Syria: Refugees and Counterterrorism — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 4:52 pm on 7th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 4:52 pm, 7th September 2015

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, before making a Statement on counterterrorism, let me update the House about what we are doing to help address the migration crisis in Europe and, in particular, to help the thousands of refugees who are fleeing from Syria. This issue is clearly the biggest challenge facing countries across Europe today.

More than 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year. These people came from different countries and different circumstances. Some are economic migrants in search of a better life in Europe; many are refugees fleeing conflict. It is vital to distinguish between the two.

In recent weeks we have seen a vast increase in the numbers arriving across the eastern Mediterranean from Turkey. More than 150,000 have attempted that route since January. The majority of these are Syrian refugees fleeing the terror of Assad and ISIL, which has seen more than 11 million people driven from their homes.

The whole country has been deeply moved by the heart-breaking images we have seen over the past few days. It is absolutely right that Britain should fulfil its moral responsibility to help those refugees, just as we have done proudly throughout our history. However, in doing so we must use our head and our heart by pursuing a comprehensive approach that tackles the causes of the problem as well as the consequences. That means helping to stabilise countries where the refugees are coming from, seeking a solution to the crisis in Syria, pushing for the formation of a new unity government in Libya, busting the criminal gangs that are profiting from this human tragedy and playing our part in saving lives in the Mediterranean, where our Royal Navy has now rescued over 6,700 people.

Britain is doing, and will continue to do, all these things. We are using our aid budget to alleviate poverty and suffering in the countries where these people are coming from. We are the only major country in the world that has kept its promise to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid. We are already the second largest bilateral donor of aid to the Syrian conflict, including providing more than 18 million food rations, giving 1.6 million people access to clean water and providing education to a quarter of a million children. Last week we announced a further £100 million, taking our total contribution to more than £1 billion. That is the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis. Some £60 million of this additional funding will go to help Syrians still in Syria. The rest will go to neighbouring countries—Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon—where Syrian refugees now account for one quarter of the population. More than half of this new funding will support children, with a particular priority given to those who have been orphaned or separated from their families.

No other European country has come close to this level of support. Without Britain’s aid to these camps, the numbers attempting the dangerous journey to Europe would be very much higher. As my right honourable friend the Chancellor said yesterday, we will now go much further in the spending review, significantly reshaping the way we use our aid budget to serve our national interest. We will invest even more in tackling the causes of the crisis in the Middle East and north Africa and we will hold much larger sums in reserve to respond to acute humanitarian crises as they happen.

Turning to the question of refugees, Britain already works with the UN to deliver resettlement programmes and we will accept thousands more under these existing schemes. We have already provided sanctuary to more than 5,000 Syrians in Britain and have introduced a specific resettlement scheme, alongside those we already have, to help those Syrian refugees particularly at risk. However, given the scale of the crisis and the suffering of the Syrian people, it is right that we should do even more. So we are proposing that Britain should resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the rest of this Parliament. In doing so, we will continue to show the world that this is a country of extraordinary compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need.

So, Britain will play its part alongside our other European partners. However, because we are not part of the EU’s borderless Schengen agreement or its relocation initiative, Britain is able to decide its own approach. So we will continue our approach of taking refugees from the camps and from elsewhere in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. This provides refugees with a more direct, safer route to the United Kingdom, rather than risking the hazardous journey to Europe which has, tragically, cost so many lives. We will continue to use the established UNHCR process for identifying and resettling refugees and when they arrive here we will grant them a five-year humanitarian protection visa. We will significantly expand the criteria we use for our existing Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation

Scheme. As we do so, we will recognise that children have been particularly badly affected by the crisis in Syria.

In most cases the interests of children are best met in the region, where they can remain close to surviving family members. In cases where the advice of the UNHCR is that their needs should be met by resettlement in the UK, we will ensure that vulnerable children, including orphans, will be a priority. Over recent days we have seen councils and our devolved Administrations coming forward to express their willingness to do more to take Syrian refugees. This has reflected a wider generosity from families and communities across our country. I commend, in particular, the Archbishop of Canterbury for the offer made by the Church of England. My right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Communities Secretary will now work intensively with local authorities and the devolved Administrations to put in place the necessary arrangements to house and support the refugees that we resettle. The Home Secretary will update the House on these plans next week.

