With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the G20 summit in St Petersburg. The meeting focused on two vital issues: the crisis in Syria and the core business of the G20, which is the future of the global economy.
Let me take Syria first. The G20 was never going to reach unanimity on what action is needed on Syria, but the case made by those countries who believe in a strong international response to the use of chemical weapons was, I believe, extremely powerful. Britain supported a statement, sponsored by the US and signed by 12 members of the G20, that condemns the horrific chemical weapons attack, points to the clear evidence of the Assad regime’s responsibility for that attack and calls for a strong international response to this grave violation of the world’s rules. This statement from St Petersburg was reinforced on Saturday, when the 28 EU Foreign Ministers unanimously condemned the chemical weapons war crime and called for a strong response that demonstrates that there will be no impunity for such crimes.
I am clear that it was right to advocate a strong response to the indiscriminate gassing of men, women and children in Syria, and to make that case here in the Chamber. At the same time, I understand and respect what this House has said. So Britain will not be part of any military action, but we will continue to press for the strongest possible response, including at the UN. We will also continue to shape more urgent, effective and large-scale humanitarian efforts, and we will work for the peaceful, political settlement that is the only solution to the Syrian conflict. Let me just say a word about each of those three.
On chemical weapons, we will continue to gather evidence of what happened and make it available so that those responsible can be brought to account. Along with 11 other G20 countries, we have called for the UN fact-finding mission to present its results as soon as possible. We support efforts by the United States and others to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and we will continue to challenge the UN Security Council to overcome the paralysis of the last two and a half years and to fulfil its responsibilities to lead the international response.
In terms of the humanitarian response, Britain is, I believe, leading the world. This is the refugee crisis of our time. A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds. That is 240 fleeing during the hour of this statement alone. Inside Syria, 6.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. At the same time, aid convoys simply cannot get through to areas under siege because of the fighting, and most major routes between large populations are too insecure to use.
So in St Petersburg, I organised a special meeting with the UN Secretary General, the EU, Japan, Turkey, Canada, France, Australia, Italy, Saudi Arabia and America. We agreed to work together through the UN to secure unfettered humanitarian access inside Syria. We agreed to increase the focus of that humanitarian assistance on dealing with the dreadful impact of chemical weapons, including providing medicines and decontamination tents. And we challenged the world to make up the financial shortfall for humanitarian aid by the time the United Nations General Assembly meeting takes place later this month. Britain, Canada, Italy and Qatar have made a start with contributions totalling an extra £164 million.
Syria still needs a political solution, however, and that requires the Syrian opposition to stand up for the millions who want democracy, pluralism and freedom from terror and oppression. So we will continue to assist the moderate Syrian opposition with political support, non-lethal equipment, technical advice and training. The Foreign Secretary convened a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in London last week to continue this work, and he has discussed all these issues with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, today. As I discussed with several G20 leaders, including President Putin, Britain will also lead efforts to get both sides to the table to shape a political transition, building on last year’s agreement in Geneva. That is because, as I have said, a political settlement is the only way to a stable, inclusive and democratic Syria.
Let me turn to the global economy. When I went to my first G20 summit as Prime Minister in Canada three years ago, Britain had the most indebted economy, the most indebted households and the most damaged banking system of any country around the table. We had also fallen out of the top 10 places in the world for the ease of starting a business. I vowed then that this Government would take the tough action necessary to deal with our debts, repair our broken banking system and, most importantly, help to deliver a private sector-led recovery.
Three years on, that is exactly what we have done. We have cut the deficit by a third, and cut the structural deficit by more than any other G7 country; we have reformed our banks so that they serve the economy, rather than the other way round; and we have delivered that private sector-led recovery, with the OECD forecasting that Britain will be the fastest-growing G7 economy in the fourth quarter of this year and the International Monetary Fund predicting that we will have the strongest growth of any major European economy in 2014.
This G20 summit recognised our progress and explicitly singled out Britain’s return to growth in the communiqué. More importantly, the G20 has endorsed our priorities for economic recovery. All 20 have signed up to the St Petersburg action plan, which contains all the features of the plan that we have been following in Britain since the coalition Government came into office. In particular, it emphasises the importance of dealing with our debts, the role of monetary policy to support the recovery, and the need for long-term reforms to boost growth and trade, and cut the red tape that too often holds back the business investment and job creation that we need in our country.
The summit also took forward the agenda that I set at the G8 in Lough Erne on what I call the three Ts: tax, transparency and trade. On tax, the whole G20 adopted the Lough Erne vision of automatic sharing of tax information, with a single global standard to be finalised by February next year. On transparency, the whole G20 is now taking forward international standards on company ownership. This means that companies will know who really owns them and that tax collectors and law enforcers will be able to obtain that information easily, so that people will not be able to avoid taxes by using complicated and fake structures. Britain has led this initiative, and let me welcome the progress made by our Crown dependencies and overseas territories, each of which has now published an action plan.
On the third of the three Ts—trade—we also made some good progress, not just maintaining the commitment to resist protectionist measures, but extending it by a further two years to the end of 2016. This is a vital and hard-fought achievement, which opens the way to more British exports, more orders for British companies and ultimately more British jobs.
Finally, strong global growth also depends on helping the poorest countries to lift themselves out of poverty, and the G20 welcomed the vision for eliminating world poverty set out in the report from the UN high-level panel that I co-chaired together with the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia.
