in Israeli prisons are being held without charge. They should be released immediately. Yesterday, the EU Foreign Affairs Council issued a strong statement in support of Palestinians and renewed talks. I am quite sure that the Foreign Secretary contributed positively to that statement, but statements cannot address the crisis in Palestine. The international community must find the will to get peace talks started again on the two-state solution.
When we asked Hamda, the mother to whom I referred, what she thought of the future, she said, “There is no future for my sons.” We must not allow that to be the case.
In the time available, I would like to focus on two areas: the situation in Iran and the international development aid budget.
I want to highlight the huge importance of the E3 plus 3 talks that are taking place in Baghdad on
Many have said that we should leave things be—that this is another area that we should not get involved in. As a parliamentarian, I have a commitment, along with everybody else in this Chamber, to ensure the best interests of the UK; as a constituency MP, I have a duty to protect my constituents’ standards of living from the knock-on effects that international events can have. Hand in hand, those two points show the importance of negotiations, however protracted and however frustrating. We must work within the organisations that are out there. As Churchill said,
“To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.”
We saw with the Iraq conflict, almost a decade ago now, the serious consequences that impatience with the diplomatic process can lead to. As I outlined in an intervention on the Foreign Secretary earlier, we must use Russia and China in the best possible way to help get the negotiations that we hope to achieve with Iran.
But what if Iran moved towards having the bomb? Some people say, “Let’s not intervene—let them have the bomb.” Would the Iranians use it? I doubt it. However, returning to the fundamental point about protecting innocent lives, I do not believe that Iran would have to drop the bomb to make a fundamental difference to the balance in the middle east or, indeed, to cause uprisings and conflict elsewhere in the middle east, with the idea of a nuclear-armed Iranian Government behind them. We have seen proxy wars take place in the middle east as recently as last year. The Arab spring uprising in Bahrain quickly became a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. What were the consequences of that? We saw many innocent people lose their lives. They were trying to protest for greater freedoms in their own country, but they got drawn into a bigger conflict between a Shi’a Government and a Sunni Government, who fought their proxy war through those people. That is the point I want to highlight to the House. We are simply not in a position to take no action at all; however, we must make every effort possible to ensure that we remove the threat, but through peaceful negotiations.
I also made the point that one of our jobs in this place is to protect the standard of living in this country, for our constituents as much as for anything else. The fact is that a major conflict in the middle east would lead to a devastating rise in the price of oil. If a war or even a stand-off took place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and if traffic were limited in the strait of Hormuz to ensure that shipping did not go to either country, we might then look on petrol at £1.50 a litre as the good old days. The price could literally double in price overnight, which would have a terrible effect on our constituents.
My hon. Friend mentioned the conflict in Bahrain. Does he share my concern that Iran was partly responsible for intervening and trying to destabilise the existing regime there?
Yes, I absolutely agree. Indeed, that was the point I was trying to make about what would happen if Iran went down the road and became a nuclear-armed country, because where else does its influence lie in the middle east? It lies with Hezbollah, certainly, and there is even evidence coming forward about some of the military equipment finding its way to Hamas. My point is simply this. We cannot just make the argument in foreign affairs that says, “Let’s not take any military action against Iran because we don’t want to cause the deaths of innocent people.” I absolutely support that point; but we also need to ensure that negotiations work, and that is why we should be involved, because we could cause the death of innocent people by doing nothing. Those proxy wars are important.
I am worried about the rhetoric on military action against Iran that was coming out three months ago. If we were to take such action, what would happen? Another western-led invasion of middle eastern land would certainly serve as a recruitment tool. Such action would also lead to the deaths of innocent people, not only those who were under the bombs when they landed, but those whose infrastructure we would probably take out along the way as part of any military campaign, leading to a degradation of the standard of living of those people. Indeed, tens of thousands of people have died in Iraq as a result of the loss of such infrastructure. Negotiations are absolutely vital, and we must ensure that we use the support of Russia and China to make a deep impact on Iran.
Moving on to international aid, there is a lot of criticism in the country at large about retaining our aim to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international aid. People say that we cannot afford it, but one of the great advantages of having a statement of how our taxes are spent would be that they would be able to see that the proportion being spent on international aid is actually tiny. I do not care if I get criticism from some of my constituents for saying that this is a moral, Christian obligation that we have to carry out and achieve. We simply cannot stand by and let innocent people die through a lack of the most basic infrastructure.
The problem with the international aid budget related to where the money was going before, but the actions taken by the Secretary of State in the first two years of this Parliament have gone a long way to restoring people’s faith in the process. Some £100 million-worth of projects in 16 countries have been closed because they were not delivering and the funds were not getting to where they were needed. Money is no longer going to countries such as Russia and China that have developed and moved forward. I can look my constituents in the eye when they say, “You’re just giving money to Robert Mugabe”, and tell them that that is exactly what we are not doing. The money that we spend on international development is going to ensure that the lives of people in the developing countries get better.
I ask hon. Members this question: if we had spent millions of pounds in 1990, when the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan, to ensure stability in that country, would we now be spending billions of pounds and suffering the loss of more than 400 of our servicemen trying to defend the area? I do not believe that we would; the investment that we make in international aid and development saves us money in the long run and helps to protect innocent lives.
I was going to outline some of the areas covered by our international aid programmes, but my hon. Friend Stephen Gilbert has already done so. I believe that the House can get behind a lot of the projects that we take part in. They are relatively cheap and they bring stability to the countries concerned. That reduces pressures on our borders, and it is vital to carry on moving forward in that way. It is my core belief that this is a fundamental moral responsibility. We are a developed nation; we are, in the grand scheme of things, a wealthy nation. We cannot ignore the plight of our neighbours, because if we do, they will come to our doorstep. This investment is not only a moral obligation but the sensible thing to do if we are to ensure the long-term prosperity of our country as well as theirs.
I want to focus on two issues: the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of our gross national income on international development, and the continuing threat to world security that is emanating from the middle east. I serve on the International Development Select Committee, along with five Conservative colleagues and four other Labour Members. The Committee is chaired by Malcolm Bruce. Each of us has seen at first hand the despair resulting from poverty in the developing world. We have also seen the acclaimed work of the Department for International Development, and we are all committed to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid, as is each of our political parties.
However, it says a lot about the Government’s priorities that the issue of House of Lords reform has been placed ahead of the commitment to legislating for that 0.7% expenditure. What puzzles me most about the decision is that the commitment was in all of the main three parties’ manifesto commitments to the electorate at the last general election. One would have thought that, after undertaking an independent analysis of those manifestos, the Government would pick one policy that would unite this Chamber rather than any of the myriad issues on which we choose to disagree. Alas, they did not.
There is one reason not to give aid: the philosophy of looking after our own interests first. That is a reasonable position to take if someone has amnesia and is willing to forget the wealth Britain has extracted from across the globe. Everyone, however, can point to a reason to give aid: it is the right thing to do and will make the world a more secure place for our country, as Alec Shelbrooke said. International development aid will also save lives and put more children into school, while creating new markets for the future.
We can point to the fact that in the 1950s, Korea was a war-torn aid recipient. It is now the 13th largest economy in the world, the second-fastest growing economy in the OECD and an aid donor. That single statement confirms that, despite the complexities of aid, despite multiple cultures and despite the challenges ranging from clean water to conflict and corruption, aid does work. Any remaining doubting Thomases out there should consider that Korean investment and exports are worth £8 billion a year to the UK and are set to increase by £500 million year on year as a result of the South Korea-European Union free trade agreement.
I am happy to answer that. The International Development Select Committee was in India last year, so it knows that, as the Secretary of State for International Development would confirm, 800 million people who live there are surviving on less than $2 a day, which is an important point. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend asks from a sedentary position why it has nuclear capability. Well, any country faced with threats on both sides of its borders is likely to think that nuclear weapons are a necessary safeguard. I saw some of the poorest people on the planet when we visited India, and I do not believe that we should resile from giving money to that nation.
I was saying that we generate £8 billion a year from South Korea and that this will grow by £500 million every year, and I was making the point that the UK aid budget currently sits at £7.8 billion a year. Some might legitimately argue that legislation is irrelevant because the money will be spent anyway. Some might say that the manifesto commitment was ducked by coalition parties because of the fear of a backlash from some of those sitting on the blue side of the Government Benches. That commitment should not have been ducked. Not only did all three main parties make that commitment in their manifestos but, even more importantly, our commitment sent a message around the world—that the UK was prepared to be bold, which could encourage others to be equally bold and to walk in our footsteps to reach the 0.7% figure. As the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell said, we have been trying to reach that commitment for the last 40 years.
“A single event can shape our lives or change the course of history.”
Those are the words of the award-winning author, Deepak Chopra. We should heed those words rather than those of my e-mail friend, Mr Ronald Hunter, who Members will know sends us regular e-mail correspondence.
Just as we face the challenge of tackling poverty across the globe, so we still face unresolved tensions in the middle east. There is no other subject that can lead to such a swift loss of perspective in debate. It has the ability to unite those who do not normally see eye to eye, while simultaneously disuniting those who normally do so. I should register the fact that I am the vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel. Holding that title, however, does not make me oblivious or ignorant of, or unsympathetic to, the Palestinian cause. On the contrary, I support it. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Lord Glenamara who, sadly, passed away recently. As the vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I and all those we work with owe a great debt of gratitude to Edward Short. We owe him a great debt of gratitude for his steadfast support for both Israel and LFI over many years. I never had the pleasure of meeting Edward Short, but from talking to colleagues it was clear he made a big and impressive impact and will leave a long legacy. As Chief Whip under Harold Wilson, he fought hard to marshal a majority of just five, commanding respect; and now that we are, regrettably, in opposition, we rely heavily on Short money, which Lord Glenamara first proposed—a vital innovation for allowing Oppositions to hold Governments to account.
Slightly earlier, the hon. Gentleman referred to the figure of 0.7% of GDP going on international aid. Does he agree that it is important that we as parliamentarians keep reiterating that figure to our constituents? When people complain to me about our spending on international aid and I tell them it is only 0.7% of our overall GDP, they realise it is a very modest amount.
I entirely agree: that is a modest amount for a developed country to pay to ensure starving people across the world can expect to receive food and drugs. Only a few weeks ago, I and some other Members visited Zambia and Malawi, and saw the difference malaria and AIDS drugs were making to families.
Returning to the question of the middle east, the Israelis and Palestinians have in both recent and distant history been subjected to vicious attacks and calumnies, but while attending a Westminster Hall debate on Israel and the middle east peace process just a few weeks ago, I was struck by the awesome futility of it all. LFI promotes and supports a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Let me turn to the next part of the LFI mission statement. I support the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, and I also support Israel being recognised and secure within its own borders. We all know that there are issues that have to be tackled, such as the definition of the borders and the questions of illegal settlements, returnees, Jerusalem and Temple Mount, and it is more imperative than ever that we tackle them.
Welcome though the Arab spring was, and is, for democracy in the region, it has thrown up more questions than answers. The barbaric treatment of Syrians at the hands of their own Government continues and, of course, there is Iran. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, its support for Hamas and terror in general, its refusal to accept the will of the UN, its holocaust denial and its anti-Semitism, means it is a spark that could ignite the powder keg of the middle east. Therefore, has there ever been a more important time to solve the conundrum of Israel and Palestine? Yes, we should remain resolutely focused on challenging Iran and its illegal nuclear programme, using sanctions and taking no options off the table, but we must also be clear that, given the ongoing turmoil in the middle east, Israelis and Palestinians need more than ever the security that only they can give to each other. Has there ever been a more important time for the UK, the colonial architect of many of the problems that exist, to take bold steps to help the parties reach a solution?
Many have tried and failed: Carter, Clinton, Begin, Sadat, Arafat. There has been partial success at best, close calls, nascent steps, but never a final settlement.
Yet perhaps we now have an opportunity to make progress, with Netanyahu’s coalition holding 94 of the 120 Knesset seats. Reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians must be first and foremost on the Israeli national agenda. If he succeeds, Netanyahu will be hailed as a leader who delivered his people true liberty. If he squanders the opportunity, he could be remembered as a Prime Minister who took his people to the brink of disaster. However, just as we played our part in the middle east in our colonial years—drawing lines on maps that have created so many problems—so we must play our part in the pursuit of peace.
If we analyse the positions of parliamentarians, we can see that we are as guilty as the main protagonists of reverting to type, trying to trump each other with accusations of which side committed the worst atrocity. All I know is that by continuing to participate in such futile arguments, we only guarantee that there will be more such arguments in the future. We can choose to pore over the history of this part of the world, from the early Israelites to the Ottoman-Turkish rule, but where will that get us? Perhaps yesterday’s deal to end Palestinian hunger strikes in Israeli jails offers us hope that the new Israeli coalition knows what it takes to get deals done.
I will not, as I want to make progress in order to enable others to speak.
The Israeli press are reporting that this deal came on the back of a letter from Netanyahu to Abbas saying that the formation of the unity Government in Israel presented a new opportunity to rejuvenate the peace process in the context of a two-state solution. That is a promising development, following Abbas’s letter seeking to engage Netanyahu last month. If we are going to help the parties to reach a deal, amid all the major and fundamental changes occurring in the region, we must be clear that we are here to build confidence between them, not to be proxies for the old argument. Netanyahu, Mofaz, Perez, Fayyad and Abbas must look to the UK as being on their side to encourage necessary compromises and to understand their concerns. There are major challenges to be overcome. They are real, they are painful and they are a source of much anger, but we should ensure that we do not amplify that anger. Instead, we must amplify the voices of those who want to get around the table and reach a peace deal.
It is a pleasure to follow the eminently wise speech by Mr McCann on both the subjects he chose.
I listened to the Gracious Speech last week, and I noticed a seemingly small passage—[Interruption.] I thought it was a good idea to listen to the Queen’s Speech; it was one of the things I was keen to do, having been elected to this place. This seemingly small bit related to measures in the field of foreign affairs. One measure—the European Union Bill required for our ratification of the treaty changes to allow the European stability mechanism to have some legality—particularly took my eye. It highlights a problem that the European
Union has with the eurozone, the consequences of which, if we do not act in certain ways, will be huge for us.
Like many other countries in Europe, this country has lived way beyond its means for way too long. We borrowed too much, as did many other eurozone countries. As every family and business in the country knows, when you borrow too much, you have to repay it; otherwise, you suffer consequences that you really do not want to suffer. You encounter this horrible thing, whereby other people tell you how you should spend your money and what you should spend it on. We have suffered this in the past from the International Monetary Fund and, unfortunately, this is what is happening to other eurozone countries now.
What is going on in our economy, and what is increasingly now happening elsewhere, is that people are realising that they have spent too much. But, as with the gambler who has won big in the past but has since blown it all, the realisation that the game is up is a particularly hard one to come to. It is almost natural to blame other people or to try to carry on as normal, but if you do not take action to change your spending habits, you might well end up losing your shirt.
In the past couple weeks, interesting and important elections have been held in the eurozone. France elected a new socialist President, who won 52% of the vote. I believe the BBC called that a “clear” and “decisive” victory, which contrasts with its description of a “narrow” victory when Boris Johnson won in London with 51%. Monsieur Hollande was hardly swept to power on a tide of euphoria in France. He narrowly defeated an unpopular, not particularly conservative and frankly unappealing President who had wasted the opportunity to reform his country. The French people ejected a social democrat and elected a socialist in his place. Much has been made of the fact that President Hollande will now attack the City of London, try to impose a financial transaction tax, attempt to scrap the UK’s EU rebate and demand an agenda of further job-destroying social legislation from the EU, but has that not been France’s position for years? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
President Hollande seems to believe that there is a stark choice between austerity and growth, but he is simply wrong. Most people are savvy enough to understand that you need to live within your means and do what you can to ensure your means grow to enable you to live that bit better. We, in this country and across Europe, need to get back to the simple understanding that you need to create wealth before you can redistribute it. What many Labour Members believe is that the money tree will continually sprout cash; the current student language of constantly attacking and wanting to penalise those who make money does only one thing: it ensures that less money is made, as people earn elsewhere, less tax is paid and so less can be redistributed.
Greece has also held elections, the results of which did not bring about a Government—we have just heard the news that there will be further elections in Greece. It was noticeable in Greece that people did not want to have the choice presented to them. They wanted a Government to reflect their true views; they do not want to be dictated to by foreign countries, and they hate the troika of the EU, IMF and the European Central Bank telling them what their Government should do. But Greece is bankrupt and it has been for months, if not years. It cannot pay its bills without help from the IMF and the EU. So it is no surprise that it is going to have fresh elections, but the most important decision about Greece’s future will be made not in Athens, but in Berlin.
Many in this Chamber, on both sides, have said that Greece should be allowed to fall out of the euro. I tend to agree, but, as ever, nothing is as simple as all that. Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary German. You have heard all the horror stories from your own family history about what happened to your relatives and your country when hyper-inflation struck after the second world war finished, and your gut tells you that you should avoid inflation at almost any cost. You are therefore amazingly protective of your currency. Indeed, any threat to it is a threat to you, your family and your community’s livelihood, so you will do all you can to protect both it and its value. However, a political decision that you were not really a part of, taken ages ago, puts you now in the same currency as a batch of other people miles away who are threatening your economic stability. You have two choices and you are happy with neither: you can just throw money at your costly currency partners—
I am allowing the hon. Gentleman to make his speech, but he knows the form of address and that when using “you” constantly, he is actually referring to the Chair. I may look old, but I am not that old that I go back to the second world war.
