EU Council and Woolwich

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 3rd June 2013.

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Photo of David Cameron David Cameron The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:31 pm, 3rd June 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the recent European Council, and update the House on the dreadful events in Woolwich.

The European Council was called specifically to discuss energy policy and tax evasion. We also discussed the situation in Syria, prior to the lifting of the arms embargo that was agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council last week. On energy policy, we agreed to continue our efforts to complete the single market in energy, so that we drive competition between suppliers and force prices down. We also put down a marker to get rid of unnecessary regulation in making the most of indigenous resources such as shale gas. Europe has three quarters as much shale as the United States, yet while the Americans are drilling 10,000 wells a year, we in Europe are drilling fewer than 100. We must extract shale in a safe and sustainable manner, but we have to do more to ensure that old rules designed for different technologies do not hold us back today.

On tax, to crack down on tax evasion we need proper exchange of tax information, which in Europe has been stalled for decades because of the selfish actions of a minority of countries. I made tackling tax evasion a headline priority for our chairmanship of the G8, and that has enabled us to ramp up pressure and make real progress. At the European Council we agreed there should be a new international standard of automatic information exchange between tax authorities, and proper information on who really owns and controls each and every company.

In Syria, the situation continues to deteriorate. There is a humanitarian crisis, so Britain is leading the way with humanitarian support. We need diplomatic pressure to force all sides to come to the table, and in recent weeks I have held talks with Presidents Putin and Obama to try and help bring that about. We must be clear: unless we do more to support the official Opposition, the humanitarian crisis will continue, the political transition that we want to see will not happen, and the extremists will continue to flourish. That is why I believe it is right to lift the EU arms embargo on the Syrian Opposition. There must be a clear sense that Assad cannot fight his way to victory or use the talks to buy more time to slaughter Syrians in their own homes and on their streets.

I regret to say that the EU arms embargo served the extremists on both sides. It did not stop Assad massacring his people, it did not stop the Russians sending him arms, and it did not stop Islamist extremists getting their hands on weapons either. It just sent a signal that for all its words, the EU had no real ability to support the reasonable opposition that could be the basis of an inclusive transition. That is why the Foreign Secretary and the French Foreign Minister secured agreement to lift the arms embargo in Brussels last week.

I believe we should also be clear about the Syrian National Coalition. It has declared its support for democracy, human rights, and an inclusive future for all minorities, and we—not just in Britain but across the EU—have recognised it as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The EU has agreed a common framework for those who, in the future, may decide to supply it with military equipment, and there are clear safeguards to ensure that any such equipment would be supplied only for the protection of civilians, and in accordance with international law. That does not mean that we in the UK have made any decision to send arms, but we now have the flexibility to respond if the situation continues to deteriorate. With 80,000 killed, 5 million fled from their homes, rising extremism and major regional instability, those who argue for inaction must realise that it has its consequences too.

Let me turn to the dreadful events in Woolwich. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and family of Drummer Lee Rigby. What happened on the streets of Woolwich shocked and sickened us all. It was a despicable attack on a British soldier who stood for our country and our way of life, and it was a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies acts of terror, and I welcome the spontaneous condemnation of the attack from mosques and Muslim community organisations across our country. We will not be cowed by terror, and terrorists who seek to divide us will only make us stronger and more united in our resolve to defeat them.

Let me update the House on the latest developments in the investigation, on the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and on the next steps in our ongoing efforts to fight extremism in all its forms. While the criminal investigation is ongoing, there remains a limit on what I can say. Two men, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, have been charged with the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Both are appearing in court today. There have been 10 further arrests as part of the ongoing investigation. Two women have been released without charge and eight men have been released on bail.

The police and security services will not rest until they have brought all those responsible to justice. I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the work of our police and security services for all they do to keep us safe from violent extremists. Already this year, there have been three major counter-terror trials, in which 18 people were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 150 years in prison. Much more of the work of our security services necessarily goes unreported. They are Britain’s silent heroes and heroines, and the whole country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude.

It is important that we learn the lessons of what happened in Woolwich. The Government strengthened the Intelligence and Security Committee and gave it additional powers to investigate the activities of the intelligence agencies. I have agreed with my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind this morning that his Committee will investigate how the suspects were radicalised, what we knew about them, whether any more could have been done to stop them, and the lessons we must learn. The Committee hopes to conclude its work around the end of the year.

To tackle the threat of extremism, we must understand its root causes. Those who carried out this callous and abhorrent crime sought to justify their actions by an extremist ideology that perverts and warps Islam to create a culture of victimhood and justify violence. We must confront that ideology in all its forms. Since coming into government, we have ensured that the Prevent strategy focuses on all forms of extremism, and not just on violent extremism. We have closed down more websites and intervened to help many more people vulnerable to radicalisation.

Since 2011, the Home Secretary has excluded more preachers of hate from this country than ever before through our Prevent work. Some 5,700 items of terrorist material have been taken down from the internet, and almost 1,000 more items have been blocked where they are hosted overseas, but it is clear we need to do more. When young men born and bred in this country are radicalised and turned into killers, we must ask some tough questions about what is happening in our country. For some young people, it is as if there is a conveyor belt to radicalisation that has poisoned their minds with sick and perverted ideas.

We need to dismantle that process at every stage—in schools, colleges and universities, on the internet, in our prisons and wherever it takes place—so, this morning, I chaired the first meeting of the Government’s new taskforce on tackling extremism and radicalisation. I want the taskforce to ask serious questions on whether the rules on charities are too lax and whether they can allow extremists to prosper; whether we are doing enough to disrupt groups that incite hatred, violence or criminal damage; whether we are doing enough to deal with radicalisation on our university campuses, on the internet and in our prisons; whether we need to do more with informal education centres such as madrassahs to prevent radicalisation; and whether we do enough to help mosques to expel extremists and recruit imams who understand Britain. We will also look at new ways to support communities as they come together and take a united stand against all forms of extremism. Just as we will not stand for those who pervert Islam to preach extremism, neither will we stand for groups such as the English Defence League, which try to demonise Islam and stoke up anti-Muslim hatred by bringing disorder and violence to our towns and cities.

Let us be clear: the responsibility for this horrific murder lies with those who committed it. However, we should do all we can to tackle the poisonous ideology that is perverting young minds. This is not just a job for the security services and the police; it is work for us all. I commend this statement to the House.