From humanitarian aid in Syria to the plans for growth right across the G20, and from tax, transparency and trade to the fight against global poverty, Britain—now an economy turning the corner—made a leading contribution to this summit. As I said, we may be a small island, but we are great nation, and I commend this motion to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for his characteristically modest statement this afternoon. We can certainly agree that we are a small island, but a great nation—it is just a shame about the Government, Mr Speaker.
Let us start with the G20 discussions on the global economy. We agree with the importance of trade, tax and transparency, and we welcome the final communiqué recommitting the world’s leading economies to free trade. We also welcome the commitment to strong global growth and the importance of helping the poorest countries to lift themselves out of poverty.
On the issue of transparency, what is the Prime Minister doing to ensure that other countries follow through on their G8 commitments to introduce a register of real owners of companies and make these public? Can they be extended to the rest of the G20? When is he going to consult on making the register public in the UK?
On the economy, the Prime Minister mentioned that the communiqué talks about the UK’s return to growth, but he did not mention the rest of what the statement said about the overall economic situation, which was that
“unemployment, particularly among youth, remains unacceptably high…recovery is too weak, and risks remain tilted to the downside”.
It goes on to talk of a
“need for more inclusive growth in many economies”.
For 1 million young people out of work in Britain and millions more who see their living standards falling, the G20 communiqué is absolutely right. Does this not suggest that, rather than the Chancellor claiming to have saved the economy, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor should be far less complacent and far more focused on how we prevent this from being a recovery just for a few people at the top of our society?
On Syria, the vast majority of the international community rightly shares the widespread revulsion of all Members of this House at the use of chemical weapons there. Can the Prime Minister update the
On the UK role, we agree that it is right to use all the humanitarian, political and diplomatic means at our disposal to help the Syrian people. Nobody doubts that this is one of the most pressing humanitarian crises the world has seen. For this reason, I welcome the vital extra funding to which this Government committed during the G20 summit. Indeed, in his remarks after the summit, the Prime Minister echoed the remarks of Ban Ki-moon that the relief fund set up by the UN has only 40% of the money it needs. What does the Prime Minister believe are the prospects for other countries to meet their responsibilities, and will he tell us how he believes we can use the UN General Assembly later this month not just to expand humanitarian aid, but to expand the vital humanitarian access to those who need it?
Let me also ask the Prime Minister about the enormous pressures that the large Syrian refugee populations are placing on neighbouring countries—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—which are seeing their populations grow by hundreds of thousands of people. What actions beyond humanitarian aid were agreed at the G20 summit to help those countries? While humanitarian aid is essential, it is insufficient to end the suffering. As the Prime Minister said, the only long-term solution is a political and diplomatic one, to which our energies must be directed.
On the prospects of a political solution, there will be deep concern about the comments of the joint special representative for Syria, who has said:
“Geneva II is now in danger”.
Will the Prime Minister update the House on discussions that took place at the G20 to progress the timetable for the vital Geneva II peace process? Will he also say something about what came out of the Foreign Secretary’s discussion with the Syrian National Coalition regarding its involvement in the Geneva II summit, which is absolutely essential? In the light of the obstacles in the way of Geneva II, will he now back the establishment of a Syria contact group including countries that are sponsoring the Assad regime on one hand and the rebels on the other, with the aim of renewing pressure for a peace process?
Whatever disagreements were revealed at the G20, attempts must continue to build the strongest possible international coalition in order to ensure that every diplomatic effort is made to end the violence and push for that political solution in Syria. That is ultimately the only way to end the bloodshed and the mounting horrors faced by the wider region. Over the past few months, the Prime Minister has failed to carry the House on the issue of arming the rebels, and again, 10 days ago, he failed to carry the House or the country because people were not willing to go along with a rush to war. However, he will undoubtedly carry the House and the country as he takes the necessary diplomatic, political and humanitarian action that is needed for a long-term solution to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria.
Let me deal first with the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about Syria. We do not have a date for the inspectors’ report, but we are pushing for an early report. I think that that would be useful. We should not overestimate what the inspectors can do, because they are not there to apportion blame but simply to add to the picture of what we already know, which is that a war crime took place.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the prospects of further humanitarian aid between now and the United Nations General Assembly meeting. I think that they are good. The European Union, the United States and others are all seeking to increase their contributions, in the knowledge that at present we are fulfilling only—I think—44% of what the UN has said is necessary. Britain wanted to get the ball rolling, and that is why we ensured that some money was pledged at the meeting in order to get things going in time for the UN General Assembly meeting. As for access to humanitarian aid, if it is necessary to sponsor a UN Security Council resolution, we can consider that in the weeks ahead.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the neighbouring countries: the pressure is immense. The increase in, for example, the Lebanese population is the equivalent of 15 million people coming here to the UK. We are providing aid and support; for instance, we are providing support for the Lebanese armed forces and sending to Jordan specific pieces of equipment that it has requested.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what was discussed about Geneva II at the G20. In the margins of the dinner that took place, there was a general debate about Syria. Obviously there is enthusiasm for getting the process going, and I think it encouraging that in spite of the different positions that countries took on the immediate chemical weapons crisis, the support for a Geneva process is very strong. He also asked about the opposition. They are, of course, in favour of political transition and the steps that are necessary.