As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, the voices in the Tea Room believe you are very young—a peach among all the Deputy Speakers that this place has ever seen—and I apologise for my use of the word “you”. [Interruption.] It is worth a try.
A political decision taken ages ago puts your family—not your family, Madam Deputy Speaker, but this particular person’s family—into the same currency as a bunch of people who are threatening your economic stability. The two choices you have are to throw money at your very costly currency partners—money that you have had to earn and pay in tax—or, as a German citizen, to say, “Enough is enough”, get rid of your costly neighbours and concentrate on ensuring that this can never happen again.
Might not another answer be for the people to whom you are exporting to say, “Right, stop buying BMWs, stop buying Mercedes, stop buying Siemens goods”? That could be a response, which is why I think that the Germans have understood that keeping money in circulation is not necessarily bad for Germany now, nor has it been in the past 50 or 60 years.
I am sorry, but I refuse to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman all the time.
Just because this country is not in the European stability mechanism does not mean that UK taxpayers are not contributing massively to the European Union. We do contribute massively to the EU budget. The 2013 budget is up for negotiation now, and the next multi-annual financial framework—the EU budget between 2014 and 2020—is just about to go through the negotiating process. Let me make a pitch for how much money might be involved. Mr MacShane alluded to how much it was under a different Prime Minister, and, following the giving away of our rebate, the net contribution by the UK to the EU budget in 2011-12 was £8.7 billion. The net contribution over the entire period between 2011 and 2016-17 is forecast to be £59.6 billion. We have a very big vested interest in the EU budget and a number of issues in it need to be addressed.
Owing to its inflexible design and poorly targeted spending schemes, the EU budget is particularly ill suited to deliver the jobs and growth that Europe needs, but the window for opportunity for radically reforming it is swiftly closing. Before the end of the year, we could reach a conclusion on what the EU budget will look like until 2020. Despite the austerity facing Europe, the European Commission has asked for a 6.8% increase in EU spending in 2013 while cutting only six of almost 41,000 European Community jobs. The European Commission has proposed to increase the next long-term EU budget post-2014 by yet another 5% while offering only very minor reforms in substance. At the same time, the European Commission’s accounts are not being signed off. That was another omission from the shadow Secretary of State’s speech: the negotiations in which our rebate was given away also ensured that the extra money we gave was not spent properly.
We must properly consider many of the issues with the EU budget in the future. I hope that we can rely on our Lib Dem coalition partners to want value for money at a European level for the huge amounts we put in and can therefore have a very constructive and bullish attempt at trying to reform the EU budget in the coming months.
I want to take the opportunity offered by the debate on the foreign affairs and international development aspects of the Queen’s Speech to raise again, as hon. Members will have guessed, climate security. I want the House to recognise that climate change is an issue of security and that it should not just be tucked away under the heading of environment and then forgotten about. On that subject, it is interesting that we do not have a day to discuss the environment and energy aspects of the Queen’s Speech, perhaps because there are not very many of them. I was struck by the fact that this time around we do not have a day when those aspects of the speech might usefully have been covered.
I want to place climate strongly in the framework of security issues and to say how sorry I am that ambitious measures to address the climate crisis were conspicuous in their absence from the announcements about the forthcoming legislative programme. That is an extraordinary omission when successive Governments have acknowledged that climate change poses one of the greatest threats to our collective security. Indeed, the coalition Government acknowledged as much in the foreword to last year’s national security strategy, which states:
“The security of our energy supplies increasingly depends on fossil fuels located in some of the most unstable parts of the planet. Nuclear proliferation is a growing danger. Our security is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and its impact on food and water supply.”
I support what the hon. Lady is saying about this being an important international issue. When I was a Minister at the Foreign Office, climate change was seen as one of the key priorities and I found that our missions around the world also took it very seriously. A great deal was being done at that time.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am pleased to hear that, because at the moment it feels like there is real tension in the Government about where climate change sits, as the Chancellor clearly sees it as an obstacle to his economic development plans and there is not much of a fight back.
The absence of such matters in the Queen’s Speech is a tragedy, because there are so many opportunities to pursue a green agenda at the same time as pursuing jobs and a stable economy. Indeed, by investing in a green economy, which is far more labour-intensive than the fossil fuel economy it replaces, we can get those jobs and get the economy stable again.
Hon. Members will know that climate change is already affecting many of the poorest communities around the world, undermining their livelihoods through changes in temperature and rainfall patterns and through the increased frequency and intensity of floods and droughts. It has been estimated that climate change is already responsible for about 300,000 deaths a year and is affecting 300 million people, according to the first comprehensive study of the human impact of global warming from Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum.
Although the impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately on the global south, this argument is not just about poorer people in far flung places. Increasingly, extreme weather events are happening much closer to home as well, such as the 2007 floods in Britain, which saw the largest ever civil emergency response since the second world war. From our riverside location at Westminster, we should perhaps take comfort from the fact that the Thames barrier is being prepared to cope with the sea level rise of 1.9 metres that is being projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the full range of its climate scenarios. Frankly, I am alarmed that we are having to consider such a sea level rise and that such measures are not being planned elsewhere.
The truth is that growing recognition of climate change as a serious threat to our national security, our economy and international development is not resulting in commensurate action domestically or internationally. What in the Queen’s Speech could help us? The new energy Bill, if it were significantly more ambitious than proposed, could play a role. Investment in major power infrastructure today will be with us for decades to come, but there is a real risk that rather than the “secure, clean and affordable” electricity system that we have been promised by the Government, we are more likely to end up with an insecure, dirty and expensive one. To avoid that, we need four crucial elements to be introduced into the electricity market reform proposals.
First, and most importantly, the energy Bill must contain a clear and absolute commitment to decarbonising electricity generation by 2030. That is not a radical green proposal, but is based on the advice from the Committee on Climate Change. I hope that the Prime Minister will ensure that that happens, given his own explanation of the crucial role of the committee. He said that it exists to
“take the politics out of climate change and show our intention to get to grips with the problem.”
Here is a perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate exactly that.
The second thing missing from the EMR proposals to date is the vast untapped potential of energy saving. We could argue all night about the various costs of low-carbon technologies, but I think that those on both sides of the House would agree that it is often a lot cheaper to save energy in the first place. The energy Bill must therefore introduce mechanisms to equalise support for demand reduction and energy saving, such as a feed-in tariff for energy efficiency. That should be the priority, not planning to subsidise EDF’s nuclear-generated electricity to the tune of £115 per megawatt hour. That is the level of subsidy that would be necessary based on EDF’s recent announcement of a new £7 billion price tag per nuclear power station. Let us remember too that subsidising nuclear power would fly in the face of the coalition’s promise not to provide taxpayer subsidy for nuclear. As the City analyst Peter Atherton has succinctly concluded, the only way that new nuclear could be built is
“if the construction risk was transferred to the taxpayer”.
I am extremely concerned that that is exactly what the Government will try to do.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point about the costs of new nuclear power stations that are subsidised by the public, but does she not also acknowledge that decommissioning costs often fall heavily on the public purse and are an enormous hidden subsidy to the nuclear industry?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and that is yet another hidden cost of nuclear. It is not expressed up front and therefore when comparisons are made between different energy sources the price of nuclear, which would be a lot more expensive if the truth were told, is artificially deflated.
Like nuclear, an obsession with gas is another expensive distraction from a decisive and rapid shift to an efficient sustainable power system. The Chancellor has said that gas is cheap, but he is wrong. It might have been cheap 10 years ago but it certainly is not today. His Government’s own figures show that gas has been the main cause of higher energy bills over recent years and organisations such as Ofgem are all saying that gas prices are likely to continue to rise. Yes, gas can be a bridging technology and play a role in meeting peak demand, but the energy Bill must categorically rule out a new dash for gas both to keep energy costs for householders and businesses down and to meet carbon targets.
A strong emissions performance standard is essential, yet what we have so far from the Government is utterly inadequate. The Committee on Climate Change has also warned that allowing unabated gas-fired generation, as this Government plan, from new plant right through to 2045, carries a huge risk that there will be far too much gas-fired generation at the expense of low-carbon investment.
With fracking, huge questions remain over the impacts on groundwater pollution, health and air pollution, as well as earthquakes. Moreover, evidence from the Tyndall Centre indicates that the exploitation of even just a fraction of the UK’s shale gas reserves would simply be incompatible with tackling climate change.
If that were the real choice, I dare say that many people would support a dash for gas, but that is not the choice before us. If I had more time, I would explain why.
The fourth essential pillar of an energy Bill fit for the 21st century should be at the heart of our future energy system. This issue relates to another of the coalition’s pledges—to support
“community ownership of renewable energy schemes”.
Medium-scale renewables are the squeezed middle of energy policy and are largely ignored by the main parties, but their enormous potential is illustrated by the situation in Germany where renewable sources are now responsible for more than 20% of Germany’s electricity, with communities generating around a quarter of that. We should compare that situation with that in the UK, where communities generate less than 1% of all renewable electricity. Of major concern are the mind-bogglingly complicated and complex contracts for difference—CFDs—which are likely to destroy prospects for decentralised energy for medium-scale projects between 50 kW and 10 MW that follow a community ownership or co-operative model. Such schemes tend to involve co-operatives, housing associations and local authorities rather than just large multinational corporations. One might have hoped that a coalition committed to localism and the big society would want to promote exactly that form of community ownership of renewables rather than more of the big six.
In conclusion, even if we get the most effective electricity market reform we can hope for, the scale and urgency of the climate threat demands greater national and international leadership. Almost two years ago, the Prime Minister told us that he wanted this Government to be the greenest ever. He said that the green economy was a real opportunity to drive green jobs and
“make sure we have our share of the industries of the future.”
I could not agree more, and that is why we need more action from the Government to deliver that.
We have to ask ourselves whether we are willing to take responsibility for ensuring that the planet we leave to our children and future generations is habitable. As
“The situation we’re creating for young people and future generations is that we’re handing them a climate system which is potentially out of their control…We’re in an emergency: you can see what’s on the horizon over the next few decades with the effects it will have on ecosystems, sea level and species extinction.”
He has also said:
“Our parents did not know that their actions could harm future generations. We will only be able to pretend”
—I emphasise “pretend”—
“that we did not know.”
That is why Professor Hansen and many other experts are calling for a 6% annual cut in carbon dioxide emissions year on year. Others suggest that the figure should be closer to 9%.
The UK’s carbon budgets enshrine a pathway to an 80% emissions reduction by 2050, and the Climate Change Act 2008, to its credit, does at least put in place architecture that we can use to achieve our targets, but that 80% target is simply out of date. When scientific developments indicate that we must go further and faster, Government policy must change to reflect that. The science tells us that global emissions of carbon dioxide need to peak in the current decade and decline steeply thereafter. That means that this Parliament—us here now—has a historic responsibility to rise to the challenge of ensuring that can happen. It is the last Parliament that can take action to avoid runaway climate change.
Failure to stabilise emissions within that framework and that time scale will dramatically reduce our chances of keeping warming below the crucial threshold of 2° C. That is why the coalition Government must use the remainder of this Parliament radically to raise the UK’s ambitions and actions domestically and internationally to lead the fight for a safe climate. If ever there was an issue that required unity, shared purpose and leadership it is surely this one—in the interests of our children and the next generation.
It is always a delight to follow Caroline Lucas, who is a master of her brief and is completely passionate about her subject, as she has shown again today.
I want to apologise to the House for leaving the Chamber earlier and missing the last two minutes of the shadow Foreign Secretary’s speech. Thirty-nine of my constituents were having tea on the terrace and were leaving at 5.30 pm. I apologise for the discourtesy and also for missing some of the earlier speeches, but those constituents were from the village I live in so I felt that I had to see them.
I congratulate the Secretary of State for International Development on the fact that we are increasing our funding on international development aid from 0.56% to 0.7% from next year. I am delighted that we are doing that. Lots of people have lobbied me to ask why that is not enshrined in legislation and commenting that we cannot guarantee it will happen, but I believe the Secretary of State and the Government that we will deliver the scale of funding that we have committed to achieving next year.
That funding will do much for the people who need it most—the poorest people in the world—but there are one or two worries about the amount and speed at which the Department for International Development is going to have to scale up spending. I hope that DFID is recruiting people from a business background—I am sure it is—because much of the money will fund new start-up businesses and entrepreneurs and go towards skilling people so that they can do that. The only way that people in poor countries can get out of poverty is by having jobs and earning money for themselves. It is no good just giving them a handout every time—we have to give them a hand up by helping them to invest in their own skills and businesses so that they can provide for themselves and their family as well as employing others. That is also the way that this country will get out of this recession. It is important that people in those countries are able to gain skills and come out of poverty, and establishing such a system would be the quickest way of doing that.
I would also like more funding to help women in developing countries. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to meet some women from Afghanistan and Pakistan through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Those women are very worried that funding is not getting through to women in Afghanistan and they want some ring-fenced money to help women secure their own future. They feel that at the moment it is going to men and is disappearing. A recent report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact found that money is leaching and that no mechanism in DFID is able to track that money. I am sure that the Secretary of State and his Ministers will have seriously considered that report because we have to stop money disappearing. It has to go to the right places.
In my experience, the only way to guarantee that aid gets through to women in Afghanistan is for our agents to give it to the women and watch them use it. Does my hon. Friend agree that as soon as intermediaries are used, money starts leaching away—sometimes mightily?
Yes, I agree completely. It has been shown that women are much better at spending money. They are much more likely to spend it on their families, their relatives, their homes and their children’s health and education, so it is important to give them the money. As soon as men are in the situation that we see them in in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, we find that the money does not get to the women. I hope that DFID is looking at ways of helping to support those women because that approach will, in turn, support a secure and stable Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.
The women I met are very brave Members of Parliament. If we lose an election, that is the worst that can happen to us, but the worst that can happen to people in some developing countries is that they lose their life. I hope therefore that we are giving support that enables women to continue to put themselves forward for election and assists projects that help women to help their families.
They fear that large sums are not getting through to important projects because money is being siphoned off not just at one level but at every level it passes through. I am sure that the Secretary of State and his Ministers will have decided to look at that carefully.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to that. Does she agree that when talks take place between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, it is essential that the constitution, which protects the rights of women in Afghanistan, is not interfered with in any way?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention. She is right. Women must not go backwards. Yesterday I heard the worrying news that in northern Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, 700 schools have been bombed and girls cannot go to school any more. We must work with Governments to try to ensure that girls get a good education, not just in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but all over the developing world.
I have been to many African countries and have found that the schools there are so badly equipped that the teachers have no resources apart from a blackboard on which to write what they can remember. I am not saying that the children are not learning, because there are some very bright children in those circumstances, but they are not getting a rounded education. Last November or December a friend of mine, the hon. Michael Bayigga-Lulume, who is a Member of Parliament in Uganda, came over to this country and saw some schools in my constituency. He was astonished at the priority that this Government and every Government in Britain have given to schools. He has been to Britain before to attend conferences in Manchester, Birmingham and London, but he has never visited real places. By going into schools, he has recognised that we set huge store by education for all our children, not just girls or boys.
Other countries do not seem to do that. They do not put the necessary investment into schools. Schools require textbooks, and in this day and age they cannot manage without computers, so developing countries need to get their infrastructure sorted out. I suggest to the Under-Secretary, who is present, and to the Secretary of State that perhaps we should set up some exemplars in situ. We should go and equip schools properly, as we would a British school, and for a specific period we should pay for the teachers who have the right skills and the right education in order to promote education in African countries or in countries such as India and Pakistan. We should help them to see what it is like to have a properly resourced school, because without education none of the students will progress to top jobs. They will be able to do ordinary jobs, but they will not be high fliers because they will not have had the opportunities that we have in this country. I suggest that we do something like that to promote education in all the countries where we have a presence.
Not only should we invest in drugs to treat HIV/AIDS and malaria, but we should consider carefully resourcing treatments for diarrhoea. Everybody knows about the HIV/AIDS and malaria drugs, but very often the health problems of young children are caused by diarrhoea. There are many other causes, but it is very cheap to treat diarrhoea in young people with rehydration salts and zinc. We should be promoting that, along with the rapid diagnostic tests that can be done out in the bush, so that the people there can get an accurate diagnosis. If we can help with the health as well as the education of the young people, they will have a much better chance of a decent future in life, with proper resources.
I am always concerned when we provide budget support. It needs careful management by DFID. If we are not careful, we provide budget support for, say, a health budget, and the country says, “Yes, we’ve agreed to spend 15% of our budget on health. Thank you, that’s 6% of it, so we have to provide only 9%.” I always thought that our 6% should be on top of the country’s 15%, not 6% less for it to spend. I would like to see Governments pushed a little more to spend up to the 15% that many countries in Africa have signed up to so that they get a better health service.
Some of the health services that we see are very poor—hospitals for young children with no sheets and no nappies. They have no decent toilets and nowhere for the staff to wash their hands. If members of staff in a hospital cannot wash their hands, they cannot provide proper hygiene. I would like to see us helping with that, but in addition to the country’s own 15%, not instead of it.