Finally for this part of the Statement, in full accordance with internationally agreed rules we will also ensure that the full cost of supporting thousands of Syrian refugees in the UK will be met through our aid spending for the first year, easing the burden on local communities. This will be a truly national effort, and I know the whole House will come together in supporting these refugees in their hour of need.

Turning to our national security, I would like to update the House on action taken this summer to protect our country from a terrorist attack. With the rise of ISIL, we know that the terrorist threats to our country are growing. In 2014 there were 15 ISIL-related attacks around the world. This year there have already been 150 such attacks, including the appalling tragedies in Tunisia in which 31 Britons lost their lives. I can tell the House that our police and security services have stopped at least six different attempts to attack the UK in the last 12 months alone.

The threat picture facing Britain in terms of Islamist extremist violence is more acute today than ever before. In stepping up our response to meet this threat we have developed a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy that seeks to prevent and disrupt plots against this country at every stage. It includes new powers to stop suspects travelling and powers to enable our police and our security services to apply for stronger locational constraints on those in the UK who pose a risk. It addresses the root cause of the threat—the poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism—by taking on all forms of extremism, not just violent extremism. We have pursued Islamist terrorists through the courts and criminal justice system. Since 2010, over 800 people have been arrested and over 140 successfully prosecuted. Our approach includes acting overseas to tackle the threat at source, with British aircraft delivering nearly 300 air strikes over Iraq, and our airborne intelligence and surveillance assets assisting our coalition partners with their operations over Syria.

As part of this counterterrorism strategy, as I have said before, if there is a direct threat to British people and we are able to stop it by taking immediate action, as Prime Minister I will always be prepared to take that action. That is the case whether that threat is emanating from Libya, Syria or anywhere else. In recent weeks it has been reported that two ISIL fighters of British nationality who had been plotting attacks against the UK and other countries have been killed in air strikes. Both Junaid Hussain and Reyaad Khan were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting ISIL sympathisers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high-profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer. We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action.

Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision strike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqa in Syria. In addition to Reyaad Khan, who was the target of the strike, two ISIL associates were also killed, one of whom, Ruhul Amin, has been identified as a UK national. They were ISIL fighters, and I can confirm there were no civilian casualties.

We took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no Government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots, and there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action. The US Administration have also confirmed that Junaid Hussain was killed in an American air strike on 24 August in Raqqa. With these issues of national security and with current prosecutions ongoing, the House will appreciate that there are limits on the details I can provide. However, let me set out for the House the legal basis for the action we took, the processes we followed, and the implications of this action for our wider strategy in countering the threat of ISIL.

First, I am clear that the action we took was entirely lawful. The Attorney-General was consulted and was clear that there would be a clear, legal basis for action in international law. We were exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence. There was clear evidence of the individual in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies. In the prevailing circumstances in Syria, this air strike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by this individual. It was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK. The United Nations Charter requires members to inform the president of the Security Council of activity conducted in self-defence. Today the UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations will write to the president of the Security Council reporting this specific military activity in Syria and explaining that this action was taken in the individual self-defence of the United Kingdom.

Turning to the process, as I said to the House in September last year,

“it is important to reserve the right that if there were a critical British national interest at stake or there were the need to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, you could act immediately and explain to the House of Commons afterwards”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 26/9/14; col. 1265.]

Our intelligence agencies identified the direct threat to the UK from this individual. They informed me and other senior Ministers of this threat. At a meeting of the most senior members of the National Security Council, we agreed that, should the right opportunity arise, the military should take action. The Attorney-General attended the meeting and confirmed that there was a legal basis for action. On that basis, the Defence Secretary authorised the operation. The strike complied with international law and was conducted according to specific military rules of engagement, which always comply with international law and the principles of proportionality and military necessity. The military assessed the target location and chose the optimum time to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. This was a sensitive operation to prevent a very real threat to our country.