The right hon. Gentleman asked again about the issue of a contact group, neighbouring countries and the role of, I suspect, Iran. Let me remind the House that Iran has not yet signed up to the principles in Geneva I. I think it is important for people to remember that.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the economy, and specifically about transparency. He asked about the follow-up from the G8 and the G20. All the G8 countries agreed to have action plans on beneficial ownership in place, and they are all doing that. The G20 has now endorsed the overall approach on transparency, an issue that the G20 had never really considered properly before. We will be consulting shortly on whether to make a register of beneficial ownership public.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to make a few remarks about the economy. He said that the recovery that was taking place in the UK was simply for the few. I would say: what about the 1.3 million private sector jobs? What about the fact that there are almost a million extra people in work? What about all the small businesses that are being set up? What about all those people who are in apprenticeships? The fact is that under this Government, growth is up, exports are up and manufacturing is up. What is down and out is his economic policy and reputation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite the most harrowing aspect of the humanitarian crisis is the impact on children? When he goes to the General Assembly of the United Nations in a few weeks’ time, will he put the alleviation of the suffering of the children of Syria at the top of his priorities?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. When you visit one of the refugee camps, as I have, in Jordan and see the children being taught in enormous temporary classrooms under canvas in tents, you realise that their whole childhood, in some cases, will be spent in these camps. We have to alleviate their suffering and we have to help them, but above all we need a political solution as well.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. For many years, Luxembourg and Austria have held up progress on this issue. They have often tried to get round that by pointing to the overseas territories and Crown dependencies of the UK, which have now put their house in order, so we can turn back to Austria and Luxembourg. They are under a huge amount of pressure, because the agenda of tax and transparency is growing fast. They have made some moves in the European Union, but we need to do more.
The Russians have been stalling for some time on Geneva II peace talks. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is revealing that faced with the threat of military action, Russia is now calling for diplomatic negotiations? Far more importantly, the BBC is reporting that the Russians are saying that the Syrians are now prepared to attend such talks. Can he confirm the accuracy of that report?
My hon. Friend is right that minds have become much more focused in recent months. There is an argument, which the Russians make, that the Syrian regime would be content to attend talks, but it is very important that we have some things set out about what those talks aim to achieve. In order to have proper transition, there is a need to know what we are going to get out of those talks. We need to know who is going to take part and who could be part of a transitional Government before those talks begin. Those issues are as important as an in-principle agreement to turn up.
Can I take it from the Prime Minister’s statement that he now agrees that the Syrian civil war can only be ended not by military action but by a negotiated settlement, however difficult, involving the Iranians, the Russians and, yes, Assad too? Will he use his influence with the opposition forces, which have so far been unwilling to come to such a negotiation, to say that they must have ceasefires locally and access to humanitarian relief, and nominate people who will serve as Ministers alongside existing Government Ministers in a Government of transition to prepare for elections?
We would certainly encourage all parties to take part in the Geneva II talks when a date is set and they get moving. It is obviously in all our interests to see that political process work. The only point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that at the same time it is absolutely right for the British Government and other like-minded Governments to stand up for the millions of people in Syria who want a future free from terror—a future free from Assad. We need to make sure that there is a Syrian opposition who are strong enough, both on the ground as well as diplomatically and politically, to do that.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on the lead that he has taken on the humanitarian effort in Syria and neighbouring countries. Is he aware that Save the Children is struggling to get aid to people suffering in Government-controlled parts of Syria, and what, if any, reaction was there from Russia to this despicable state of affairs?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely key point. Having the available resources is part of the solution, but it is no good unless we can get the aid to the 6 million people in Syria who need it, which requires access. As I have said, if that requires us to go to the UN and seek a Security Council resolution, that is an option that we can undertake. The Russians say that they want to see this aid go through, but we need them to put pressure on the regime to make sure that access is granted.
On the day of the recall, it was the will of the House, surely, that the issue of Syria go to a full United Nations examination, rather than an early military intervention. Why has that not been the emphasis of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary since? The Prime Minister appears, while saying that we will not be a participant, to continue to urge the Americans to get on with it?
The motion that we put before the House spoke specifically of there being a UN vote—a UN process—and not then some sort of rush, as the right hon. Gentleman likes to say, to military action. It specifically mentioned that there would have to be another vote, but he voted against that motion. It did say that there would be another vote, but the point he makes is important. Of course we always favour taking things to the United Nations, but in the end we have to make a decision in this House and the Opposition have to make a decision too: do we think it is right to confront those who use chemical weapons? I think it is.
I have many discussions with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. At the G20, most of our discussions were about Syria rather than about reform of the European Union, but we have had good discussions about the reform of the European Union. The stance that the German Government have taken is very helpful and I will continue to discuss that with her.
Surely it is time to obtain unfettered access in Syria and for the international community to bite the bullet and start speaking positively with Iran? On humanitarian aid, with the honourable exception of Kuwait and Qatar, some of the richest countries in the world—the Gulf states—have markedly failed to step up to the plate. Given that the Government are continually saying that those countries are our friends and allies, will the Prime Minister use his best offices to encourage them to put their hands into their exceptionally deep pockets?
To be fair to Gulf countries, we can add to Qatar and Kuwait, which have been generous donors, Saudi Arabia, which has given $345 million. We are leading by example and we encourage all countries to step up to the plate and help to fill in the shortage of money. On the Opposition’s seeming obsession with Iran, of course we should strive for good, strong, positive relations with all countries around the world and we do, but I ask the Opposition to remember that Iran has not signed up to the Geneva peace principles. Also, it is currently funding, helping, supporting and arming Assad.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right. One of the important aims of the G20 is to maintain clear rules for the success of the global economy. Nothing is more important on that front than maintaining free trade. The G20 has had a prohibition year after year on further protectionist measures, and this time we managed to push that from 2014 out to 2016. The next G20 chair will be Australia. I am sure the House will want to welcome the election of Tony Abbott, and I am sure Prime Minister Abbott will want to lead the charge for free trade.