We should be pushing and helping with the skills needed for agriculture, particularly in African countries and in India, while we are still there. We should try to help keep people in the countryside, rather than all of them gravitating to the cities, which are not healthy places to live for people with no job and no home, who are running around on the streets. It is better to keep people in the countryside so that they can provide a living for themselves and make the country more self-sufficient in vegetables and fruit. Instead of only one crop, maize, there should be diversity so that the people can become self-sufficient and have better diets. All the people in African countries can have better diets, which will make them healthier, and they will have a better living by getting added value on their crops. I should like to see DFID working hard on that.
I want to mention Congo quickly. In Rwanda we saw a genocide. The same thing is happening in the Congo. Unfortunately, nobody is talking about it. Millions of people are being murdered—slaughtered—and millions of women have been raped, sometimes by members of their own family, because their own families will be killed if they do not do it.
I am sorry, but I am running out of time.
We should be doing more to help those poor women who are struggling in their own country to have a proper living. We should be pushing the UN to do far more to help them, and we should recognise that a genocide is taking place there. It is not just a little local uprising.
There have been many passionate contributions to the debate, and the contribution from Pauline Latham was one of them. I draw attention in particular to the speech made by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock).
Hansard will report all the words of her contribution, but it will not reflect the rapt silence in which it was heard by Members across the House as she raised the horrific situation of young Palestinian boys and girls in military custody.
I listened closely also to Mr McCann, who stressed the target of 0.7%, to which the United Kingdom Government have signed up for more than 40 years and have not delivered on so far in one single financial year; and to my hon. Friend Caroline Lucas, who pointed out, almost amazingly, that in a Queen’s Speech debate over a series of days, we have no specific focus on the importance of the environment. I should have thought that by now we would have learned that it was one of the most important challenges that we face.
I listened closely to the opening speech from the Foreign Secretary, who touched on many of the key issues of the day. Nobody can doubt the challenge of the crisis of the eurozone or the situation in Syria. Both remain extremely serious, and there is a need for an urgent political solution, as far as that is possible, and the return of international military forces from Afghanistan as a top priority.
I take the opportunity to concentrate on a particular challenge facing northern Europe, a subject not touched on from either Front Bench or by anybody else today. The seas north of Scotland are warming at an alarming rate. Recent studies show that warming in the Arctic is occurring faster than anywhere else on the planet, and the average temperature in the region has surpassed all previous measurements in the first decade of the 21st century. Sea ice has been shrinking, and the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet and other Arctic ice caps will contribute more and more to the rise in global sea levels. The facts are sobering. Sea ice in the Arctic is melting faster than at any time in the past four decades, and during last summer the Northwest passage was free of ice, and this trend is set to continue and become the norm.
These changes in Scotland’s backyard are significant and they are accelerating. All our neighbours are at action stations, because they understand that the massive changes impacting on the high north and Arctic will become a significant feature of the years and decades ahead. The environmental concerns are alarming, but significant economic opportunities and geostrategic challenges must be tackled in parallel. Those include oil, gas and mineral extraction and new international shipping routes. Up to 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves and 10% of oil resources are believed to be located in the Arctic. With the opening of northern shipping lanes, vessels sailing between east Asia and western Europe could save more than 40% in time and fuel costs by navigating the sea lanes north of Siberia rather than the southern route through the Suez canal. Rising sea temperatures also mean that there are new fishing grounds.
Given all of those developments, one would imagine that the UK Government would be taking this very seriously. After all, all neighbouring Governments in the north of Europe are doing so. Sadly, they are not. At last November’s International Maritime Organisation assembly, the UK did not even raise the massive challenges of the northern dimension. Among our neighbours, the changing circumstances are, however, being thoroughly considered.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right to criticise the Government, but perhaps I can give him some reassurance as the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, is looking at this very issue, because we recognise that it does need to be given much higher priority by our Government.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to my attention and I look forward to the conclusions of the report with great interest, because, as I said, our neighbouring countries have been considering this problem for a number of years. Given the national priorities at play, they are keen to ensure stability in the region, which necessitates ecological, economic, diplomatic and defence co-operation and understanding. All this explains why the countries adjoining the Arctic are taking the issue very seriously. Norway, Denmark, Russia, Canada and the United States have all developed specific policy priorities for the high north and Arctic. Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands consider this a top priority, as do nations such as Sweden and Finland.
Our neighbours’ multilateral engagement is extremely serious and they are working closely together. This has happened for decades through the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Nordic Council, and has recently been widened to include enhanced bilateral and multilateral relations with the independent Baltic republics. Nordic co-operation is broad and embraces areas such as environment, health, energy supply, research, culture, education, information technology, research and business advancement. A specific Arctic co-operation programme works together with countries in the Arctic Council, which was formed in 1998 with the signing of the Ottawa declaration. An additional important consideration relates to regional security, where finely tuned defence priorities provide the capabilities that secure stability and aid the civil power across the massive area that constitutes the high north and Arctic. Our neighbours are scaling up their infrastructural capabilities in the region.
Despite different relations to treaty organisations such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the Nordic and Baltic nations are pushing ahead as never before. This includes shared basing, training and procurement arrangements. For nations such as Norway and Denmark in particular, deployability and reach within the high north and Arctic is a key consideration. This is not the case for the UK.
Recently the UK Government mapped out their future priorities in a strategic defence review, a weighty 75-page report that does not mention the northern dimension once, underlining that it is not an important focus for Whitehall. In addition, UK defence cuts to infrastructure and capabilities in Scotland mean that we will have a diminished ability directly to co-operate with our neighbours. Damaging decisions, including the scrapping of fixed-wing Nimrod search and rescue aircraft, are at the top of that list. Air force operations are ending from two out of three of the northern air bases in the UK. No appropriate conventional sea-going vessels are based in Scotland at all. The recent arrival of a Russian carrier group around the Admiral Kuznetsov in the Moray Firth off my constituency necessitated royal naval interdiction craft being sent from the south of England to the north of Scotland, underlining that gap in capability.
I am running out of time and I have already given way.
Current UK defence plans include the withdrawal of specialised amphibious personnel from the east coast of Scotland, while there are no helicopters or transport aircraft whatever. Even a cursory glance at the inventory of our neighbours shows their broader capability across all three services.
Scotland cannot afford to take that approach. With preparations under way for the independence referendum, it is reassuring that these regional developments are influencing the thinking of the SNP Government in Scotland. At least that consideration has been given there, in contrast to that in Whitehall, which is sadly lacking. First Minister Salmond has visited Norway on numerous occasions—indeed, he has been there this week—to discuss common issues, including the planned electricity interconnector and growth in the renewables sector. In contrast, no UK Prime Minister has made an official visit to our closest North sea neighbour in 25 years, which tells its own story about UK priorities.
Constitutional developments in Scotland and significant environmental changes offer a real opportunity and imperative properly to engage with our wider geographic region. Our neighbours to the north and east have already made a good start and work constructively together. We need to join them and play our part. The UK has opted out of a serious approach: we should not. If the UK does not properly engage, a sovereign Scottish Government will do so following a yes vote in the 2014 independence referendum.
We are living through what might be termed a grand transition in international affairs, with the axis of global power shifting from the west to the east. Britain faces some difficult strategic choices in an external environment that is complex, uncertain and often chaotic. What are the strategic choices that Britain faces today? As other hon. Members have pointed out, we face a crisis in Europe that presents a profound strategic challenge for Britain. What is happening in the eurozone calls into question a policy consensus that has characterised British policy since at least the 1960s, and western Europe faces an economic, demographic and political crisis.
As the Foreign Secretary said in his opening remarks, the choice that Britain has in this environment of complexity is to be outward facing; to face out to the emerging world and build on our historic strengths as a nation. As world power moves east and towards those emerging economies, the Government have been right to recognise the strategic importance of building these new relationships in the emerging world with countries such as Brazil and other emerging economies. The reality of the world that we live in today is that Britain will gain influence by exerting influence on those networks—the networks of influence that are building around the world—rather than in the hierarchies of power that characterised international relations during the cold war. The Government are absolutely right to pursue that building of an extensive network throughout the world.
We need to draw the right lessons from our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Government are correct to pursue a stabilisation policy in Afghanistan and to move towards an orderly exit of British troops, but it is vital that we learn the correct lessons from our engagement in Afghanistan. For me, the lesson from Afghanistan does not argue for Britain to shrink from its global role in the future. The Libyan engagement proved that effective intervention is possible through new forms of co-operation through NATO. There are lessons that we need to learn from Afghanistan, but they should not be that Britain withdraws from its historic role as a custodian of global security. The choice for Britain, as we sit here today, is whether to shrink from that historic global role or accept it as Britain’s historic destiny and prepare for the future by building the necessary relationships and capability to fulfil that global role.
I do not dissent from much of the hon. Gentleman’s line of argument, so does he agree that the fact that there are now 250 fewer diplomats serving Britain abroad than there were in 2010 is a contribution to that extension of our network?
As the Foreign Secretary pointed out, there are now more places around the world where Britain has embassies and consuls. I believe that it is still our national duty to pursue the latter course of maintaining Britain’s global influence as a major player.
Our biggest challenge at present is in the middle east. There is much turmoil in the region, and the greatest threat to stability, as other hon. Members have pointed out, is Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It is right that the British Government have played an influential role in pursuing EU oil sanctions on Iran but, as other hon. Members have pointed out, there is concerning evidence of potential backtracking on the ban on providing insurance for tankers carrying Iranian oil. I think that it would be a retrograde step for Britain to send the Iranian regime any signal that we are backtracking on sanctions. It is important that there is no let-up on sanctions. The pressure of the potential for EU oil sanctions has brought Iran to the table, and it should not be rewarded for making that right decision.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, the other key nexus in the middle east is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Britain should continue to play an active role in the international community to take steps towards peace in the middle east. There are encouraging signs internally in Israel, with a new coalition Government being formed and positive overtures from Prime Minister Netanyahu. I believe that the Palestinian Authority have the opportunity to become a partner for peace. At the same time, they need to abandon the divisive approach of seeking statehood at the United Nations and continuing to support a policy of delegitimising Israel, which is not in the best interests of achieving what all of us in this House want: a viable two-state solution. We must all work together to seek two-party talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians without preconditions.
On a broader point, Britain’s broader strategic choices and our concept of the national interest are related to two important assets that we hold. We have considerable and extensive reach due to our soft-power assets, and our cultural and linguistic reach will continue to mean that we can gain global influence because of those assets. We must be prepared to deploy them in the pursuit of democracy, human rights and—the corollary of those—global security. But we also have some important decisions to take on hard power and the extent to which Britain wants to continue to be able to project hard-power force in our role in global security. That comes down to such issues as the importance of replacing Trident, the maintenance of our independent nuclear deterrent and, building on the Defence Secretary’s announcement yesterday, the absolute clarity that we want a balanced defence budget and a sensible process for procuring defence equipment that will allow us to continue to be able to project hard power in a complex global security environment.
A couple of domestic issues impact on Britain’s future, one of which is the future of the United Kingdom itself. Some people, including some Members of this House, argue that it is inevitable that the United Kingdom will break up over the next few years. In my view, such a break-up would have profound and negative consequences for Britain and would threaten our ability to project a global role. The break-up of the Union is simply not in Britain’s national interests.
The other domestic aspect that I think is important is public opinion. Public opinion is not often cited in debates on Britain’s foreign policy or international development, but on issues from Europe to Britain’s global military interventions there is a sense of a crisis of legitimacy when decisions are taken that people have not been consulted about or that do not align with their values. As we think about Britain’s strategic choices and national interests over the next 10 to 15 years, we must ensure that the strategic choices that the Government make and that we make are better aligned with the aspirations and values of the British people so that we close the gap between the decisions that Governments have made and what the people of Britain aspire to achieve.
Over the past two years the Government have been right to recognise the extent of the challenge facing Britain, with the publication of a national security strategy and the establishment of a National Security Council that is driving strategy, and they recognise that we now live in a world that is a complex place where decisions need to be made in very ambiguous situations. When I talk with my constituents about the issues facing Britain, increasingly they demand a clear idea of where we are going and what we want to achieve, and I believe that over the past two years the Government have laid good foundations for achieving that clarity.
Britain’s foreign policy can be summed up in two words: unsplendid isolation. The Foreign Secretary is an observer of world events, rather than a shaper of them. He talked about new embassies being opened, but they will not be staffed by trained British diplomats who come back here after a short term abroad as a young diplomat to help inform our community of foreign policy. Instead, we now have portakabin foreign policy, with small sheds being opened all over the world, but without augmenting our foreign presence. The number of diplomatic posts staffed by British citizens is being cut by up to 250 as a result of the Foreign Secretary’s personnel policies.
The Foreign Secretary set out his world vision in an interview with The Economist last week. It is based on promoting trade, promoting the broad national interest and protecting British citizens overseas, as he confirmed in his speech earlier. I expect that every holder of his great office from Charles James Fox onward would subscribe to those aims. Every one of Her Majesty’s ambassadors promotes trade, but to do so we need an economy that is growing, open and supported by Ministers. Instead, the Foreign Secretary insulted every exporter over the weekend by telling them to work hard. My business friends in his home town of Rotherham, which I have the honour of representing, have worked harder than any generation of business leaders in our history. They do not need to be patronised and told to work hard. What they need is support so that the cuts to the UK trade promotion work, which Lord Digby Jones discussed with the BBC yesterday, are reversed, because every day that the Foreign Secretary has been in office has seen Britain’s trade balance worsen.
The Foreign Secretary makes much of the idea that Britain can turn away from our traditional trading partners and engage with emerging powers, yet we export more to Ireland than we do to China, Russia, India and Brazil combined. He is the leader of the Eurosceptic faction in the Cabinet and never misses an opportunity to make a crack about the EU or the problems of the eurozone, as if the double-dip recession pound zone were an example to follow.
I will be moving on to that.
Our exports to Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain—the so-called PIGS countries—amount to more than 10% of our exports, compared with just 0.7% to Brazil or 1.4% to India, to which even Belgium exports more than we do. In short, the concept of replacing our friends and allies in the Euro-Atlantic trading region with the new so-called emerging powers is not paying off, as the Indian decision to buy French war planes rather than British ones and the view of Indian politicians that they no longer want or need aid from London demonstrate.
To export, one has to make friends throughout the world, everywhere, but when we look at Europe we find that that is not really the Foreign Secretary’s speciality. He was recently in Vietnam, and since he has been in office the UK’s trade deficit with that country has almost doubled. Whatever else he is achieving, he is a champion of increasing imports to the UK and the Blackburn Rovers in respect of decreasing exports from our nation.
Let me quote just one analysis, which is out today. The author states:
“It is noteworthy that other developed countries have re-orientated their export profiles more effectively than Britain has done, raising doubts about whether we are keeping pace with our EU partners in promoting British commercial interests in the emerging economies.”
That extremely prescient analysis comes from Joseph Johnson in a new pamphlet published today by Business for New Europe. It is a Conservative condemnation—much like that of his brother, who always condemns whatever the Prime Minister proposes—of the failed key plank in the Foreign Secretary’s policy of promoting trade.
Our genius lies in being Europe’s most open economy. We were creating a niche as the world’s centre of excellence for overseas students. We still have many who came here two or three years ago, as the Foreign Secretary told us in respect of Chinese students, yet the Chinese and Indians are going to other European countries, because they can fill in a simple, short visa application and then travel anywhere in the Schengen zone—while our form is being replaced with the most difficult visa application known to man. We all expect Chinese citizens to complete our visa in English; the Chinese one day might expect us to complete their visa forms in Chinese, and then we will realise just how deeply patronising we have been.
Let us turn to protecting the national interest. Britain has permanent interests not permanent friends—it is an old saying. But our permanent interests are best promoted by making as many friends as possible, and the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister seem to lose friends and dis-influence people whenever they can. The Prime Minister, as we know, snubbed François Hollande when the now President of France came to London in February.
The Government have quietly buried an 80-year-old relationship with Poland through their handling of the current Polish Government and through the Prime Minister’s crude interference in Polish internal affairs, with support orchestrated from No. 10 for the clericalist national right-winger, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. As with the Prime Minister’s ostentatious endorsement of Mr Sarkozy, the curse of Cameron worked its magic and Mr Kaczynski’s opponent was elected.
We should not forget the Deputy Prime Minister’s description of the Prime Minister’s allies in the European Parliament as nationalists, “anti-Semites and homophobes” —a description highlighted by the appalling Waffen-SS commemoration march in Latvia in March, when Jewish people were jostled at an event supported by a party allied to the Conservatives. As with the Prime Minister’s insulting and gratuitous pandering to anti-Israeli Turkish politicians when he called Gaza “a prison camp”, even though it would be more accurate to describe Gaza as a centre of missile attacks aimed at Jews in Israel, the standing of Britain is damaged by such loose-lipped remarks and by the dubious company that the ruling party keeps.
That isolationist approach has been roundly condemned this very week by the Atlantic Council, one of the most prestigious American foreign policy institutes. In a report written by Nick Burns, one of the US’s most experienced diplomats, Mr Burns, who served the George W. Bush Administration with distinction, says:
“Prime Minister Cameron’s coalition government has yet to develop a coherent strategic vision for the United Kingdom’s role in a challenging global landscape.”