I have come to the House today to explain in detail what has happened and to answer questions about it. I want to be clear that this strike was not part of coalition military action against ISIL in Syria. It was a targeted strike to deal with a clear, credible and specific terrorist threat to our country at home. The position with regard to the wider conflict with ISIL in Syria has not changed. As the House knows, I believe that there is a strong case for the UK taking part in air strikes as part of the international coalition to target ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. I believe that case only grows stronger with the growing number of terrorist plots being directed or inspired by ISIL’s core leadership in in Raqqa, but I have been absolutely clear that the Government will return to this House for a separate vote if we propose to join coalition strikes in Syria.

My first duty as Prime Minister is to keep the British people safe. That is what I will always do. There was a terrorist directing murder on our streets and no other means to stop him. The Government do not for one moment take these decisions lightly but I am not prepared to stand here in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on our streets and have to explain to the House why I did not take the chance to prevent it, when I could have done. That is why I believe our approach is right. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 5:08 pm, 7th September 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Lady for repeating the Prime Minister’s statement, which raises the most serious issues of humanity, moral obligations and national security. I would first like to ask about the refugee crisis. I think it fair to say that, until recently, many people were not even aware of the scale of the terror, the crisis and fear facing millions who have been forced to flee Syria. They are not people who want to leave their homes or their country. They are people from all walks of life, forced out in fear of their lives and those of their families. This is a defining moment for our country and for the Government.

The body of a child washed up on a beach has shocked, upset and horrified everyone, but such deaths of those abused by traffickers in seeking sanctuary is not new and has been debated in your Lordships’ House on a number of occasions. We must be strong, confident and proud in reaching out to those seeking refuge on our shores.

Among the Syrian children whom we will now take in will be the future hospital consultants at our bedsides, the entrepreneurs who will build our economy and the professors in our universities. They will also be among the strongest upholders of British values, because that has always been the story of refugees to this country, whether it was the Jewish children of the Kinder transport, including the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, or the Asian families whom I knew when I was younger, driven out of east Africa more than 20 years ago, or Sierra Leoneans fleeing a brutal civil war. The Prime Minister said last week that it would not help to take more refugees because it would not solve the problems in Syria, but that is a false choice. Helping those Jewish children was not part of our efforts to end the Second World War; helping east Asian families did not bring down the brutal dictatorships; but it was the right thing to do. It was a natural, human response.

We welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that our country will provide sanctuary to 20,000 refugees. I appreciate that it will be over this Parliament, but can the noble Baroness reassure me on the need for urgency, because people are losing their lives today? Can I suggest that it would be helpful now to convene local authority leaders from all over the country to discuss what they are prepared for, what they are able to do to settle those refugees into their areas, and the regional and local distribution to ensure that all areas can play their part—rural as well as urban, towns as well as cities? Many local authorities have already indicated that they are keen to step forward and play their part, which is greatly to their credit. They will need reassurances on additional resources, given the level of cuts they have already faced.

The Government have said that they plan to use the international aid budget for this purpose. Why did they not just use the reserves? Ensuring that refugees can be welcomed, supported and integrated is an issue not just for local government or the Home Office but for transport, education, health, business, tourism and, as we have heard, the devolved authorities. It is an issue also for churches, community groups and so many individuals who have cried out for action from the Government. Beyond what the Prime Minister has told the other place, can the noble Baroness tell us what discussions are planned to guarantee a nationwide, cross-government strategy that will co-ordinate the efforts of those who want to help and have asked the Government to help?

We support aid to existing refugee camps. Does the noble Baroness accept that desperate conditions in those camps have contributed to far too many people risking their lives trying to bring their families to Europe, and that this reinforces the need for greater co-operation across the EU and with the United Nations?

I turn counterterrorism, because the scale of the threat posed by ISIL is clear. We have witnessed its brutal torture and murder of British citizens abroad and the sickening attacks that it has inspired and sought to organise here at home. The security services, the Armed Forces and our police do immensely important work to try to keep us safe. It is a difficult and dangerous task, and we are grateful to them for their efforts. This is the first time that Parliament has heard of the specific operation on 21 August, when the Government authorised the targeting and killing of a British citizen in Syria, a country where our use of military force is not authorised. We understand that a meeting of senior members of the National Security Council agreed that, should the right opportunity arise, the military should take action, as the noble Baroness said in the Statement. The Prime Minister said that the action was legally justifiable under the doctrine of national self-defence because, first, the man was planning and directing armed attacks in the UK; secondly, there was no other way of stopping him; and, thirdly, the action was necessary and proportionate. The evidence on each of these points is crucial to the justification for the action. Is it significant that the Attorney-General did not authorise this specific action but confirmed that,

“there was a legal basis”,

for it? Was the Attorney-General’s advice given or confirmed in writing, and will it be published? The Statement informs us that the Defence Secretary “authorised the operation”. Why was it not the Prime Minister himself who gave the authorisation?