Is it not a bit premature to be talking about the real recovery? Does the Prime Minister not realise that that is insulting to those 4 million people who do not have a full-time job, all those people on zero-hour contracts, and those people without money who are borrowing from Wonga, which is lending more money than many of his beloved banks? This Government would not recognise the truth if it was sprayed on their collective eyeballs.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot welcome the 1.3 million extra private sector jobs, the fact that almost a million more people are in work, and the record number of small businesses. If he is so against zero-hour contracts, he might want to have a word with all the Labour councils that currently provide them.
This country has contributed more in humanitarian aid to Syria than the rest of Europe put together, and in the world is second only to America. I am glad to learn that the Prime Minister has had some success in persuading other G20 countries to step up to the plate. Can he estimate what the shortfall will still be once those commitments have been made?
To be fair to the European Union as a whole, it is the largest donor, with over $1.1 billion; the USA is next, with $1 billion. We are the second largest bilateral national donor. UN appeals are currently only 44% funded, so even with the extra money that was pledged at St Petersburg we are still about that amount short.
Among the G20, was there any discussion about or condemnation of some of the terrible atrocities carried out by the rebels in different parts of Syria, particularly at the weekend, where Christians were thrown out of areas that had just been taken over by the rebels, or is everyone just obsessed with Assad?
There was a very robust discussion at the G20 dinner of the Syrian situation, and many people raised atrocities carried out by the opposition. Let me put on the record that an atrocity is an atrocity. It is as serious if carried out by one side or the other side. As I said in the debate, if the opposition was responsible for such large scale chemical weapon use, I would be condemning it from the Dispatch Box and urging others to take action. This was discussed, but we should be focused on the millions of Syrians who want a free and democratic future, so we should support those parts of the opposition, and the Syrian National Council does support those people—those people who speak up for them.
My right hon. Friend has rightly taken a lead in calling for unfettered humanitarian access to Syria. When does he anticipate it will be possible for the United Nations to agree a resolution to give effect to unfettered humanitarian access, and can he think of any justifiable reason why any country, either at the General Assembly or on the Security Council, could possibly oppose a motion to give effect to unfettered humanitarian access to Syria?
I would very much hope that countries would not oppose such a motion. Baroness Amos gave an extremely clear message when she visited the region recently. She set out the specific things that needed to change for proper access to take place. Let us see how the authorities in Syria or on the borders respond to her very clear message, and if there is no success we will have to look at the next action, which, as I said, could conceivably be a Security Council resolution.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on raising LGBT rights with Vladimir Putin —that must have been an interesting conversation. We are coming up to the fourth anniversary of the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, who was working for a British bank, and far from the Russians pursuing those who murdered him, they have pursued him in the courts in a posthumous trial, which is preposterous. Did the Prime Minister make it clear to Putin that we object to this, and that the people who were involved in Magnitsky’s murder and the corruption that he unveiled are not welcome in this country? If he did not make that clear last weekend, will he make it clear now?
I certainly commend the hon. Gentleman for his consistency in raising these cases with me. I hope that he will commend my consistency—
The hon. Gentleman did.
—in raising these cases with the Russian President. On this occasion, we did have a discussion about lesbian and gay rights in Russia and the concerns that many people in this country, including me, have about the lack of freedoms and about potential discrimination against lesbian and gay people in Russia. On this occasion, we did not raise all of the other cases, many of which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned in the past, but I believe that the British-Russian relationship is strong enough to mention all these problems and issues, but at the same time to recognise that it is in both our countries’ interests to have a good and strong bilateral relationship. That is what I hope to achieve.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to talk about a political settlement, but I urge him to go the extra diplomatic mile. It is precisely because we do not agree with the Iranians and that they are participants in this conflict that we need to engage them in any forthcoming peace talks. Will he update the House on the extent to which our reluctance to engage with the Iranians is matched by that of other countries within the G20?
As I explained to the House during last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, we have effectively reached out to the Iranian Government after the recent elections, and I have written to President Rouhani, so we are prepared to start trying to have a relationship with them. My hon. Friend talks about the reluctance of some countries, but there is a slight holdback on our behalf because we still really have not had proper redress for the fact that they smashed up our embassy and residence. So we do have to enter these talks and discussions with a clear head. But my hon. Friend is right to say that a long-term peace solution for Syria has to involve everybody, including all the neighbours. No one for a minute denies that, but we have to get the process going in the right way.
Why, when 492 out of 577 Members of this House supported, or did not rule out, the potential use of force in Syria, has the Prime Minister been so categorical in ruling it out, including refusing even to contemplate bringing the matter back to the House, whatever the circumstances?
The figures the right hon. Gentleman gives are interesting. The point I would make is that I put into the Government motion the fact that we should listen to the weapons inspectors, have a process at the United Nations and have a second vote before action. I included everything that his Front Benchers wanted—every single thing—so the fact that they did not vote for it shows me that they are not serious about the issue; they are serious about political positioning. As Prime Minister, it is very difficult to deal with that. That is why I believe the House spoke quite clearly.
In the discussions, did the Prime Minister get the impression that President Putin was speaking as a mouthpiece and defender of the Assad regime, or that he was prepared to use Russia’s immense power and influence over Assad to persuade him to come to the table and enter into serious negotiations for transition?