The report cites the blunder of the Prime Minister’s veto—the veto that never was—last December, which made Britain a laughing stock among Euro-Atlantic policy makers and opinion formers. It also underlines American dismay at the massive, Treasury-imposed defence cuts, which have left Britain without aircraft carriers at a time when the high seas—from the Strait of Hormuz to the contested Pacific islands where China is ratcheting up the pressure against Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines—are a new zone of tension.
We heard yesterday in the House the Defence Secretary prostrating himself before the smirking Chief Secretary to the Treasury, as the Secretary of State hauled up the white flag of surrender to the Treasury, for which a balanced budget is far more important than a balance of power or Britain’s presence in world affairs.
The Foreign Secretary has also downgraded human rights and democracy promotion. Yes, Britain tailed behind Mr Sarkozy in his Libyan expedition. Gaddafi has gone, but chaos, murder, mass violation of human rights and open warfare in southern Libya now exist. We hear constantly about the end of Gaddafi but nothing about the end of human rights in Libya today.
The FCO human rights report, which was once a printed volume of rigour and authority, has now gone virtual with just a handful of the worst violating nations examined in detail.
The Government are selective in their approach. Syria is condemned, but the torturers of Bahrain are invited to Britain with every honour we can bestow. The Burmese regime was excoriated, but when I repeatedly asked the Prime Minister to raise in public the case of Liu Xiabo, the Chinese Nobel peace prize laureate who now rots in the Chinese gulag, there was only silence. Pakistan is criticised, but the dreadful human rights abuses in Kashmir perpetrated by Indian security forces are downplayed and no pressure is put on India by this Government to change its line on Kashmir.
We have also heard relative silence in the case of Yulia Tymoshenko, although I am glad to say that, thanks to Opposition Members, it was mentioned earlier in the debate. On
“We completely agree that the treatment of Mrs Tymoshenko, whom I have met on previous occasions, is absolutely disgraceful. The Ukrainians need to know that if they leave the situation as it is, it will severely affect their relationship not only with the UK but with the European Union”.—[Hansard, 12 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 329.]
In fact, the Ukrainians have made the situation worse by denying her medical treatment, although we are glad that she seems to be out of prison at the moment.
Other European leaders have taken a stand on the matter. The Prime Minister’s friends in the Czech Republic, the Czech President, Mrs Merkel, Radek Sikorski, the Polish Foreign Secretary and Carl Bildt, the Prime Minister’s friend in the Swedish Government, have spoken out publicly on it; we had barely a squeak from the Foreign Secretary this afternoon. Britain must stand up for Mrs Tymoshenko—as the Prime Minister pledged to do in this House in October.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about Ukraine, but he is most unfair to the Government. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the matter specifically in his opening remarks.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned it en passant. There has been no public statement, and none of the positions, taken by European leaders committed to human rights, about boycotts and having no contact. That is what I—we—want from this Government.
The Foreign Secretary also says that he has to support British nationals overseas. Certainly, the extradition of British nationals to the United States is working in favour of America’s idea of justice. We also have the problem of Mr Neil Heywood, killed in a horrible way at the same time as a Minister of State was visiting China, but it took several months for the truth to emerge.
Members across the House also agreed a resolution that Britain should take action on the case of Sergei Magnitsky by banning named individuals from coming into the UK, but the Foreign Office refuses to implement the will of the House. The names might be mentioned in private bilateral meetings with Russia, but we are not standing up for human rights, as I believe this country wants to do and expects the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister to do.
That is why this foreign policy is not working and will not work until we have a change of Government.
It is always a great pleasure to follow Mr MacShane, whose knowledge of these matters is renowned. I take issue with his remarks about unsplendid isolation, however, because I struggle to reconcile that with his right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary’s assertion that the Government’s foreign policy has a hint of imperial delusion. One can either be an isolationist or an imperialist; it is very difficult to be both at the same time.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary took some time to describe the problems relating to north Africa and the middle east and, in particular, to identify the challenges in the Sahel region. There is a real risk that, with our interest in things going on elsewhere in the world, we could take our eye off the ball in this troubled region, which could easily become a crucible for insurgency, people trafficking, narcotics and terrorism. The countries of north Africa are well apprised of the dangers of the situation and are most keen that the European Union take early action to ensure that the situation in the Sahel does not deteriorate any further.
The Maghreb is a bulwark against the instability that may well issue forth from the ungoverned spaces of that part of Africa. We have watched with some dismay the deteriorating situation in Mali and in Niger, especially the trouble in the north of Mali as Tuareg insurgents return from military duties in Libya to occupy large swathes of that country, and particularly the area around Timbuktu. That could well act as a catalyst for disruption and dismay in the wider region that might easily have knock-on effects, especially for Algeria and Morocco. Many of us hope sincerely that there will be a rapprochement between Algeria and Morocco and that, in particular, the situation in the Tindouf camps will be resolved without too much further delay. Indeed, the stability of the whole region appears to hinge on the nexus between Rabat and Algiers.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening; I expected him to do so. I have spoken on this subject before in the House, and it would be reasonable to do as he suggests. However, Morocco’s concern would be that there was an implicit assumption that its human rights record is not particularly good. In a region that is troubled with its record in that respect, Morocco is something of a beacon, and I would encourage it in the direction of travel that its new Government, and their predecessors, have taken in improving human rights. I would be very reluctant to see that country held out as failing in some way on its human rights record, although I agree that there is every imperative to ensure that it improves in that respect.
I hold out Morocco as having done a great deal in recent years, particularly last year, to take itself further forward on the path towards constitutional democracy. In the middle of the year, there was the referendum on the new constitution, with elections in November. At a time when we have seen chaos sweep through north Africa and the middle east, Morocco has stood as a beacon of stability and relative calm. That is because it has a multi-party tradition. While its democracy is evolving—some of us have had the opportunity to witness that at first hand—it has had a tradition of nascent democracy for some time, and that is what has kept it free of some of the insurgency and mayhem that has enveloped the wider region. The Moroccan autonomy plan for the Western Sahara is undoubtedly imperfect—most plans are—but it does offer a credible and pragmatic way forward. It is supported by France and the US and, in truth, it is the only show in town. Next year marks the 800th anniversary of the first diplomatic contact between England and Morocco. One of our oldest friends deserves our unequivocal support as it tries to stabilise the region and control the ingress of enemies that we hold in common and must do all we can to defeat.
We have heard a great deal today about international development. Charity begins at home, but it most certainly does not end there. I am very proud that the Government have maintained their commitment to international aid. I am perfectly happy to face down populist demands to have it cut, and more than happy to explain to dissenters how it has helped to eradicate smallpox, reduce polio, tackle malaria, and even assist tax collectors, necessary as they are in state-building. If I had a criticism of this Government, and indeed of their predecessors, it would be that they have been insufficiently willing to present aid as being in the UK’s national self-interest. If it is explained in that way, we are more likely to get buy-in from the voting public. At the end of the day, our views are interesting, of course, but we need to represent the views of the public, and it is certainly the case that they are not entirely signed up to granting aid at a time when they are being expected to tighten their belts.
The public would be greatly more interested in international aid if they realised that we have stopped, as much as we possibly can, money being siphoned off and sent to offshore accounts rather than going to the people to whom it was directed. If we could explain to the public that we have stopped malaria and are doing things to help the little people, that would make international aid much more acceptable.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government’s attempt to cut aid to relatively wealthy countries with nuclear weapons, such as Russia and China, together with the UK aid transparency guarantee, should help to reassure a doubting public. However, it is the duty of all those of us who believe in international development to take the message out to our constituents and persuade them that it is in the recipients’ interest and in our own national self-interest that we should maintain our aid programme in very difficult times.
I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what part of the 0.7% of GNI in aid that we intend to spend will be channelled through the European Union. I commend him for his desire to have transparency in aid, which is absolutely right, for reasons that my hon. Friend Bob Stewart touched on. It would be perverse if, having gone to the trouble of making aid transparent in the UK, the large portion of our aid that goes through the EU and the European Commission was obscure. A lot of EU aid is used to prosecute foreign policy in relation to its near abroad, seemingly as an extension of the External Action Service. As chairman of the all-party group on Morocco, which is the largest recipient under the European neighbourhood policy, I can say that in general terms the money seems to be reasonably well spent.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern for Maghreb Morocco. We provided £1 million for Tunisia when the Foreign Secretary went there last year. I am obviously not against that, but £1 million is almost irrelevant. We need to help our near abroad so that it becomes more like us.
I entirely agree, but it seems to me that some European aid is an extension of the External Action Service rather than necessarily aid in the sense that we give it to Bangladesh, for example. The right hon. Gentleman might see that as a nice distinction, but it is important nevertheless.
I am pleased to see in the Queen’s Speech the Croatia accession Bill, which represents the UK’s ratification of the accession treaty signed in December. Those of us of a Eurosceptic disposition see the EU as a trading compact, and that means a looser, not an ever-closer, union that is wider still and wider. Croatia has made considerable inroads in progressing the chapters of the acquis communautaire assessed in 2005 as being in need of further work, notably in relation to chapters 23 and 24, which deal with the judiciary, fundamental rights, justice, freedom and security. The process has been painful for Croatia, particularly in relation to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, but it has ultimately been successful. We wish it well in 2013.
More problematic is Serbia, which I fear must remain a candidate for some time. Belgrade’s attitude to, inter alia, human rights and its criminal justice system are in no way congruous with EU member states. The detention without trial of my constituent, Nick Djivanovic, by the Serb authorities under highly questionable laws and procedures from the days of Marshal Tito, which have no equivalent in the EU, illustrates the point perfectly in relation to chapters 23 and 24 of the acquis communautaire. Following the eventual arrest and surrender of Ratko Mladic, I hope that the Government will work with Serbia so that its aspiration is eventually satisfied, but it will need a great deal more work.
Immigration remains a matter of great concern to many of our constituents. Will the Minister describe the transitional immigration controls that will apply to Croatia and to future accession states, noting the migratory pressures that are sadly likely as the citizens of economically benighted southern European states seek refuge further north?
The ubiquity of the English language has been touched on. It is a blessing and a curse. The orthodoxy is that we should teach more modern foreign languages. I hope, however, that we will pick up on the blessing that the language brings in extending our linguistic reach. In particular, we must support the work of the British Council, which I have seen at first hand in Morocco—a country that is at the heart of what France has traditionally seen as its backyard.
We need to exploit more our further and higher education sectors, so that tomorrow’s movers and shakers come to this country and not to others. They may then be sympathetic to us in the years ahead. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on the European Commission’s Tempus programme and the Erasmus Mundus external co-operation window, which the UK has not exploited in Europe to the fullest extent.
It is a great pleasure to follow Dr Murrison. I associate myself with his comments about Morocco. I did not realise that he was the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Morocco. I feel very inclined to join it after his remarks. I have been to Morocco on several occasions and have friends in that country. Indeed, a late great uncle of mine was once the mayor of Tangier. That helped my
Jewish family in the second world war, who took refuge in Morocco. I think that Morocco is the only Arab country that recognises an Israeli passport and allows joint citizenship with Israel.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks. It is not said loudly enough that the story of Morocco is one of tolerance. In particular, the record of the former sultan in supporting the Jewish community, particularly around Casablanca, against the Vichy French is a powerful example. Morocco ought to be very proud of that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I hope that I can join his group and work with him for the benefit of Anglo-Moroccan relations, which are important to this country and to the Arab world.
I will concentrate on one major issue that concerns me, which I hope the Government will take up. Indeed, the Government have made their views on it fairly clear, but they need to do more. It is the issue of Tibet.
Yesterday, I was privileged to be invited to St Paul’s cathedral to hear the address by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso. He was awarded the prestigious Templeton prize, which is awarded for a person’s spiritual contribution to humanity. It is now 100 years since the birth of the prize’s founder, Sir John Templeton.
St Paul’s, as Members will know, is a wonderful venue for any ceremonial. To be there in the presence of so many people, but especially the Dalai Lama, and to hear his magnificent speech about compassion, peace and love for all humanity was very uplifting. It made me realise that the attempts by the Chinese Government to bring the Dalai Lama into disrepute, calling him a “splittist” and even, on some occasions, a terrorist, are complete and utter nonsense. We know that this is a man who stands up for peace and love for all humanity. How can the Chinese Government, who have such a poor record of human rights violations, accuse somebody such as the Dalai Lama of what they accuse him of? I hope that our Government will put further pressure on the Chinese Government to ensure that the human rights violations all over that country, but especially in Tibet, are brought to an end, or at least brought to public notice.
I want to draw attention to the case of one individual. His name is Dhondup Wangchen. He was a renowned filmmaker in Tibet until 2008, when he was arrested for making a film about the effect of the Olympics in Beijing on the people of Tibet. It was a modest film, as anybody who has seen it will know, in which the Tibetan people who were interviewed said, “It would be nice if we had a chance to share in the interest and pleasure of watching live sport, especially something as prestigious as the Olympics, but the Government won’t let us because we are Tibetan.” For that film, Dhondup Wangchen was arrested, supposedly tried and imprisoned for eight years. He is still in prison. He is currently suffering from a hepatitis C infection that is damaging his health, and he is being denied the appropriate health care.
I hope that the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary will bring the case of Dhondup Wangchen to the attention of the Chinese Government, as well as the cases of the many other Tibetans who have been arrested simply for supporting the Dalai Lama. It is now a criminal offence in Tibet to put up a portrait of His Holiness. One does not have to do anything but put up a portrait that is then seen. That is why many Tibetans now hide his portrait in a cupboard or somewhere else where it cannot be seen by spies and people who are there on behalf of the Chinese Administration.
We know what the Dalai Lama has written. All that he has ever asked for is true autonomy for Tibet. No longer is the argument put forward that Tibet wants to be a proud, autonomous, independent nation once again. I think that many Tibetans wish that that was the case, but they so revere the Dalai Lama that they would not deny or contradict his “middle way” approach. That is something that the British Government should support.
In 2006, just six years ago this month, I was privileged to be part of the Foreign Affairs Committee delegation that went to Lhasa. It was a fascinating experience. The visit was brought about by the determination of my colleague on the Committee at the time, Sir John Stanley. He persisted in arguing that we should be allowed to go, in the face of Foreign Office resistance and, of course, resistance from the Chinese Government. But go we did. There were five of us, the others being my hon. Friend Ms Stuart and two former Members, Andrew Mackinlay and Richard Younger-Ross.
We were accompanied by 10 people from Beijing, if I recall correctly, to ensure that we did not stray off the path that the Chinese Administration had set down for us. None the less, Andrew Mackinlay and I managed to escape our minders one afternoon, after three days in Lhasa, to explore the Barkhor markets and talk to people, although they were scared to talk to foreigners. That gave us a true insight into the way in which the Chinese Government are trying to make the people of Tibet Chinese; the way in which Han Chinese people are being encouraged to move into the new housing that is being built in Lhasa; the way in which the Tibetan language is demoted, even for Tibetan children in the schools in that country; and the way in which nomads are being forced to live in fixed accommodation, no longer able to pursue the lifestyle and culture that they have had for centuries. The culture of Tibet—its costume, its cultural festivities, its celebrations and the very faith of Buddhism—is being eroded in the name of standardisation and Chinese-ification.
Our Government need to stand up and speak louder for the future and self-determination of the Tibetan people before it is too late. My fear, and that of right hon. and hon. Members who support the Tibetan cause, many of whom were at St Paul’s cathedral yesterday, is that in 20 or 50 years’ time, there will be a Tibetan diaspora but no Tibetan people still living in Tibet. That would be a tragedy.
Yesterday, His Holiness the Dalai Lama acknowledged his debt to the people and Government of India, who welcomed him when he was forced into exile in 1959, where he has been ever since in Dharamsala. Each year, with the support of the Tibet Society, the all-party Tibet group, which I chair, tries to organise a trip to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj for parliamentarians to meet the brilliantly organised Tibetan Government-in-exile and see their Parliament, their artistic and cultural organisations and their political prisoners’ organisation, from which we hear the most harrowing tales. Best of all, we see the Tibetan children’s village, where children who have walked across the Himalayas to escape the oppression of the Chinese Government and Communist party, often unaccompanied by their parents, come into India and are welcomed with open arms. They are supported by many western and eastern people, many of whom come from Japan. It is so uplifting to see how those children are looked after.
I do not want to go into the debate that we will continue to have about the rights and wrongs of what is happening between Israel and the Palestinian people, but the director of the Tibetan children’s village went to Israel to see how the kibbutzim were managed and organised. When I was last there, I could not help but think that the village was run along the lines of a kibbutz. It seemed very much like it. I said to the director, “This seems strange. Have you been to Israel?” He said, “Yes we have. We went there to see what a kibbutz was like, and we put their principles into practice here so that our children could benefit from collective living and a co-operative upbringing together.” Their parents are often stuck in Lhasa or other towns and villages in Tibet.
Tibet will die if we do not continue to support it. We should not be afraid of the Chinese bullies. I was very pleased that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister were there yesterday to meet His Holiness at St Paul’s cathedral, and I congratulate them. However, I am also aware, as many Members will be if they read this morning’s papers, that the Chinese Government expressed in the strongest possible terms their anger at the fact that our Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister had had the temerity to meet the Dalai Lama. We must stand up against this bullying.