I want to ask the noble Baroness about the specific target of this attack, although I understand that there may be things she cannot disclose to the House. In as much as she can, can she say what it was about this individual and his action that singled him out, given some of the other reports we have had? Did he represent an ongoing threat, or was the threat based on a specific act that he was plotting? Does she accept that there is a need for independent scrutiny of government action, perhaps by the CT reviewer and the Intelligence and Security Committee? Can she tell me whether they have been asked to look at this?

We are already engaged in the use of force against ISIL in Iraq. However, it is vital that the UK continue to play its part in international efforts to combat ISIL across the region. What is clear from the Statement is that, if the Prime Minister is to propose to join coalition strikes in Syria, he will return to the House of Commons for a vote on authorisation. Although your Lordships’ House will not have a vote, it may be helpful to reiterate the position as set out by the acting Labour Party leader and shadow Secretary of State for Defence on 2 July. She made it clear when she said that ISIL,

“brutalise people, they murder people, and they are horrifically oppressive”.

We will carefully consider any proposals in relation to military action in Syria that the Government bring forward, but we all need to be clear about what difference any action would make to our objective of defeating ISIL, the nature of any action and its objectives, and the legal basis. Potential action must command the support of other nations in the region, including Iraq and the coalition already taking action in Syria.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and thank her for ensuring that there is additional time for questions from Back-Benchers today, given the level of interest in this issue. We look forward to her response.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement on these very profound and serious issues. I also endorse what the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition said—we appreciate the fact that there will be an extended period for Back-Bench questions.

Probably nothing is more important than the Government’s primary responsibility of security of the realm and its citizens. The Prime Minister acknowledges that in his Statement. Clearly, we do not have the evidence, nor would it be appropriate to share that evidence publicly, and therefore we must accept the judgment of the Prime Minster in responding to perhaps one of the most serious calls that has been made on him. However, it would be interesting to know whether this is a matter that the Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to look at.

There is also reference in the Statement to the legal basis. Having worked closely as a law officer with the present Attorney-General, I know that his judgment would be made with considerable rigorous legal diligence and bringing to bear his considerable personal and professional integrity. I do not call for the publication of law officers’ advice; that is not something that, as a former officer, I would readily do. However, the noble Baroness will remember that before the House debated chemical weapon use by the Syrian regime and a possible UK government response, and before we debated last year the position on military action in Iraq against ISIL, the Government published on each occasion a statement setting out the Government’s legal position. If it is felt possible to elaborate on what was said in the Statement by a similar note, I think that we would find that very helpful.

The images of migration that we have seen on our screens and in our newspapers over recent days have certainly touched our common humanity. There has been an outpouring of the view that we must welcome refugees, and that is one that we certainly endorse. The Statement says that,

“the whole country has been deeply moved by the heart-breaking images we have seen over the past few days”.

However, will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House tell us whether any of those travelling across Europe at the moment will be accommodated in any way by what was set out in the Statement? We have heard of 20,000 refugees—said very loudly; “over five years” is probably said more sotto voce—but these are people in camps in countries bordering Syria. That is not to dismiss what is being done in that regard, and it is welcome in as far as it goes. However, what the people in this country have been crying out about are the scenes on our television screens of people walking across Europe, fleeing terror and destitution. Yet can the Minister point to one sentence in this Statement that indicates that for those people there is some glimmer of hope that the United Kingdom will be a welcome haven?

We have a common problem and it requires a common response. There are problems in the Mediterranean, on Europe’s borders and in coming across Europe and we should be promoting a common European response. The European Union system has its failings. The Dublin system is not by any stretch of the imagination perfect, but by our stand-offish stance we seem to have forfeited any real or moral authority in being able to give the lead in trying to improve or work out a more coherent European approach to this. Will the Government commit themselves to taking a more active role in co-operating with our European partners, as well as in participating in European Union efforts on relocation?