From all my discussions with President Putin—not just at St Petersburg, but at Sochi, No. 10 Downing street and the G8 summit at Lough Erne —I believe that he wants to see a stable Syria and a stable middle east. He is very concerned about instability and terrorism. We have a profound disagreement about the role the opposition could play and, obviously, about what happened with the chemical weapons, but there is some long-term commonality of purpose: wanting a peaceful and stable Syria for the future. That is what we have to work with.
There was not an agreement on that front, but certainly those of us who have been to the camps referred to them, and a number of other leaders made exactly that point too.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on ensuring that the vote does not mean that we are somehow abandoning our moral obligation to the Syrian people. I encourage him to ensure that Britain now takes the lead in developing and expanding international conventions on chemical weapons, encouraging emerging countries, such as Brazil and India, to play a more vocal role, and thus protecting not just the Syrian people, but other populations worldwide.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. I think that he is absolutely right that these conventions, and ensuring that everyone lives up to them, are directly in the British interest. If any good could come of these ghastly events, it is to wake the world up again to the importance of rules against the use of chemical weapons and to encourage more countries to take them seriously.
There was an interesting article in The New York Times over the weekend outlining how the Assad regime had amassed its chemical weapon arsenal. Central to the strategy has been the purchase of precursor chemicals from various states around the world. During the G20 summit, did the Prime Minister make the case for global action to limit the export of those chemicals to despotic regimes, and will he be investigating why his Government awarded licences to the Assad regime before and after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about precursor chemicals. In this country we have a very strict licensing regime for the export of those sorts of chemicals, and on this occasion it worked effectively. When the arms ban on Syria was brought in, we were able to revoke those licenses, so from what I have seen to date our system worked well.
Are international banking and other financial sanctions in place to prevent the Assad regime from acquiring further weapons of mass destruction or “ordinary” weapons? If there is none, is that not something we should be thinking about?
My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. There are obviously international agreements made about not selling arms to Syria, but tragically the regime has been able to get hold of weapons, not least from the Russians and the Iranians, and that is one of the problems we face today.
I welcome the announcement of additional humanitarian aid for the Syrian refugees. Was there any discussion at the G20 about the situation in Yemen? Since the Prime Minister appeared at the Dispatch Box to discuss Syria, there has been an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister of Yemen. I know that the right hon. Gentleman and Ministers have done a great deal of work to have face time with the Yemeni authorities. We must not allow Yemen to slide into civil war because our focus is on Syria.
The right hon. Gentleman makes important points about a country that has deep problems, and it is in our interests that it resolves them and that we secure a stable Yemen. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be chairing the Friends of Yemen group in New York in a couple of weeks’ time. Britain continues to engage diplomatically, and in terms of humanitarian aid and advice, with the Yemeni Government.
Specifically on Gibraltar, I am sure that everyone in the House will want to welcome the fact that it will be Gibraltar national day tomorrow; I know that a number of colleagues will be there to celebrate 300 years of great relations between Britain and Gibraltar and the fact that we share a sovereign and a future together. On the issue of Gibraltar, I did meet the Spanish Prime Minister to try to look at issues where we can try to de-escalate the war of words that has taken place. We have not made any progress, but we should not only continue to defend absolutely to the hilt Gibraltar’s right to decide its own future; we also want to see good and strong relations in the region as well.
I am very happy to read the hon. Lady the Government motion. It said this:
“Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing”— from the weapons inspectors—
“and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken”.
The fact is that Opposition Front Benchers are wriggling and quibbling because they know they had a choice. They could have done the difficult thing and the right thing for the country; instead, they chose the easy and simple thing that was politically convenient. They have to live with the consequences.
Many of the issues around the appalling nature of the Syrian conflict were raised. The Foreign Secretary has taken international leadership on the issue that my hon. Friend speaks about, to say how unacceptable the use of sexual violence is as a conflict weapon.
During their meetings with President Obama and Secretary Kerry, did the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary have an opportunity to say to Secretary Kerry, “Stop spending all your energies flying desperately around Europe and north Africa looking for allies in a war that nobody wants. Instead, put them into bringing about a diplomatic peaceful solution that must include Iran, Russia and all the neighbouring countries, most of whom do not support a war anyway”?
I would make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, it is hard to think of anyone who has made greater efforts than Senator Kerry to try to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis. He has worked incredibly hard to do that. He knows something else—if chemical weapons are used on that scale and the Americans have drawn a red line, not to act would send an appalling message to the world.
I also pick up the hon. Gentleman on another point. This whole language of saying “start a war” is put about by some to try to paint the American or other positions into something like Iraq. This is not about starting a war; it is about responding to the appalling use of chemical weapons. When we see on our television screens children being gassed by chemical weapons, that is the outrage that we should feel.
I very much welcome the strength of the moral stance that my right hon. Friend has taken on the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria. I was glad that Pope Francis made an intervention on world leaders calling for peace; it is not the first time that, as a member of a different denomination, I have been of one mind with the Pope. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Pontiff’s intervention? Just as it is idealistic, it must surely, ultimately give us the route to a peaceful and lasting settlement.
We should always listen to and respect faith leaders when they make these statements, and they should always make us consider and think about the consequences of actions, but we also, as politicians, have to think of the consequences of non-action and try to be guided by what the outcomes will be if we either act or do not act. Examining the morality of those decisions will provide us with the best answer.
Apart from his comments on Syria and on growth, the Prime Minister singled out action on the three Ts—trade, tax and transparency—but why was there no mention of the three Es: environment, clean energy and energy efficiency? What further action will be taken to make sure that there is a phasing out of fossil fuels?