When the Foreign Affairs Committee was in Beijing, the Chinese people’s foreign affairs committee threatened us with all sorts of retribution if we visited Taiwan. We were told it would have far-reaching damaging effects on the relationship between the UK and China. We went to Taiwan, and no damaging effect was felt at all. We must stand up to these bully-boy tactics, stand up for Tibet and stand up for the message of peace, love and compassion that His Holiness the Dalai Lama continues to put forth without fear or favour.
Women have always played a part in war and peace, sometimes as arbitrators, sometimes as appeasers and at other times as agitants. As far back as the 7th century BC, Homer writes about my namesake, Helen of Troy, causing the launch of a thousand ships. Be it in fact or fiction, we know that throughout history women have not only driven men to defend the homes, their honour and their livelihoods but have also been drivers of peace. They are often the first to call for an end to fighting.
It surely follows that the inclusion of women at the official peace table is both logical and rational and reflects the needs of society as a whole. I am pleased to say that our Foreign Secretary has promoted that stance. He said at the launch of the “No Women No Peace” campaign in 2010:
“No lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met.”
Yet in the 16 peace processes undertaken since 2000, female involvement has been minimal. In five cases, no women at all were involved. Excuses include lack of knowledge, lack of experience and lack of negotiating skills, but those same criteria are rarely applied to military and political men, who continue to make the domain their own.
Notwithstanding those attitudes, there are many examples of women around the world who have been central to positive change—Mo Mowlam, Rosa Parks, Mary Robinson and Aung San Suu Kyi to name but a few. Their courage has created international awareness of women as peacemakers, a role that was recognised and adopted 10 years ago in UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. Although the resolution is yet to be rewarded with widespread change, I welcome the Government’s recognition of its importance in their national action plan, which was first published in 2010 and revised earlier this year.
I agree with the hon. Lady that this is an enormously important matter and that having the national action plan is a good start, but should not the Government put resources behind that plan to make something happen? We need more than speeches.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point, but the Government are putting resources behind their words, and if she waits a little longer she will hear me give some examples of those resources and the Government’s action.
Correcting gender imbalance in conflict resolution is a very effective use of overseas aid and a rightful aspect of our foreign policy, but in some countries a seismic movement in male culture is needed before the empowerment of women can take place and the benefits be fully realised. South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is one such place, as I witnessed for myself on a parliamentary visit during the Easter recess.
Blessed with immense mineral wealth and fed by the waters of the White Nile, South Sudan has the potential to become one of the great breadbaskets of Africa. I saw a truly mammoth UN operation, supported by a raft of foreign aid. It should be a place with a future, but it soon became clear that some of the leaders were more intent on conflict over oil revenues. Tension was everywhere and the smell of catastrophe was in the air, yet throughout many discussions with influential politicians, not once did I have political dialogue with a South Sudanese woman. All such meetings were exclusively populated by men.
If we drill into the culture, the reasons behind that become plain. Under the “bride price” dowry system, women are regarded as the property of their husbands and fathers, turning them into economic objects. They are married off at a very young age and have to leave school, which is why 84% of women are illiterate. They are expected to bear many children, and one in seven women die in pregnancy or childbirth, the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the issue of literacy among females, which she has just touched on, is crucial, particularly in the mid and southern Sahara region of
Africa? The more we can get females educated in the nations there, the more likely it is that we will see the development and emancipation to which she refers.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I agree with everything that he has said.
Added to all that, in certain areas of South Sudan domestic violence is not just tolerated but expected, driving self-esteem, confidence and aspiration further into the dust. Amid the paucity of respect and consideration, however, there is some official acceptance of the need for change. A quota policy was adopted to ensure that women made up 25% of those on the country’s decision-making bodies. Although I personally dislike quotas, it was noticeable that during the election, 70% of voters were women. They came out to support other women as candidates and achieved an incredible 34% of women in Parliament and 30% in the Executive branch.
On paper, those numbers are encouraging, but I am sceptical about whether many of those elected women yet command real power and influence. One who certainly does is a remarkable lady called Anne Itto, deputy secretary-general of the governing party and Minister for Agriculture. She has bravely taken centre stage, speaking out for peace, economic progress and the inclusion of women in peacemaking. She said:
“The role women play as combatants, supporters of fighting forces, and peacemakers qualifies them to sit at the negotiating table and to assume an active role in implementation.”
Individuals like Anne Itto are capable of galvanising a female political movement—a movement derived from the many women who have taken on the roles and responsibilities of absent men throughout the conflicts of the past.
Those women have outgrown the pre-war social and political order, which was the cause of the fighting. They just need a spark of empowerment to overcome their suppression, seize an education and participate in building their nation. Those are the drivers of DFID’s gender strategy for South Sudan. It targets reproductive health, women’s economic empowerment, girls’ education and the prevention of domestic violence. The Department’s vision recognises the importance of the state’s approach to gender in the wider success of the peacebuilding and state-building effort. It is also a fine example of how our foreign aid is utilised both strategically and surgically.
In addition to all that, bold and visionary male leadership will be needed in South Sudan to enable the change. As I have said before in this place, when courageous women meet enlightened men, there is little that cannot be achieved.
In conclusion, I would like to take the opportunity to praise the coalition Government, as the first Government in history to set out clear plans to honour a life-saving and life-changing aid pledge, which they will do by 2013. A commitment to legislate was set out in the coalition programme for government. I understand that the Bill is ready, and that there will be legislation when parliamentary time allows. In the meantime, we should acknowledge the work that has been done and continues to be done. For example, over the lifetime of this Parliament, the UK will help get 11 million children into school, save the lives of 50,000 mothers in childbirth, and vaccinate a child every two seconds. In the words of Benjamin Franklin:
“Well done is better than well said.”
When we debate foreign affairs, it is difficult to restrict oneself to a limited number of subjects because there are so many things that one wants to talk about. I will cover two matters: general peace issues and the rights of migrant peoples across the world.
We heard a long discussion by the Foreign Secretary, who will go to the NATO summit next week in Chicago, on the future of Afghanistan. We should pause for a moment and hold the narrative. This country has spent £17 billion on the war in Afghanistan, which remains extremely poor, extremely corrupt and, to some extent, dominated by drug users, and the streets of our country have not been made any safer. Like many other countries, we have passed a series of anti-terror laws that are draconian to say the least. We have to learn a lesson about what intervention means and what the war on terror, inspired by George Bush in 2002, means for Afghanistan, Iraq and the whole policy narrative that we are following.
I opposed the war in Afghanistan and strongly opposed the war in Iraq because I could see no good end to them. It was not that I and others who opposed the wars supported the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s regime. We simply did not believe that western intervention would bring about peace and justice or human rights; it seldom does. Indeed, although the intervention in Libya killed and removed Gaddafi, it has left behind it a series of warring factions, abominable human rights abuses, and lynchings of African people who happened to be living in Libya at the time of the NATO bombardment.
In the discussion about Iran, I recognise a similar process to the one that we went through in the build-up to the war in Iraq. I hope that the conference that took place in Istanbul and the Baghdad meeting that is due to happen in the near future will bring about some resolution and some contact between the west and Iran. We should read the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection reports carefully because they do not confirm that Iran has nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons grade uranium or plutonium. They confirm that, with the exception of the inspections required under the voluntary supplementary protocol to the non-proliferation treaty, the IAEA has been able to inspect nuclear weapons sites. We should be careful about our approach to the issue.
As I said in an intervention on the Foreign Secretary, the Iranian Government remain committed to, and a signatory of, the NPT. Indeed, the last NPT review conference envisaged the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free middle east—I think that we would all support that. However, that cannot be done within the terms of the NPT; it needs a wider convention. That requires the participation of Israel, which has nuclear weapons, 200 warheads and a delivery system. It is quite capable of using that and threatening somebody else. I hope that the Helsinki meeting is successful and that we move some way towards a nuclear weapons-free middle east as a result of it. However, an attack on Iran by Israel, or the continuing assassination of individual scientists in Iran by special forces, are great dangers, just as the deployment of large naval vessels in the strait of Hormuz may spark some sort of conflict.
I am not here to defend the Iranian Government. I deplore their human rights record and the treatment of ethnic and linguistic minorities, trade unions and religious groups. However, a western attack and a war on Iran will not liberate those people. It will kill many people, as has happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I hope that we will not be so stupid as to start yet another war in the middle east, with all the ramifications that that would have.
Instead, I hope that we will put our efforts into peace and justice in the region, particularly for the Palestinian people. We should recognise that the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike, which has just ended, is a cri de coeur from those, including children and elected members of parliament, who have been in administrative detention—held without trial—by the Israeli Government. Although it is easy for the friends of Israel to proclaim it to be the only democracy in the whole region, a democracy cannot call itself by that name if it denies the same rights to others through occupation, settlement, the construction of walls or the imprisonment of its elected representatives. I therefore hope that the Government will continue to criticise the settlement policy, and that, above all, the rest of the world recognises what is happening.
We need to consider our approach to world affairs because we are keen to say that Iran should not have nuclear weapons—I do not think that Iran should have nuclear weapons any more than any other country should—but we have them, and we propose to spend £100 billion on replacing Trident. We also spend 2.6% of our GDP—the highest level in Europe—on defence. Perhaps we should think about reordering some of our priorities and looking at things in a slightly different way.
In the three and a half minutes left, I want to consider an issue that has not been raised in the debate and is seldom ever raised: the shocking abuse of the human rights of people who try to escape poverty in the poorest parts of the world. There is a flow of migrants from the poorest countries in central and sub-Saharan Africa across the desert to the Canary islands, Libya, Italy, Greece and other countries, and what happens to them is appalling. The numbers who die en route in the Mediterranean and trying to get across the little bit of ocean towards the Canary Islands are truly shocking, as too are the numbers killed in Libya or deported and left in dangerous and harsh conditions.
It is easy to blame the people traffickers—I have no truck with people traffickers; what they do is absolutely disgusting—and, as a wealthy country in the western world, it is easy for us to condemn migration and see it as a threat, but we are part of the problem. We have allowed the trade policies to develop that have impoverished so much of central and sub-Saharan Africa, and we use xenophobic arguments against people who are merely pleading to survive, to get to a place where they can work and to send resources and money home to their families.
Across the Atlantic, exactly the same thing is happening in parallel. The very poorest people from central America—from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala—are fleeing through Mexico to the USA. They get across the border into Mexico, they ride freight trains, they are pulled off the freight trains, they are killed or kidnapped, and their families back home are forced to pay a ransom to the gang that did the kidnapping. I shall quote from a report I was given last week from the Campaign for the Right to Migrate Free from Violence, when Bishop Vera of Saltillo in Mexico was visiting this country. I had a long discussion with him. I quote from Daniel, a 20-year-old, who said:
“Eight men came and took us off the train, beat us… right nearby were six agents of the Federal Police, in their patrol cars, who didn’t do anything… we screamed and asked them to help us, but they didn’t do anything… Inside the house”, in which they were held
“there was blood everywhere and lots of flies; there were about thirty kidnapped people there, six were women and they suffered so much, because from the time we arrived all of the kidnappers raped them, they raped them whenever they wanted, always right in front of us”.
It goes on to describe how people were killed in front of this young man.
These people are also fleeing poverty, and trying to escape violence and to seek justice in the world. We need to give a thought to the plight of migrant people all over the world. When they get to Europe or the USA, they clean our floors and offices, they pick the fruit, they work in the farms and factories, and they sustain the economic wealth of western Europe and north America. They are contributing to our wealth. It is up to us to recognise that they, too, deserve justice and human rights.
It is a form of pleasure to follow Jeremy Corbyn—I say “a form” because I well remember in 1992 I and others tried to unseat him, but, having listened to his eloquence and passion, it is probably right that we failed.
I thought that this debate would focus on Europe and the EU, but I suppose that, like many other hon. Members, I should be relieved that it has not. Instead, it has been a very wide-ranging debate. But, of course, Europe and the EU are important to us. It is our nearest neighbour and biggest marketplace. We all know that 50% of our trade links directly into the EU, the City of London is the financial centre for the trading of financial instruments and we benefit significantly from the single market, largely because we were its principal architects. These facts are undeniable.
We also cannot be blind to the fact, however, that the storm clouds now gathering over Europe, particularly in the eurozone, significantly hamper our attempts to get ourselves out of the mess into which we have got over the past several years and to dig ourselves out of the debt into which we have dug ourselves. We cannot deny these facts. My hon. Friend James Morris said that some countries, such as Greece, are in crisis. More disturbingly, more countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, are in sclerosis. There is an economic and financial degeneration in Europe that could take years to arrest, which is why we need to raise our sights above and beyond Europe, as we always have done, to the new and emerging marketplaces in the far east, south America and the old Soviet bloc.
The Queen’s Speech made the point that we
“will build strategic partnerships with the emerging powers.”
I am pleased to read that, and I rather hope that two of the areas in which we will seek to build partnerships will be a big country and a small country. The big country is China, which, curiously, was not mentioned overmuch by either Front-Bench spokesperson, although Fabian Hamilton made a passionate and eloquent speech.
My eyes were opened to China when I visited with a Select Committee early this year. The growth in GDP each year in China has been stupendous. We all know the figures—14% growth in Chongqing, 12% growth in Beijing—but that hides the reality of a city such as Shenzhen, which, 30 years ago, was a village in a paddy field, but which is now a vibrant trading city of granite and glass, with 10.5 million Chinese souls living in it. The bicycles have gone and the fuel-injected engines and 4x4s have come instead. The young Chinese, who have dreams of tomorrow, have high-carbon dreams: they want the nice home, the nice car, the nice holiday—and they are going to get them.
Looking around those cities, one will see the countries providing them with those dreams. The cars are Volkswagens, Audis and BMWs. It is Germany, I fear, which is providing the icons of quality in China that those young Chinese want to see and buy. I hope, then, that the Foreign Office will redouble its efforts to expand our commercial consular service in China, particularly in the western provinces, which are growing even quicker than the east, to ensure that British businesses, including construction businesses, can put their stamp on China, earn money for our economy and make the point that we, too, can be icons of quality in that massive marketplace.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting and thoughtful contribution. Does he agree that we must look at the tariff arrangements that act to the detriment of, for example, our export of quality automotive vehicles, such as Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, to areas such as China?
The fact is that there is a massive expansion of those goods in China, which is the key market for cars such as Bentleys. I would like to see more cars sold from Britain to China, but we do not make them and have not done so for a rather long time.
I would also like to mention a smaller country. Azerbaijan is a young country, but it has a thriving economy that has grown by about 21% over the past four years. It operates a 27% surplus and is an economy in which we already invest heavily. The energy infrastructure in Azerbaijan is largely provided by companies such as BP. The Manganese Bronze cab company has exported 500 black cabs to Baku and will export, we hope, about 3,000 more. So there is lots of opportunity in Azerbaijan, and I rather hope we will take it.
We need to recognise the civil liberties issues in Azerbaijan, which international agencies have seen and talked about, but they should not prevent us from recognising the advances it has made in 20 years. It had no experience of a market economy or of elected democracy, so we should recognise the advances it is making and support it. We should support Azerbaijan because it is a secular Islamic society with a tolerant approach to religion.
We should also support Azerbaijan because it is going to be—in fact, it already is—a significant energy player in its region. The oil and gas coming out of the country can have—indeed, is having—an even bigger impact on the region. The proposed pipeline from Azerbaijan through Anatolia is one example of how the gas and the oil from that country can increase the size of the marketplace in Europe. The refining capacity that the Azerbaijanis are building in Kyrgyzstan is also an example of how they are expanding their oil and gas facilities. I hope that we will continue to support that country in expanding its facilities, because that is a key way in which we will expand our interests there and encourage the elites in Azerbaijan to liberalise further.
I hold up my hand and make a declaration: I am a member of the all-party group on Azerbaijan and I have been to Baku on a number of occasions. I am impressed by the strides forward that the country is making, and I am certainly impressed by what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has done to try to improve links with it. However, I also hope that, building on those links, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will, at some point soon, make a point of visiting Azerbaijan to build our links further and further encourage the younger generation of leaders there towards greater democracy and liberalisation.
In the short time left to me, I want to mention another former Soviet satellite, but a very different one: Latvia. Latvia has historically had strong trade links with our country. It has had some difficulties in the last few years because, with the crash, it hit economic rock bottom. However, Latvia is now building itself up again, and I was pleased that the Prime Minister hosted the first Baltic conference in London two years ago. The Latvians were pleased with that, too. They are hosting a third conference in Riga later this summer. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister—ably assisted, of course, by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe—will go to Riga to make clear our support for Latvia.
I remember reading a book at school by Lord Briggs—Asa Briggs—who, talking about British tradesmen in the 18th century, made the point that we always looked beyond Europe, setting our sights on the world beyond. He said that British tradesmen were “buccaneers” on the high seas of trade. That is what I think we should be. I rather hope that the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development will put aside the “cult of the gentleman” and do their utmost to assist British business and British commercial interests in China, Azerbaijan and Latvia, and everywhere else where our traders are working in our interest. It is good for our prosperity, good for our security and good for our trading partners.