Those issues are addressed in the summit communiqué, which points to some progress on important areas such as climate change. Also, the high-level panel that I chaired has at its heart the idea of sustainable development being the way that we increase the world’s resources. As I say, the focus of the meeting was largely around the rules of the global economy, but if the hon. Lady looks at the communiqué, she will see that there is further progress on the issues she raises.
I strongly support my right hon. Friend’s announcement of more money for humanitarian aid in Lebanon and Jordan and assistance to the armed forces there, who are holding an increasingly fragile ring. May I urge him to consider, as a small part of that assistance, providing more places on an affordable basis at Sandhurst and the staff colleges?
My hon. Friend makes a very good suggestion with which I have a huge amount of sympathy. Our staff colleges for the Royal Navy, the RAF and the British Army are some of the greatest assets we have in our country. Many other countries want to send young men to train in them, and we should make sure that we put them to best use.
Is the Prime Minister proud to be the first Prime Minister since the Vietnam war to present a wholly independent British foreign policy? Will he, in future, refrain from trying to make our country punch above our weight militarily, which has resulted in Iraq and Helmand and in our spending beyond our interests and dying beyond our responsibilities?
I just do not share the hon. Gentleman’s world view. I think it is good that Britain, with a brilliant diplomatic network and with fantastic armed forces, is able to punch above our weight in the world. Why? Not for any sort of vanity project or for any particular view of how the world ought to look, but because it is in our national interests. We are a trading nation. We have British people living in countries all over the world. It matters to us whether the middle east is stable and whether markets are open in China. So punching above our weight is exactly what we should aim to do, not, as I say, for some grand role in the world, but because it is in the interests of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine.
In the Syria debate I and many colleagues attempted to remind the House and the Leader of the Opposition of the importance of unity in this place and the damage done to our national interest by playing party politics. Did my right hon. Friend receive any questions from our allies as to the curious position of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition?
I did have a few questions about what happened in the House of Commons, but some manoeuvres are very difficult and get lost in translation.
I genuinely welcome the fact that the United Kingdom is playing a lead role in humanitarian aid in Syria. Have the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary had specific talks on practical steps to set up humanitarian corridors? Will he indicate the time scales for the United Nations to sanction this, because we want to see more medicines and medics, not mercenaries, in Syria?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Let me be clear about humanitarian access as opposed to humanitarian corridors. Humanitarian corridors might require, according to some, wide-scale military action to bring them about, so that is not under consideration. What is under consideration is what Baroness Amos set out, with her role at the UN, about what is necessary to get aid to the Syrians who are in need. That is about reducing border checks, reducing bureaucracy, making sure that there can be pauses in the fighting, and making sure that major cities can be accessed. Those are the things that need to be put in place, and that is what we are putting the pressure on for. As I say, if we have to go to the UN for further action, we will.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that Britain is alone among G20 countries in meeting its aid promises. I see that as a source of national pride rather than of national embarrassment. We made a promise to the poorest of the world and we have kept it. If we look at the argument in a different way, I would argue that if we care about getting things done in the world that are in Britain’s interests as well as those of the poorest, keeping such a promise and using our aid budget to demonstrate that Britain can get things done is good from that point of view, too.
They all agreed to take the necessary action on tax exchange with the UK, international tax co-operation and beneficial ownership, all of which was set out at the meeting I had with them. I cannot recall the exact timetable off the top of my head, but I will make this point: I do not think it is fair any longer to refer to any of the overseas territories or Crown dependencies as tax havens. They have taken action to make sure that they have fair and open tax systems. It is very important that our focus should now shift to those territories and countries that really are tax havens. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories, which matter so much—quite rightly—to the British people and Members have taken the necessary action and should get the backing for it.
Parliamentarians on both sides of the House will be extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for recalling Parliament and giving Members a vote on the Syrian question. In my opinion, the last two weeks have been the Prime Minister’s finest hour so far. Does he share my concern that, given that the Opposition’s amendment was so close to the Government’s motion, the Leader of the Opposition, who is a very honourable man, had not the statesmanship to put his disagreements aside and support the Prime Minister?
The Leader of the Opposition will have to give his own explanation. All I can say is that what I tried to do was put a motion before the House that included all the issues that had been raised with me. I wanted to bring the House together. The Opposition chose not to do that. I think that is a matter of regret, but the Leader of the Opposition will have to offer his own explanation.
As I have said, I have absolutely no plans to bring a vote back to the House of Commons about British participation in military action. I have explained what was in our motion with regard to the UN Security Council, but let me make this point: so far, we have been frustrated for two and a half years, even with regard to motions in the Security Council that repeat the language of, for instance, Loch Erne on the need for talks and dialogue and everything else. The idea that there is some magical way of proceeding without the Russians delivering a veto is, I think, very unlikely.
I can confidently say that I do not think the idea of plan B was raised at any time during this meeting. It is interesting that Britain, Japan and America were all singled out as delivering stronger growth than expected and that is welcome for the world economy.
Does the Prime Minister accept that, although the vast majority of the British public want him to strain every sinew in humanitarian and diplomatic effort, they do not support military intervention in Syria and therefore welcome his correct judgment that the House of Commons has spoken and that he will not be bring the matter back for a second vote?
As I have said, I have absolutely no intention of bringing the matter back in terms of British military action. I think that what happened in the debate is that a lot of Members of Parliament had listened to their constituents who were hugely concerned about the situation in Syria. Clearly, the British public are deeply sceptical about getting more involved in the Syrian conflict, but as politicians I think we all have a responsibility to try to separate from that, for a moment, the issue of chemical weapons and point out the dangers of not upholding that international taboo. Inevitably, however, all these subjects get meshed together.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK Government have provided more than £400 million of humanitarian and non-lethal aid in response to the Syrian crisis, and that that is the greatest level of support that has been provided to a humanitarian crisis in the history of our admittedly small but great nation?
I believe that that is the largest amount that we have contributed in response to a humanitarian crisis, but then this is the largest humanitarian crisis since Rwanda and it has been unfolding over a longer period. One of the remarkable and terrifying things about this humanitarian emergency is that, although it looked dreadful a year and a half ago, it has got much worse over the subsequent period. With things such as the use of chemical weapons, it is likely that the number of people fleeing their homes and needing help will only go up.
On tax and transparency, the Prime Minister said that people should not avoid tax by using complex structures. How is it that Vodafone has received £53 billion in the biggest share sale this century and not paid a penny in corporation tax? What is he going to do about that?
Obviously, specific cases have to be examined between the Inland Revenue and the company concerned. We are putting in place not only greater transparency, but an agreement on the sharing of tax information between countries so that it is more difficult for companies—I am not saying that Vodafone did this, because I do not know all the details—to put in place complex proceedings to avoid tax. I think that that is important.
I thank the Prime Minister for the morality that he has shown with regard to Syria. I am proud of our aid programme in that country. Was there any discussion at the summit of the effect of the conflict on the rising cost of oil? Will there be any action from Governments to mitigate the effect of the rising cost of oil on the public around the world?
I do not believe that the conflict has had that big an impact on oil prices so far. We look at the situation that people are facing at the petrol pump all the time. Under my hon. Friend’s perpetual, aggressive and entirely correct lobbying, we have taken action to keep prices down. We will obviously keep that issue under review.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Looking at the donor table, the EU is the largest contributor, Britain and America are the two largest country contributors, and the rest of the top 10 reads Saudi Arabia, Germany, Canada, Qatar, Japan, Australia, Italy and France. I cannot see Russia on the table, but perhaps I could write to her when I get hold of the number.
I have heard the answers that the Prime Minister has given, but will he tell the House whether the prospect or the opportunity of drawing Iran into a regional approach to peace in Syria was discussed at the G20, especially given the notably less belligerent and partisan remarks recently attributed to President Rouhani and former President Rafsanjani?
Of course the Syrian issue was discussed, but the principal avenue of discussion was chemical weapons and the right response to their use. There were countries that supported the US motion and countries that did not. There was not an extensive discussion about how the Geneva II process could work, but all the countries around the table are broadly supportive of it.
The Prime Minister has said that he will respect the view of the House on military action. All of us are eternally grateful for that. However, does he not feel bound by this House, given that this is a parliamentary democracy? Will he assure me and the rest of the nation that he will do nothing to compromise the very clear view of this House with respect to military action?
I am accountable to this House. The motion that I put to the House was defeated and the Leader of the Opposition’s motion was defeated. My interpretation of the House’s view was that British military action clearly was not favoured. As I have said, I respect that outcome.
The Prime Minister has led the way in hustling other world leaders for aid pledges to Syria. I welcome the £160 million that was announced on Friday. However, China and Russia are paying peanuts towards the humanitarian effort. What prospect is there of persuading them to do more?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary will be very persuasive in New York at bashing heads together and getting people to contribute. Everyone can see the tragedy unfolding on their television screens, and even where there is such deep disagreement between Britain and Russia, for example, or Britain and China, about the right steps to take on the Syrian crisis, the one area of agreement is the need for humanitarian aid, so I hope that my right hon. Friend will be successful.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. In some cases it is money—we have put in money for humanitarian aid to Lebanon, Jordan, and some limited resources to Turkey. As I said, however, it has also been about directly providing the Jordanians with specific pieces of equipment they have asked for. We have helped the Lebanese army, given quite a lot of advice, and we stand ready to help as we can. In the long term, it is untenable for countries such as Lebanon to see an increase of, effectively, a quarter in their population. We need a solution to the crisis so that people can go home.
On the economy, the Prime Minister spoke of repairing our broken banking system. Does he agree that the creation and expansion of regional and local banks are key reforms of this Government that will provide finance for small and medium-sized enterprises, address payday lending problems, and reinvigorate local community banking?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As well as looking at the big banks and how we nurse them back to health—some good progress has been made there—we also need to encourage what are called “challenger” banks, and new lenders into the British economy. Those can be crowdsource funders as well as new start-up banks, or businesses such as supermarkets that are getting into banking. We should be encouraging all those things for a more competitive sector.
Staying with the economy, those who moved their bonuses to April to take advantage of the cut in the top rate of tax undoubtedly feel that there has been a recovery. Does the Prime Minister understand that for people on zero-hours contracts, or wages that are £1,500 lower than they were three years ago, there has been no recovery? Where is the good news from the G20 for the vast majority of ordinary people in this country?
Of course I understand that times have been incredibly tough for people, many of whom have not seen an increase in their wages yet they have seen prices rising. The key is that if we want a proper recovery in living standards, we have to see three things: a growing economy, which we now have; reductions in personal tax rates, which we are doing by lifting the allowance; and we must keep inflation under control so that we get low interest rates and low mortgage rates. All three of those things are happening under this Government, but if we had listened to the Labour party, I do not think that any of them would be happening.