I would like to spend a few minutes addressing the Government’s failure to include legislation in the Queen’s Speech to make it mandatory for 0.7% of gross national income to be spent on overseas development, despite the fact that both coalition parties pledged themselves to such a commitment in their agreement. The Government can, of course, point to the fact that, notwithstanding the omission of such legislation, the Queen’s Speech confirmed their commitment to reaching the 0.7% target from next year. I congratulate the Government on sticking to that commitment—a commitment first entered into, of course, by the Labour party. I congratulate the Government because at a time of economic stringency, it would have been all too easy to succumb to the cries of those who call for overseas aid to be cut in favour of spending at home.
The continuation of the commitment to overseas development is a recognition of the fact that it is in our national interest to assist the poorest in our world community, because poor countries are less likely to buy our exports and poor countries that become failed states threaten our national security in all sorts of ways, of which hon. Members will be well aware. Supporting the poor in the poorest countries is also a recognition of a moral imperative, whether motivated by faith or by other ethical perspectives. Indeed, it does not particularly matter: it is a moral imperative, and I am glad that colleagues across the House have made that point in their speeches today.
That is why I find it surprising that the Queen’s Speech did not include legislation to make spending 0.7% of GNI on overseas development assistance mandatory. I do not accept the argument that the time cannot be found. The legislation would be short and would have all-party agreement. Given the experience of the previous Session, when legislation was sometimes in all too short supply, I do not think it would be difficult to find time. All I can assume is that the Government, although prepared to do good by stealth and quietly stick to the 0.7% spending target, were nevertheless not prepared to proclaim their commitment from the rooftops, for fear of attracting too much attention and political flak from their more right-wing members and supporters. I understand why that might have seemed an attractive course of action, but I believe it to be a great mistake, and one that will be counter-productive to the Government’s stated commitment.
Those who do not support the 0.7% commitment in law will have scented weakness in the omission of the promised legislation, and will draw the conclusion that they should press more, in the hope that they can undermine the spending commitment as well. However, if the Government had gone ahead with legislation, there would have been a battle, but once it was through, the very fact that disengaging from such a commitment would be more difficult—requiring, as it would, a new Act of Parliament to repeal it, and one that would certainly face strong opposition—would make the commitment much more likely to remain, no longer being subject to real attack.
My hon. Friend raises the important point of the 0.7% target. Would not setting such a target also be an opportunity for the Government to leave a lasting legacy, so to speak, for future Governments, demonstrating the immense commitment of the UK people to international development?
Indeed it would, which leads to me to the point that other countries look at what we in the UK do on development assistance. The UK under this Government—as, indeed, under the last—is seen as a world leader. In the current world economic situation, many richer countries are beginning to cut their overseas development assistance. The world community is beginning to draw back from the pledges it has made to the poor in poorer countries. Promises are being broken. An unequivocal commitment from the UK that we are standing by our promises—not just for one spending programme, but for the long term—would encourage those elsewhere in the world who want the promises made to the poor to be kept and who want to ensure that the weakest in the world community do not become the greatest victims of the world economic crisis.
I therefore hope that the Government will recognise that it would be to the advantage of their stated cause to introduce a Bill to make the 0.7% commitment mandatory. If they do not do so, I suspect that one of the hon. Members who signed the private Members’ Bill book today who comes up in the ballot will almost certainly choose to introduce such a Bill anyway, thereby putting the Government in the invidious position of either supporting it or asking Members to vote down legislation that they support. I therefore hope that the Government will think again on the 0.7% commitment.
However, legislation is one thing. Targets are important; what is also important is how spending on international development meets long-term development objectives and short-term crises. In that context, I want to say a few words about something that has not been covered in the debate so far: the spreading food and hunger crises in many parts of Africa. Western Africa is now facing a new hunger crisis, which has the potential to be as serious as the one in the horn of Africa. Hundreds of thousands are still facing hunger and, at best, life in refugee camps in Somalia, and we are seeing similar crises developing, for all sorts of reasons, in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When we look at what is happening in west Africa, we see an awful similarity to what happened in the horn of Africa. There were warnings about what was happening in the horn of Africa months and even years ahead; yet the world did not respond until it was too late. Since the crisis in Somalia, we have had the welcome Ashdown report, which was commissioned by this Government, on humanitarian and emergency relief. The food crisis in west Africa is a test of the new policy. I would like Ministers to tell us, if they can, what the UK is doing to put the new policy to the test in west Africa and to face up to the worrying possibility of a new famine, and to say what the Government are doing to that end internationally.
Conflict is obviously contributing to the crisis in west Africa, as it did in Somalia when the knock-on effects of events in north Africa moved further south. The growing humanitarian crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are also linked to conflicts in those areas. Conflict is often the underlying cause of hunger and famine in many parts of the world. Tackling the underlying causes is never easy; there are no simple solutions. Ideally, the problems need to be addressed by African solutions and initiatives, supported by the world community. I would like to know what the Government are doing to support campaigns by African institutions to tackle such regional security issues.
Long-term solutions also require an awareness that support for food production and agricultural development for and by local communities is vital. I agree with what Pauline Latham said about that earlier. It is vital that we give more support for food production and agriculture, to increase resilience to short-term crises and to provide long-term opportunities for development.
It is not only Britain that has a role to play in this regard; there must be agreement and action in the international community. I endorse the comments made today by the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon.
Friend Mr Alexander. We have heard some interesting comments from the Back Benches, and from the Secretary of State, but what was missing was an idea of an overall strategy and cohesion of themes linking together the policy on international development. International meetings including the G8, the G20 and the Rio+20 summit are coming up, and we must also consider the future of the Doha round. They will all require a strategy, but we have not heard one today from the Foreign Secretary. Perhaps we will hear more in the closing comments from the Secretary of State for International Development, Mr Mitchell.
At a time of great difficulty, it is always tempting to look inwards. However, it is now more important than ever to look outwards, because it is by engaging constructively with the world that we will see growth in our economy and security for our people, and help others to tackle grinding poverty and the effects of climate change. I therefore welcome the Government’s focus on exports, on inward and outward investment, on expanding the UK’s diplomatic network—I should like to echo the praise for the work of our diplomatic missions around the world—and on well-targeted development aid.
Figures released today show that UK exports—that is, exports of goods and services combined—have increased by 17% since March 2010 to £41.8 billion. Significantly, exports of goods to non-EU countries have risen from £10.8 billion in September 2010 to £13.1 billion in March this year. Almost all the recent increase involves exports of goods to non-EU countries. It is worth pointing out that six of the 10 fastest growing countries in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa—many of them are members of the Commonwealth—and it is to those countries that we should look for our growth in the next two to three decades.
British companies have been working very hard against fierce competition, but we cannot rest there. Britain has a lower percentage of small and medium-sized enterprises involved in exports than our rivals, and we need to help those companies to compete across the globe. Export Credits Guarantee Department cover has improved since last year, but I would urge the Government to ensure that our companies have access to the same cover as that enjoyed by their competitors in Germany and the Netherlands. At the moment, we fall considerably short of that goal.
One factor that is not quantifiable but is nevertheless significant for the UK’s export performance is the UK’s diplomatic network. A recent article in The Economist stated:
“Diplomats have been told to focus on three objectives: defending national security, looking after British citizens abroad and—above all—boosting prosperity by promoting British business. If Britain moves quickly, it can be the first European country to spot the vital need for long-haul, bilateral diplomacy, Mr Hague suggests.”
The Foreign Secretary is right. Too often, we have been complacent or slow off the mark, and lost traditional markets or failed to take the new opportunities, yet Britain is opening eight new embassies in Asia by 2015, at a time when others are cutting back, and despite a smaller budget.
Is not the hon. Gentleman illustrating the fact that there is quite a narrow focus on international issues? As my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz said, there is no overriding theme running through the Foreign Office. Surely our diplomatic efforts should be about more than just trade. Did not the Government come unstuck in that way before, when the Prime Minister went abroad to promote trade at a time when there were real problems in the middle east that needed to be addressed through a much wider diplomatic effort?
I would take a slightly different view, having worked with the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development and served on the International Development Committee. I have seen a joined-up approach between DFID and the Foreign Office; more so than ever before. I also see Foreign Office Ministers taking such issues as human rights and the environment extremely seriously. Perhaps that has not come out in some of the debates so far, but my experience on the ground is slightly different from that of the hon. Lady.
Tackling the trade deficit is not just about increasing exports, however. It is also about doing more at home in areas where we have traditionally been large importers. Let us take food and drink as an example. The trade deficit in 2011 was £17.8 billion on food and drink alone. Ensuring that UK farmers have a fair deal from their customers would give a significant boost to agriculture and horticulture, creating many jobs in the process, which is why producers in my Stafford constituency welcome the legislation to establish an independent adjudicator between supermarkets and their suppliers.
In recent years, we have been told that the UK can no longer compete in standard manufacturing, and that we must concentrate on high value-added products. I disagree. It is not either/or; it is both/and. As wages rise in developing countries and as the cost of transport increases, there is an advantage in being close to our markets and not bringing everything in from the other side of the world.
That brings me to a subject that, as a Conservative, I perhaps should not raise—but I will. As a nation, we need to be prepared to identify strategic areas of business and to back them—not to the exclusion of common sense, but with more than warm words. Germany and France do that, and we can hardly say that their economies are less competitive than ours. As a result, state-backed—perhaps I should say “encouraged”—French and German companies have taken over swaths of British manufacturing and service industries. Many are good businesses that invest heavily in the UK—Alstom and Total are examples in my constituency—and they reap the rewards, but we do not see the reverse happening to nearly the same extent. Is it that our companies are less adventurous, or is it that they have lacked support and encouragement from successive UK Governments and face obstacles at the other end that the single market is supposed to prevent? Sometimes I think that there is a single market in the EU, and that that single market is the UK. I will believe otherwise when I see Severn Trent running the Paris water supply and Virgin Trains operating on Deutsche Bahn.
The UK’s role in helping with security in troubled areas is underplayed. Understandably, we concentrate on Afghanistan, where our forces—including the Tactical
Supply Wing, the 22nd Signal Regiment and 3rd
Battalion the Mercian Regiment from my area—have done so much in working for stability for the people of that country and to make our nation safer. However, trainers from the UK armed forces work in many other parts of the world. Recently, several colleagues and I were privileged to see the work of the British Peace Support Team in Kenya. The UK is also involved in training peacekeepers from the Ugandan and Burundian armies who are undertaking the vital and dangerous UN mission in Mogadishu. The question is often asked: what will our armed forces do once operations in Afghanistan are over? One of the answers is that they would do more of the training of peacekeepers, at which they excel. They are the best in the world.
The Gracious Speech states that the Government
“has set out firm plans to spend nought point seven per cent of gross national income as official development assistance from 2013. This will be the first time the United Kingdom has met this agreed international commitment.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 May 2012; Vol. 737, c. 3.]
As hon. Members have pointed out, that commitment has been around for 40 years, since the Pearson commission in the late 1960s. The UK’s aid programme makes a huge difference to the lives of millions. As the Prime Minister said:
“The last Session of Parliament also made an impact not just at home but around the world. We fed more than 2.5 million people facing famine and starvation, we supported over 5.5 million children to go to school in the poorest countries of our world and we immunised a child against diseases every 2.5 seconds of the last parliamentary Session.”—[Hansard, 9 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 17.]
It is a privilege to serve on the International Development Committee under the chairmanship of Malcolm Bruce, who I see in his place, and to see the effects of the good use of UK taxpayers’ money on the lives of the poorest: children able to study in classrooms for the first time, and deaths from malaria plummeting when UK Government money supplies bed nets, rapid diagnostic tests and artemesinin in combination drugs. This is a programme that looks to the future, helping growth in the private sector so that jobs are created and income generated, supporting tax authorities so that Government revenues grow and reduce the need for aid.
If I were to highlight one area that has been neglected over the years and is now more important than ever—my hon. Friend Pauline Latham and Mark Lazarowicz referred to it—it would be agriculture, in particular smallholder agriculture. We are seeing substantial investment in agriculture by large corporations across the developing world. Where this is done alongside and in co-operation with existing landowners, particularly the small ones, it can work very well, as I saw on recent visits to Zambia and Malawi, by increasing production, productivity and employment. Sadly, however, this is sometimes not the case, as we see examples of large land grabs that leave people destitute.
Some have expressed disappointment that the Queen’s Speech does not mention legislating for 0.7%. I have to say that I do not share their disappointment, as I am keen first of all to reach that amount by showing through action that we can achieve it. Perhaps we could legislate afterwards, having shown the way. What has become increasingly clear to me over the past two years on the International Development Committee is that what matters is that we keep our commitment to the amount, that it is well spent on the poorest and, most important of all, that the countries we are helping make every effort to reduce their dependence on aid. Countries such as Zambia and Rwanda have set out their clear intention to eliminate their need for aid. I welcome this and suggest that the Government ask this of every country we work with.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned land grabs, as a serious issue is at stake. Many of the poorest countries in Africa are seeing their land bought up in large amounts by Japan, China and a number of other countries, which grow food that is then exported straight away. This means we have the phenomenon of very poor people starving alongside bounteous crops. Can we do anything about that through our aid programme?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which concerns me greatly. I much prefer to see large companies working with smallholder farmers, allowing them to keep their land, perhaps leasing it off them for periods of time but with ownership being kept by the nationals. We need to look very seriously at this issue. I know that DFID does not engage in such activity and would not support it, but it is extremely important that we find out what can be done about it. I very much share the hon. Gentleman’s view on that.
Returning to the need to reduce dependence on aid, if a country sets out clearly how it intends to achieve this, it not only shows that the countries themselves are committed to growing their economies and their tax revenues, but gives the British people the confidence that development aid is a partnership with a clear goal.
With exports up, more embassies and other missions open, and a strong development aid programme, the UK is most certainly looking outwards. The key is to maintain this, not just through this Parliament, but for many years thereafter. In that way, Britain will continue to be a reliable partner in trade, in security and in the most vital work of helping the poorest in the world to a better future.
I want to contribute on a number of issues, starting with international development. I support the aid target of 0.7% of GNI. It is a useful target. As others have said, it has been in place for many years, and it can help to identify an amount over time and enable us to compare what different countries are achieving. It is a real credit to the campaigners outside Parliament who pushed for our Governments to get to this stage, and it is a real credit to the last Labour Government that they set in motion the work to achieve that figure. It is also a real credit to this Government that they have retained the target. I have greatly enjoyed hearing support for it right across the Chamber, from Members of all parties. Let us remember that when the Labour Government came to power in 1997, international development aid had fallen to a quite low amount. From then onwards, we saw a steady increase towards the point when this Government have set out this firm commitment.
There are two issues to discuss about the figure of 0.7%. Much of the discussion about international aid both within and without Parliament tends to focus on achieving that figure, but in my view we do not focus enough on what is being done with the money and why. Members have had the opportunity to see some of the projects in action—I saw them when I travelled overseas—but many people outside Parliament have not. We need not only to give more publicity to what is being done with that money in their name, but to be assured that it is being spent in the best possible way. Aid needs to be effective. While we focus on this figure, I think we need to talk more, plan more and do more in seeking clear outcomes. That is why clear goals such as the millennium development goals are important. We must develop the capacity of beneficiaries to become sustainable and productive economies.
I would like to provide some examples from a United Nations Development Programme report that has just been released—the “Africa Human Development Report 2012: Towards a Food Secure Future”. It tells us that 40% of African children aged under five are malnourished because while there have been impressive gross domestic product growth rates, these have not led to the elimination of hunger and malnutrition. The report also identifies that simply focusing on agriculture will not be enough. An approach that works with the whole community is important, including building rural infrastructure and health services.
My hon. Friend talks about the problems of malnourished children. It is important to realise that when children are malnourished, it amounts to a life sentence, as they are disadvantaged for the rest of their lives by being malnourished when they are born or in their earliest years.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why it is so important that we learn from successes such as Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to achieve the millennium development goal of halving hunger, and Malawi, which, through a subsidy programme for seed and fertiliser, has moved within two years from a food deficit to a food surplus.
I do not think that the target needs to be put in law, as each Government put a Budget forward, and each Government have to make a case. Support has to come from parliamentarians, who need to explain why we need that figure. I do not think we should have lots of civil servants running around trying to find the money that qualifies for the target. I have heard people use a terrible term when they have asked whether this or that spending is “ODA-able”—does it count, and can we put it within the 0.7%? Do we need to be that prescriptive about the exact amount? Let us focus on the outcomes. I would also like to see greater focus on investing in improved governance. In the context of effective use of aid, good governance delivers better outcomes for populations.
Let me speak briefly about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, of which I have the honour of being vice-chair. I am delighted that the Department for International Development, in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is putting funds into the Westminster Foundation for Democracy for more work of this kind to be done. It is the 20th anniversary of this organisation. It works with Parliaments and political parties, which are essential to building democracies that are responsive to their populations. It is not only a legitimate focus for aid, but an essential one if we are to see long-lasting changes.
The Prime Minister reiterated that our troops will no longer be in Afghanistan in a combat role beyond the end of 2014. I want to restate my concerns about women in Afghanistan, and the importance of the Government speaking up for women. Anyone who has met women MPs from Afghanistan will know how brave they have to be, often even standing up against their families just to run for election to Parliament. I therefore welcome Ministers’ previous expressions of support in this House, but more can, and should, be done. Women’s safety and security, and guaranteeing their rights, needs more than a passing mention in speeches. Just two months ago, Afghanistan’s leading clerics declared the worth of women to be secondary to that of men, and President Karzai publicly endorsed that decree, despite the new constitution enshrining in law equal rights for women. We know that, despite significant improvements having been made for women and girls in Afghanistan, many women face danger or are the victims of violence, and often they are punished for reporting crimes against them, rather than supported as victims. I therefore ask the Government to say today that they will insist on women’s involvement in all levels of the Afghan peace process, and will consult Afghan women, who know what is happening in their communities, and will explicitly include women’s safety in all discussions on security.
I welcome the changes in Burma. We need to encourage and support them, but I want to offer a word of caution: we must not rush forward too quickly. The Foreign Secretary said there was a plan to open a business office in Naypyidaw, but we should not be too quick to say that that is our No. 1 priority. We want to see democratic processes put in place, and we want all the ethnic groupings in Burma to have the opportunity to take part in them fully. There is still a great deal to be done, therefore. There have been human rights abuses, as well as forced labour, arbitrary taxation, extortion, forced relocation and extrajudicial killings—a litany of problems that have long beset Burma, and have been the effect of the regime. That is not going to change overnight. Many minorities have been persecuted, and forced into camps on the Thai border. For example, for many years people from the Karen community have come to the UK—many to Sheffield. That was supported by the UN, because they were living in terrible conditions, and could not continue to do so. We must not rush to develop our trade with Burma, therefore. Instead, we must continue to offer support, and look at how we can encourage the embedding of democracy in that country, where the people so greatly deserve such changes.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the UK’s overseas territories. I welcome the fact that we are to have a new White Paper on the overseas territories, and I look forward to reading it. I hope we will continue to support our overseas territories through our international aid budget and that they will continue to have first call on that budget. Although there are many countries and situations around the world that are deserving of our support and aid, these are our overseas territories, and we therefore have an extra responsibility towards them. I have welcomed the agreement to develop an airport in St Helena. As Jeremy Lefroy said, we should support and help countries and territories that need aid now. Without an airport, I am certain that St Helena would continue to need our ongoing aid well into the future.
For as long as we continue to have a responsibility towards our territories, we should continue to ensure that human rights are respected in them. We must continue to enforce the tight child protection procedures in the Pitcairn islands, for example. There may well come a point when some of our territories decide that they wish to become independent, however. In such circumstances, I would like our Government to give help and support so that territories can make that decision for themselves.
It is enormously important to reiterate that point in relation to the Falkland Islands. The Falkland islanders have long expressed the view that they wish to be British. The current behaviour of the Argentine Government, in trying to undermine their self-determination and their wish to remain British, is appalling.
We live in a complex and multi-dimensional world, and the rate of change is astonishingly quick. In order to deal with that change, it is important that we think carefully about Britain’s role in the world. I believe that the country needs a strategy. I believe the Government—indeed, any Government—need to work out what they want to achieve in the world, and what resources they have available to them to underpin that achievement. When they have done that, they need to work out how they are going to achieve what they want to achieve with the resources available to them. Of course, unforeseen crises will always arise, but the key question is: what is our vision and our strategy?
That is not rocket science—or, at least, it should not be—but that was not apparent in respect of the strategic defence and security review of October 2010. I agree that the politics should be taken out of that process by conducting a review every five years. Governments should conduct a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the world in which we live. From that analysis, they should draw conclusions, having consulted widely. We should never tire of asking this question: what is Britain’s role in the world? We should never tire of ensuring that how we allocate the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on achieving our foreign policy objectives is underpinned by rigorous analysis.
I have spoken before in this House about hard power—the controlled application of military force. Today however, I want to talk about international development and soft power—how the UK can have leverage in the world through employing the influence and diplomatic power we have as a nation, rather than the influence we could exert as a military power.
Inevitably, the balance between hard and soft power will fluctuate. That is not to say that the utility of military force has declined, but instead that the way in which it is likely to be employed in the future will not be the same as the way it is employed now or has been in the recent past. We are currently witnessing the rising influence of emerging economies such as those of the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China—which is reshaping the strategic environment in which our country operates. In this changing geopolitical environment, the way in which the UK and other countries exercise their influence in conflict, in the global markets, in negotiations and in agreements is also changing, and will continue to do so. In part, that reflects the way, and rate at which, countries are developing. Because of rapid developments in technology, the world is a much smaller place than it used to be.
Technological advances and globalisation bring many challenges, but they have also brought many opportunities to those best placed to take advantage of them. We now live in a world where, for some, luxuries such as a flatscreen TV and a DVD player have almost become necessities to ease the burden of our ever-stressful lives. However, for many millions of people in poorer countries a luxury takes the form of a decent meal or the security of knowing that their child has the same chance of survival as a child here in the UK. Although much good work has been done in recent years, much more can and should be done. So I believe this is more than a responsibility for wealthy nations; it is a moral obligation. This is about civilised societies reaching out and protecting the most vulnerable.
The UK has an excellent track record on international development. The previous Labour Government’s commitment to the provision of aid was well known, and we achieved great things, helping countries that were being crippled by debt and enabling them to focus better on domestic issues, rather than pay money to wealthy nations. That work was not perfect, it was not without risks and it was often controversial, but it was the right thing to do.
I welcome this Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, but they could and should have gone further by protecting that in law, as the Conservative manifesto and the coalition agreement promised. Legislation would have provided some certainty and a guarantee of funds, and it would have allowed long-term plans to be made, based on the knowledge that the resources would be in place to enable them to be fulfilled. By not including legislative protection for international aid, the Government are pandering to those who are not in favour of it. A global financial crisis is occurring, with recession having an impact on countries around the world. In this economic climate, we will all have heard people being sceptical and cynical about the value and utility of international aid, and suggesting that charity should begin at home. I understand why that is said, but in the context of trying to save a child’s life—any child’s life; ultimately, that is what aid can do—I do not agree with it. This is not just about one child; it is about many millions of children. What could anybody prioritise above them?
Just as a result of the work that has been done over the previous 20 years, 12,000 fewer children died every day in 2010 compared with the figure for 1990. Over the past two decades, the level of stunting, whereby children’s bodies and brains fail to develop properly because of malnutrition, has declined from 45% to 28%. Recent research by Save the Children shows that those countries in sub-Saharan Africa that received the most aid over the past decade also made the most progress on child well-being, so it is vital that aid is guaranteed, because famine rarely creeps up and surprises us. Investing early to prevent developing countries from slipping into famine is far more beneficial and efficient, and it is far cheaper, than responding to emergencies. Right now there is an impending famine in Niger, one than can be prevented if funds are made available in good time. The disastrous famine in east Africa was widely predicted, yet Governments around the world did not release the money in time to prevent it and millions died. The same thing is happening right now in west Africa, and few will notice until the media arrive.
I make this point simply because the hon. Gentleman is the second hon. Member to make a comment such as that last one. The famine in Somalia was predicted, but the British Government were the first to go to the aid of the hundreds of thousands of people caught in that famine—the rest of the world was slow to do so. Will he at least acknowledge that his own Government and his own country, not least through the Disasters Emergency Committee, rapidly addressed that dreadful situation?
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that intervention. The point I am trying to make is that we should not be in the business of waiting until the media arrive before we intervene and provide funding to deliver aid. The more that we can prepare for these situations, as much as we ever can, the more efficient we will be; the best way of investing money is in preventing these things from happening in the first place.
It costs comparatively little to immunise children with the vaccines that our children in the UK rightly have for free. Each year, 7.6 million children in developing countries still die as a result of easily preventable diseases and conditions such as diarrhoea. The removal of the next generation through infant mortality—the rate is still as high as one in 10 in some regions—takes away those who will be educated, who will work and who will bring money into their communities in future years. Small sums can save many lives, and international aid not only helps those who directly receive it, but, in the longer term, has a knock-on effect to those nations that give it. A healthy society is a more prosperous and stable society, and this will bring benefits to global security and to international trade. By helping countries through aid and by ensuring that resources are distributed in a way that minimises corruption, these countries will also build their own capacity to raise money and will be able to improve the lives of their citizens.
So, it is in our longer term national interests to behave in a responsible fashion, but we should not act alone. The G8 has a vital role to play and it is essential that the Prime Minister demonstrates strong leadership on preventive action against famine and disease and on the timely release of funds to prevent predicted disasters and crises, and that he urges immediate action by the other G8 countries in committing to that. The Prime Minister must take the opportunity provided at the G8 this weekend to lead a global push on tackling hunger and malnutrition, the silent killer that is responsible for the deaths of 2.6 million children each year, not just for the benefit of those countries in dire need but for the long-term future benefit of the UK, too.
As I wanted to speak in this debate, I had to cancel a meeting with the chief executive of a company just across the river. He sent me an e-mail saying that he hoped I would be called—he does not understand how long we wait to speak—and said, “Could you please encourage the Government to concentrate on growth and not constitutional waffle?” I thought that that was a rather nice way of summing up Lords reform and I hope that we will see sense on that matter and not go forward with any discussion on it at all. It is not something for which any of our constituents are clamouring.
The Gracious Speech included two Bills on the European Union that the Government intend to introduce in this Session and I want to say a quick word about them. Neither Bill is the Bill that the public want to see. We know that the public, like many Members of this House, want a Bill that allows a referendum on our future relationship with the European Union. The public will note that, despite the passage of the European Union Act 2011, the Government propose to pass legislation to approve the creation of the European stability mechanism and to prepare for Croatia to join the EU without a referendum. Many members of the public were told that we did not need an in/out referendum because the Government would put it into law that any changes to our relationship with the EU would have to be approved by them. We can now see that that promise is inadequate because we will not have any say.
It is surprising that the Government are introducing the Croatia accession Bill. Personally—this is a very personal view—I cannot understand why Croatia would want to join the EU, but if it does that is obviously a matter for it. The ongoing expansion of the EU across the continent, well away from the small set of countries it comprised when we joined, shows that the European project is still very much alive in the hearts of the Brussels elite, who are pushing still for deeper and wider union despite the ongoing economic disaster. I believe—and believe that the public would want to see this—that if we are to be asked to pool our national sovereignty with yet another country with the result that in time our voice and our vote count for less in the European Parliament, that changes our relationship and should lead to a referendum.
Preparations for the European stability mechanism might also be premature. Only today we have the meeting between the new President of France and the German Chancellor with the intention of amending the austerity pact which the euro countries signed up to last year. I welcome the fact that eurozone countries should pay to support other countries that are struggling under that currency, but as we wisely did not join, we should not have to contribute a penny. We have already given too much money to propping up the euro through the International Monetary Fund. I remind the Government that the public will not stand for that, as we have seen from the increasing votes for the UK Independence party.
I was disappointed that neither of the Front-Bench spokesmen—I might be mistaken, but I listened very carefully—mentioned the word Commonwealth. Yet that is an association of 54 independent states that work together in the common interests of their citizens for development, democracy and peace. We just need to contrast that with the European Union. The Commonwealth works to uphold democratic rights and nurture constitutional government and parliamentary accountability, whereas the European Union increasingly seeks to thwart and ride roughshod over the democratic will of citizens to such an extent that it wants to install unelected bureaucrats as Prime Ministers of countries.
It is terribly sad that we are not making much more use of the Commonwealth. Despite the size and economic entity of the Commonwealth, the UK Government never talk about it as a huge economic union. We talk about individual countries within it but what about the fact that it accounts for 15% of the world’s gross national income and contains more than 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion population? We have a special link in this year of Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee. As the head of the Commonwealth, she is passionately concerned about it and has done so much as a monarch to ensure its importance and to ensure that we remember what it has done. So although the Commonwealth contains 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people, there was not a single mention of it in the Queen’s Speech or, more importantly, tonight.
Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that many countries that do not have traditional links with Britain are seeking to join the Commonwealth? Rwanda is already a member, as is Mozambique, and countries such as Burundi want to forge links with the Commonwealth.
Absolutely, and that shows the strength and power of the relationship, which does not bind countries into a centralised you-will-all-do-the-same-thing approach but welcomes and supports them as individual countries. Let us not forget that the Commonwealth’s membership includes two of the world’s largest 10 economies—the UK and India—and two members of the G7: Canada and the UK. It also includes five members of the G20: the UK, India, Canada, Australia and South Africa. It has huge global significance and huge potential and also has the advantage of being a group of countries that are friendly, in most cases, including many with deep reserves of key natural resources. It is absolutely disgraceful that we in the United Kingdom are not seeing the Commonwealth as somewhere to which we should be reaching out. Ultimately, we should be establishing a Commonwealth free trade area. That would, of course, mean examining our relationship with the European Union, but our relationship with some of the large Commonwealth countries will be much more important in the long term. I therefore ask the Minister to mention the word Commonwealth in his response and say something about it just to show the Commonwealth countries that we care and that in this year of the diamond jubilee Her Majesty and this Parliament consider the Commonwealth to be worthy of discussion.
Having been quite critical, let me now say something nice about the International Development Secretary. The Department for International Development has been doing a very good job indeed and I want to mention in particular the work it has been doing in
Zimbabwe, which has been terrifically important and useful. This covers so many of the issues that other Members have been discussing such as getting books into schools and has been a terrific opportunity for us to be sure that we are doing our bit for the education of children in what was once a fantastically well-educated country, despite all the issues there. I hope that until there are free and fair elections there we will continue to do our bit to ensure that primary schoolchildren have the opportunity to read and have an education.
I was very moved by the speeches of my right hon. Friend Dame Joan Ruddock and particularly of my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton, who I know had another engagement to attend. I, too, was at St Paul’s yesterday to hear the Dalai Lama. I am a member of the all-party group on Tibet and I was very disappointed that although the thousands of Chinese students in this country were mentioned in the Government’s introduction to the debate, not a word was said about the Chinese Government’s human rights record and the appalling way they have treated not only the Tibetans but people in many other parts of China. The difference between what my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford said about Palestine and the terrible things she saw and what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East said about Tibet is that at least the media can still get access to the refugee camps and Palestine. Yes, that is difficult but they and parliamentary delegations can get in, whereas it is incredibly difficult to get into Tibet these days. It has become a closed country to anyone who is not seen as absolutely supporting the Chinese regime.
Our Government should be speaking out more about this issue. We should be forming alliances with other countries and not allowing China to get away with what it is doing just because it is such a huge and economically powerful country.
When China was selected to host the Olympics, everyone said, “It’s going to make such a difference. China is going to change. It will change its human rights record and start freeing prisoners.” Have we seen any changes in China since the Beijing Olympics? I have seen nothing that has made a difference, and the fact that the Olympics were held there has certainly not made any difference to the brave Tibetans who are trying so desperately not just to have a free Tibet, but to be allowed to practise their culture and their religion. What has been happening there is shocking, and I hope that the Minister will make some reference to that.
Our Government have done some very good things through their foreign policy. I am delighted that they are opening up some of our embassies in parts of the world that were closed. I am pleased that they have made a decision that the UK flag must take precedence over the European Union flag. That is just a tiny little change, but it is very important and I welcome it. I pay tribute to our many ambassadors all over the world who do such a good job, trying to ensure that the United Kingdom’s voice is heard in those countries and that we stand up for the values that this country represents.
Finally, please, please would Ministers and shadow Ministers stop referring to Britain, Britain, Britain? We are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If I hear the Prime Minister say once more, “Britain is this” and “Britain is that”, I am going to get very cross indeed. We are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Britain excludes Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.
There has been a consensus across the House tonight, so it is odd that I should follow my hon. Friend Kate Hoey in commenting on the European Union. It is at this point, perhaps, that the House may diverge from the consensus.
I want to concentrate on economic policy in the context of the economic crisis affecting the eurozone. This Queen’s Speech—this legislative programme—says more about the state of a crumbling coalition than anything else. We are facing a growth and jobs crisis, yet there is not one proposal in the speech that will tackle the problems that we face. Of course we know why the legislative programme is so thin. It is because, as we know, on many fundamental points the two parties in the coalition do not agree. For example, they have major disagreements on Europe, civil liberties and constitutional reform. Let us be clear. This is a Government who, after only two years, have pinned their colours—both of them—to the mast of austerity and have run out of ideas.
There is no doubt that we are in difficult times, probably the most difficult that the country has faced for many decades, but there is no doubt in my mind who are to blame: this Government. When they came to power in 2010, growth was evident in the economy, unemployment was stable, and the economy, although fragile, was recovering from the massive shock of the world economic crisis of 2008. Since then we have seen growth all but vanish, choked off by a Government who cut too far and too fast.
To make matters worse, the eurozone seems determined to follow the same path, the path of austerity, the path that refuses to recognise that there is a huge problem with demand in the economies of Europe. The attitude of taking the medicine, taking the pain, no matter what, is the prevalent attitude, and Europe seems intent on executing a dance of death, with austerity piled on austerity. Europe’s leaders have told us that the only way out of the current crisis is through massive spending cuts and tax rises, and when that does not work, more cuts and more tax rises—more cuts in pensions, with punishing measures being imposed on countries in desperate straits, such as Greece and Portugal.