When I was at the G20 I was not aware that Britain’s leading trade unions were dodging their taxes, as well as all the other things that they do, and I got home from the G20 to read that in the Sunday newspapers. I am sure that when the Leader of the Opposition goes to address the brothers in Bournemouth —he always seems to have some problems with brothers—he will sort it all out.
Given the Prime Minister’s very encouraging interpretation of the St Petersburg action plan, what does he think the senior official who briefed Reuters could have meant when he said that there was no agreement on post-2016 targets, and that numbers merely reflected the best guess for future budgets?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at what the G20 agreed in terms of 2016 targets, the target it set was that of no new protectionist measures until 2016. That was a success for the G20.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the tax agreements that were entered into are not just a milestone against international tax avoidance, but send a clear message to any tax-dodging company, trade union or political party in this country that it is time for it to face up to its responsibilities and pay a fair share of tax?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are trying to deal with tax evasion, which is illegal, and that will be helped by these international agreements and by greater transparency of beneficial ownership. We are also trying to deal with aggressive tax avoidance where people go to huge measures not to pay their taxes. That includes the Labour donor whom we discussed a lot before the summer recess. I think he has still not had his money paid back, although I am sure they will get round to it.
Following the G20, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has today said that he has called on President Assad to hand over his chemical weapons to the international community so that it can be responsible for their destruction. Does the Prime Minister support that, and if he does, is he willing to work with countries such as Russia, Iran and the US to make it happen?
I only recently heard that announcement. If that were to be the case, it would be hugely welcome. If Syria were to put its chemical weapons beyond use under international supervision, that would clearly be a big step forward and should be encouraged. We must be careful to ensure that this is not a distraction tactic to discuss something other than the problem on the table, but if it is a genuine offer, it should be genuinely looked at.
I welcome the excellent work that the Prime Minister is doing on Syria. Every single hon. Member has welcomed the work of the UN inspectors, but will he remind the House how they got into Syria? The G8 summit, which he chaired, made Russia agree to UN inspectors going into Syria for the first time. The Russians would not agree to that previously, so that was an acutely significant moment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of that. It was a breakthrough at Lough Erne to get that unfettered access for inspectors. However, we must remember that they are not able to point the finger of blame. All they can do is build additional evidence. I hope they are successful and that they make their report, and that the report adds to the already bleak picture we can see.
The leaders’ declaration is right to say that too many people are not sharing in any global economic recovery. Given that, under this Government, one in five people in work earn less than the living wage, and that we have fifth-worst levels of low pay found anywhere in the OECD, what advice did the Prime Minister take at the G20 on his wages policy?
It is perfectly obvious to see what the Opposition want to do—they want to change the question. First they said there would not be a recovery, but there is now growth in our economy. They then said there will not be any more jobs and predicted millions more unemployed, but there are more jobs. Quite understandably, they are changing the argument, but the point is this: if we want rising living standards, as I do, we need a growing economy, we need to cut people’s personal taxes, and we need to keep inflation and mortgage rates down. That is what this Government are delivering.
Further to the Prime Minister’s answer to Chris Bryant, will he confirm that British diplomatic staff in Russia will do everything they can to help British lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women who could either be caught up in the rise of homophobia in the country or caught inadvertently by the new anti-gay laws?
I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. As I have said, we had a good discussion on that important issue. I was given certain assurances by President Putin that there would be no discrimination, but I am sure the British embassy will do everything it can to help people.
In the end, the hon. Lady can find whatever wriggling reason she wants not to do the right thing, but the fact is that the Opposition asked for the weapons inspectors to report, which we granted; for a proper resolution at the UN, which we granted; and for a second vote, which we also granted. Why did they not vote for the Government’s motion? I will tell the House why: because they wanted to play politics rather than serve the national interest.
The Prime Minister will be aware of concerns expressed by many hon. Members and many of my constituents about the impending closure of, or restrictions on, global money transfer services, largely as a result of changes in US regulation. Was he or the Chancellor able to have conversations with the US Administration and other world leaders on that at the G20? If not, will he commit to having such conversations to try to find a solution?
I was not able to have those discussions, but the hon. Gentleman is entirely right that this is a serious issue for people who want to send remittances back to the countries from which they originally came or where they have relatives. It is an important issue that we need to sort out.
The Prime Minister rightly noted in his statement that the situation in Syria has created the refugee crisis of our time. Is he aware that last week Sweden relaxed its asylum policies for Syrian refugees? What thought has he given to the possibility of the UK doing something similar?
We are not planning to do that. Britain already has a very generous asylum system that operates under the rule of law. People who are genuinely fleeing persecution cannot be returned to those countries, but it is right that people should seek asylum in the first country that they flee to.
The global economic outlook remains fragile and the Prime Minister mentioned the role of monetary policy to support the recovery. What discussions has he had on the impact on the global economy and on international investment should the world’s leading economies—specifically the USA—move away from their standard monetary policies of providing easy money and low interest rates too soon?
The hon. Gentleman raises one of the questions that lay behind a lot of the discussions and debates on the global economy. What has happened in American markets recently, with a rise in long-term interest rates, has taken a lot of money out of developing countries and contributed, they would argue, to some instability. A year ago at the G20, the question was rather different. The argument was that because of accommodative monetary policy, the west was trying artificially to reduce its exchange rates. I understand the concerns of India and others. I think what it argues for is the importance of getting the economic fundamentals right, and that is what all countries have to take notice of.
I am most grateful to the Prime Minister and to colleagues. Fifty-nine Back Benchers were able to question him in 52 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time. We can do it when we try.