Will my hon. Friend accept a very minor correction? There is one exception to this general rule. In our country, we have decided to cut taxes, but only for the super rich and the millionaires. This Government of millionaires, two of whom have spoken to us tonight—or one has and one will—are helping their own and leaving the rest of the country to rot in misery.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. We are clearly not all in it together. Rather than cutting VAT, which would help the economy, we have tax cuts for the very rich.
Yes, I have to acknowledge that the latest growth figures indicate that the eurozone has avoided a technical recession, but let us not get carried away with one set of figures. Let us note that it is higher than expected growth in the German economy that has kept the eurozone out of recession, with many other members of the eurozone still in recession. In fact, most of the other members of the eurozone are still in recession. Let us remember that this is a Germany that, as one of the most productive countries in the world, has been able to take advantage of the eurozone to boost exports, but which has pursued a policy of not expanding its domestic economy, and even now, it is not moving on that front, even when it is now clear to everybody that demand in Europe is a key problem. If anything, these latest figures amplify the unbalanced nature of the eurozone, with a strong country such as Germany forcing unbearable austerity and massive debt on the weaker southern countries, in an attempt to make them as competitive as the north—a difficult task even in good times and, I fear, an impossible one in a weak global economy with rising unemployment across the eurozone and the Greek economy 20% smaller than it was at the start of the crisis.
This Queen’s Speech is woefully inadequate in the context of what is happening to our country and across Europe. The medicine is not working, yet all we get from our Chancellor is the accusation that it is all the fault of the eurozone and that Chancellor Merkel should stop speculating on what will happen to the euro. No, the problem is not the musings of Chancellor Merkel; the problem is the damage her policies are inflicting on the eurozone, and, equally, the damage our Chancellor’s policies are inflicting here at home. So much for an export-led recovery. The Chancellor must rue the fact that his own prescriptions for economic health are backfiring at home and abroad.
Clearly, we need to identify an alternative approach, and the Queen’s Speech should have built on the experience of Obama’s stimulus legislation in the United States. That package of tax cuts, infrastructure investment and job creation has worked. The US is growing economically and unemployment is falling, from 10% in 2009 to 8.2% in 2011, with independent forecasts in the US showing that the ongoing impact of the stimulus package will be positive. I was in the US recently and it was clear, talking to independent forecasters, think tank personnel, pollsters and commentators across the board, that the stimulus package has worked. The figures prove it; they are undeniable. It is astounding that Europe is making the same mistakes that it made in the 1930s. If America can learn from that, why cannot we?
We needed to see in the Queen’s Speech an acknowledgement that austerity is not working and a commitment therefore to measures designed to stimulate the economy. Labour’s fair deal on tax and its fair deal on jobs would have been a good start. We needed to see a focus on demand rather than supply, and we needed to see that commitment accompanied by an acknowledgement that it is no good standing on the sidelines, sniping at our key economic partners in the eurozone, blaming them for all Britain’s woes. In the end, the problems that we all face are being worsened by the same paltry remedies, which destroy growth and jobs. We needed to see the Prime Minister commit himself to a change of course, and to working within the EU, with figures such as new French President
Hollande, to encourage that change of course with the eurozone itself. Only then will there be any hope of growth, any hope of the kind of recovery that will allow trade to flourish, and, yes, any hope for Britain’s exports to flourish as part of that growth. There is no point having a Prime Minister who stands on the sidelines having walked away from the table. We are part of Europe and need to play our part within Europe.
Finally, we needed the Queen’s Speech to acknowledge that the economic crisis is beginning to polarise Europe politically and socially. Across Europe, we see the rise of political parties outside what is usually understood as the mainstream and away from the pragmatic centre, particularly in relation to the debate on EU policy and the eurozone. In Greece, one of those parties holds the balance of power. In Holland, opinion polls show a huge rise in support for the anti-European Socialist party. In France, one in five voters in the presidential election voted for the Front National. In Britain, the vote for the UK Independence party in the local elections grew: in Sheffield it got 12,000 votes, only 10,000 behind the Liberal Democrats.
That is worrying on one level, because it demonstrates that we are not immune from this worrying polarisation away from mainstream politics in Europe, a trend that reflects social unrest and the deep concerns felt by voters everywhere about their future. We must listen to voters—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall on this—and to what people are saying in Europe. They are beginning to tire of austerity, which they no longer believe is working. They are saying the same in Germany, and they are saying it in Greece, France and here, too.
The future does not look bright. Who knows what will happen politically and socially in Europe, including the UK, if Governments do not recognise the need to change course? The Queen’s Speech should have charted a new economic course and recognised that job creation, decent housing and decent public services for all are essential if we are to avoid a worsening of our economic and political situation. The fact that it did not bodes ill for us all, and I for one fear for the future.
It is a great pleasure to follow so many powerful speeches tonight, particular several in a row from my hon. Friends. I would like to address two main issues this evening: the Government’s failure to give the ultimate commitment to help the poorest in our world and the total absence of anything in the Queen’s Speech on policy affecting Israel and the Palestinians. I declare my membership of Friends of Palestine. However, I welcome the mention of Congo in the speech by Pauline Latham and ask the Minister whether there are plans for a flight early next month to force Congolese nationals to return to that dangerous country. I hope that that is not the case.
To return to the aid budget, it says a lot about what the Government stand for when they are happy to give a tax break to millionaires yet cannot bring themselves to commit, through a statement enshrined in the law of the land, to helping some of the poorest people in the world in the longer term––people who live in the kind of abject poverty that we cannot even begin to understand.
Indeed, the Prime Minister previously said that spending money on foreign aid in a time of austerity was a sign of “moral strength” and that Britain should be proud that
“we never turn our backs on the world’s poorest”.
But in the light of the Queen’s Speech last week, when the Government failed to enshrine in law the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development assistance, the Prime Minister’s words were just further proof that they are a Government of broken promises, following such gems as
“there will be no top-down reorganization of the NHS”,
“we are all in this together”, and
“my promise to pensioners is that we are on your side.”
I am proud that Labour made a commitment to meet the UN’s target of spending 0.7% of GNI on aid and to legislate on it by 2013, and I was pleased when that was taken on by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and included in the coalition agreement. I thought that surely the Government would not revoke that policy, which would prove to the country that the Tories were no longer the nasty party and that they genuinely believed in the moral duty of rich countries to help the poorest parts of the world. As the International Development Secretary said this year,
“On the whole, politicians should do what they say they are going to do”.
However, the Government now claim that a Bill to enshrine such a commitment in law cannot be introduced due to lack of parliamentary time, given their focus on the economy and, of course, the all important matter affecting the other place. That is a ridiculous notion. The Queen’s Speech did nothing to stimulate growth in the economy, nothing for young people looking for work, nothing for families whose living standards are being squeezed and nothing for small businesses that cannot get money from the bank.
Rather than telling developing nations, “Sorry, but we are simply too busy tackling the pressure issue of House of Lords reform and the accession of Croatia to the EU to provide you with proper assistance to help your citizens climb out of poverty,” a Bill committing to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid would not and should not detract from other parliamentary business. It is supported by all three parties, would do much to show the international community that there is a genuine commitment to standing up for global social justice, and would undoubtedly increase the pressure on other countries to do more.
Legislation would also ensure that aid is maintained at an affordable level. Just as the absolute aid level may fall when Britain’s income goes down, so too should it rise when the national income goes up. As the charity ActionAid stated, legislation matters because aid needs to be around long enough to do the job. Many countries such as Ghana are now moving towards an end to dependency on aid, but that can happen only if we support them until that point. Legislation would provide the certainty that is needed for aid to be most effective.
Is my hon. Friend surprised that there is not enough time, bearing it in mind that we have spent weeks—no, months—without many votes at all? Surely there is time for such important legislation.
There is certainly time for such important legislation. We could get it through the House in one of those one-day things, It would not take any time at all for us to get this single commitment through the House, so I hope that the Government listen to the idea.
I want to say more about why aid is so important. No one can argue that aid is a panacea for all the developing world’s ills, but there is very strong evidence that international aid, including UK aid, is making a huge difference by helping to deliver and to scale up local efforts to save lives, educate children, develop livelihoods, stimulate growth, build democratic and fair societies and promote peace and security.
In 2009-10, UK aid ensured that 15 million people had enough food to eat and provided more than 1.5 million people with clean water, and over the next few years the UK’s contribution to the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisations will ensure that 80 million children can be immunised worldwide, saving an estimated 1.4 million lives.
Indeed, as the Secretary of State for International Development himself said, British aid pays for 5 million children in developing countries to go to primary school every day, which is roughly the same number as go to primary school in Britain, yet it costs only 2.5% of what we spend here.
There is still much to be done to ensure that every child in the world can get an education, and that every family can live with dignity and access health care and services as basic as clean water and sanitation. It is still estimated that 67 million children throughout the world are not yet in primary school, and that about 1,000 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and child birth every day in developing countries. This is not the time to turn our backs on those who are most in need, so I appeal to the Government to do the right thing. I believe that we will spend the money, but I want it enshrined in law.
I welcome the continuing work to secure long-term peace and security in Afghanistan, but I was disappointed by the absence of a similar commitment to building peace in other parts of the middle east, although the Foreign Secretary spoke at length on such matters today. I recently led a debate in the Commons on the dire humanitarian situation in Jerusalem, and, although there was some will from the Foreign Office Minister, the issue was conspicuous by its absence from the Queen’s Speech.
Last night, I heard the Palestinian ambassador tell a packed room here at Westminster that the daily expansion of settlements and the effective removal of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem and the west bank are threatening any chance of a two-state solution. Time is running out, he said, yet the British Government have no clear plan for action in our own right or through our European partners.
So why take action? In 2011, more than 500 Palestinian homes, wells, rain water harvesting cisterns and other essential structures were destroyed in the west bank, including East Jerusalem, displacing more than 1,000 Palestinians. More than half of those displaced were children, for whom the loss of their home is particularly devastating, but the situation is not hopeless, and the Government can do much to help improve the Palestinian people’s quality of life and to start to build the foundations for a peaceful future. Simple but effective measures that the Government could take to develop things in that part of the world include introducing compulsory labelling for all goods so that consumers can tell at a glance whether a product is made in an illegal settlement or in Israel, ensuring that legislation allows for public bodies to exclude companies from benefiting from public contracts where those companies operate in breach of international law, and ensuring that charitable donations that benefit from tax relief do not in any way benefit illegal settlements on the west bank or in East Jerusalem.
The Government should press the EU to exclude companies from benefiting from research funding where those companies are operating in breach of international law and to end co-operation with countries on research that could have military as well as civil applications where we are not satisfied with those countries in respect of human rights, UN resolutions and international law. I urge the Government also to press the EU not to adopt with Israel the agreement on conformity assessment and acceptance of industrial products, as that would open up EU markets to Israeli goods and, in effect, represent an upgrade in EU-Israeli relations. Surely any such upgrade must be conditionally tied to respect of human rights and international law. The agreement would also allow Israel to export fresh and processed agricultural products to the EU free of customs or quota limitations. That is problematic, since it would be impossible to identify agricultural products, especially processed agricultural products, that originate from illegal settlements, and members of the public to whom I speak are keen to use their consumer power to bring about change in the region.
The omission of a commitment to aid and of comprehensive action to take some steps towards ensuring a two-state settlement for Israel and Palestinians shows a severe lack of ambition on the part of the Government. Britain does have the power to bring about change in the world and to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, and shirking our responsibility is no way to conduct a foreign policy.
Today is the 64th anniversary of Nakba, the catastrophe that saw the ethnic cleansing of 50% of Palestinians from historical Palestine with the formation of the state of Israel. I am pleased to follow my very good friend, my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham, and to endorse his comments about the situation in the occupied territories. Nakba is not just an historical event. As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said, Nakba is
“an extended present that promises to continue in the future.”
That is not only true of major events such as the occupation following the 1967 war, the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, and Operation Cast Lead in 2009; it is to do with the day-to-day suffering and oppression of the Palestinian people.
Earlier this afternoon, I had the privilege of listening to the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend Dame Joan Ruddock about Palestinian child prisoners. She rightly noted two positive moves in the past 24 hours: the communiqué from EU Foreign Ministers that condemned settlement expansion and home demolition, and the end of the hunger strike by 2,000 Palestinian prisoners and the concessions that led to that. However, those two events also demonstrate the lengths that Palestinians must go to in order to secure redress for basic infringements of their human rights and of international law. They also demonstrate that words, even from the EU—a powerful organisation—will be ignored by Israel unless they are backed by action.
Since the occupation, 40% of the adult male population of Palestine and the occupied territories have been detained in Israeli jails. There are currently 6,000 Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, including 200 children, 330 people in administrative detention—that is, without charge—and 28 MPs. I entirely support the impassioned comments that Members have made about the detention of the former Ukrainian Prime Minister, but 28 Palestinian MPs are being detained in Israeli jails, in most cases since 2006, and in many cases without charge.
Many people are detained in appalling conditions in solitary confinement in 2 metre by 2 metre cells, with just a bed and a bucket, for 23 hours a day for up to 10 years. That includes leaders of the Palestinian people—people such as Marwan Barghouti, who was put into solitary confinement last month. He is tipped to be a future President of Palestine. I think of the way that the British treated people like Kenyatta and Gandhi. My conclusion is that unless there is a level playing field and unless one is prepared to negotiate with those who will form the future Palestinian leadership, there is no chance for the peace process. One has to ask, therefore: what is the future of the peace process? Does Israel want a peace process?
There is a new Israeli Government. We are told that they will have the confidence not to be enslaved to the ultra-religious minorities. Their first act was to have the confidence once again to refuse a freeze on settlement building, because they have such a large majority. Why is settlement building such an important precondition to negotiations? Of course, at the level of principle, the 500,000 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the west bank need to be negotiated away. To increase on a logarithmic scale, as is happening at the moment, the number of settlers and the extent of the settlements while negotiations are going on is surely wrong. Surely that is wrong practically, because there is no incentive for Israel, while it is getting what it wants—the Judaisation of East Jerusalem and the west bank—to conclude the negotiations.
The settlements are not just the nice red-roofed settlements that are sometimes advertised for sale in this country; even the outposts that are now illegal under Israeli law are now being legitimised. Settler violence against Palestinians in the west bank has gone up by 144% in two years. Home demolitions are on the increase, with some 176 Palestinian homes being demolished in the first three months of this year. Bedouin villages are being wiped out, not only in the west bank, but in Israel itself.
I do not have time to talk about Gaza, but I suspect that the Minister knows the statistics on Gaza and knows that it is the world’s largest prison. Imports may get in, in limited amounts, through tunnels and checkpoints, but no exports come out. The unemployment and poverty in Gaza will not be alleviated until the entrepreneurial people of Gaza, whom I have visited many times, are allowed to grow and export their own goods.
The Government operate a double standard on this issue and refuse to recognise the Palestinian state. They have another chance to do so in the General Assembly, which I hope they will take. Israel should be supported and should be a friendly country, but it should not be given a special or privileged status. I read in the Jewish Chronicle two weeks ago about the support that the Israeli Government gave Argentina during the Falklands war, supplying weapons for use against British troops. I never quite understand, therefore, the special relationship that Governments of both parties think that they have with the Israelis, to the exclusion of the Palestinians.
In the short time I have left, I will talk briefly about two other issues. The first is Bahrain. At the end of the week, the King of Bahrain will arrive in the United Kingdom and be entertained, inter alia, by the royal family. Like the grand prix and the Bahraini Prime Minister being invited to Downing street, this lends respectability to a tyrannical regime. The majority of the population in Bahrain is in lockdown. Murder, torture and detention without charge continue, following the popular uprising last spring. And yet, the Foreign Secretary talks about the improving situation. I wish that he would talk more about the detention without charge of people such as Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. I wish that the Government would revoke the invitation to the King of Bahrain.
Finally, I wish to say a word about Egypt, which I do not think the Foreign Secretary mentioned, although it is the leading country in the Arab world. The situation there is grave. The presidential elections might be postponed because of the trouble that is occurring. I looked at the Amnesty International briefing for this debate, which states:
“Human rights violations continue to take place in Egypt, in some cases to a worse extent than under Mubarak. Military trials continue, reports of torture being used are frequent, freedom of expression is curtailed and peaceful demonstrations have been met with violence and repression.”
We need to take a strong economic and political interest in what is happening in Egypt. There are strong progressive forces there, and one easy thing that the Government could do to support them would be to co-operate in the extradition of criminals from the Mubarak regime who are walking about freely in London and in the freezing of hundreds of millions of pounds of their assets in London or Britain. Switzerland froze the assets of the Mubarak family within hours of his standing down, but it took us about six weeks. Despite repeated attempts, I have been unable to get either the Foreign Office or the Home Office to confirm what action they are taking.
I very much appreciated what the Foreign Secretary said about the Government’s continuing support for, and confidence in, the Arab spring, but they need to go further than words. They need to support popular and democratic forces in the middle east both economically and politically. They may be in Palestine, Egypt or Bahrain. Let us not just take the easy option and condemn Gaddafi and Assad; let us be even-handed across the piece.
This has been a wide-ranging debate touching on all parts of the globe. There have been many brilliant insights into what is going on in the world and the UK’s role in the changing world. My contribution, in contrast, will focus on my constituents’ respons