With regard to those who are coming, we welcome the steps have been taken. Many local authorities have indicated a willingness to take refugees. The Leader of the Opposition asked what would be done to bring these local authorities together, and it would be useful to know what consultations had already taken place. What consideration has been given as to whether there should be a dispersal programme or whether it is better to keep communities together for mutual support? I do not pretend that I have the answer to that, but real issues are involved. What has been done to ensure that there are interpretation services, counselling and support services for English as a second language?

We have heard about the international aid budget being used for the first year to support local authorities, but surely in a situation such as this there is something in reserve that we could use. The Statement itself refers to holding “larger sums in reserve”. Has this been taken from the overseas aid budget for future years or has a separate reserve been taken up?

The Statement says that,

“we will ensure that vulnerable children, including orphans, will be a priority”.

Just before we went into recess, there was a report about 600 young Afghans who had arrived in the United Kingdom as unaccompanied children who were deported after their 18th birthdays because their temporary leave to remain had expired. Many had already established strong roots in the communities where they were living. When we hear about the fact that we will give priority to vulnerable children including orphans, can we have some reassurance from the Government that they will not be summarily sent back after their 18th birthdays?

We will not resolve the Syrian refugee crisis unless there is a wider resolution to the Syrian problem. What steps have the Government taken to try to promote broader engagement with countries that might not at first instance appear likely to help, such as Russia and Iran, whose engagement will be necessary if we are to get a long-term lasting diplomatic settlement and tackle some of the root causes?

There is an immediate crisis on our doorstep. There are 2 million refugees in Turkey, 1.4 million in Jordan, and over 1 million in Lebanon. According to the UNHCR, there are 60 million displaced people worldwide, 46 million of whom are assisted and protected by the UNHCR. Developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees. While we have an immediate problem, there is a much wider global problem. We have to play our part in the funding that we have given to the UNHCR but we should be trying our best to engage more countries, such as the Gulf states and the United States of America. Are we in a position to give some leadership to look to the future and tackle the global problems that will exist? We will return time and again to this issue, I suspect, because of its global nature.

The Prime Minister said earlier this week that Britain is a moral country. I believe that. I believe from what we have seen from communities and people across the country that we are a moral country, but I rather fear that this Statement falls short of a moral response.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord for their responses to the Statement. I will start by responding to comments that were made about the refugee situation. I certainly agree with the noble Baroness about the contribution that refugees have made to this country over decades. I share her assessment of the positive aspects that we have gained as a country because of our approach to accepting refugees historically.

The noble Baroness asked me quite a few questions about this situation, including whether we would be starting off the new, expanded approach, which the Prime Minister announced today, by treating the matter as urgent. I can confirm that this is indeed urgent. The Prime Minister is right to say that accepting a specific number of refugees will not solve this crisis. We must make a contribution to assisting the people who have been affected so devastatingly in Syria. The country can be proud of what we have done over the last few years in assisting refugees who have been displaced there. Our approach to the numbers who arrive here will be very much informed by the UNHCR process. We will work very closely with them, as they are the experts in this area who will be able to advise on the people we should be accommodating. We will clearly be co-operating with local authorities and we have been in contact with the Local Government Association today. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, the Home Secretary and Communities Secretary will be leading a new Cabinet committee to make sure that we are co-ordinated, across government, in our proper response and in the way we support the refugees as they arrive.

The noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord asked about how the aid budget will be used to support local authorities in their efforts to assist the refugees when they arrive, and there were questions about the use of reserves. The use of the aid budget to support refugees who are given support in the UK is compliant with the rules on the use of that budget. As to whether we would use reserves to do more in this area, the Chancellor will return to this when he looks at the spending review. It is important to stress that the aid budget will increase, in monetary terms, because our GDP is increasing. As I said in the Statement, this will be used to greatest effect where we feel we can make the most positive impact. There will be discussions with the devolved assemblies, via the committee to which I have already referred.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister spoke today to Chancellor Merkel about what he was going to announce in Parliament and she gave her support to our measures. The British Home Secretary was one of the early voices calling for the meeting of European Justice and Home Affairs Ministers which will take place next week and will look at this matter again. I made it clear in the Statement that the UK is not a party to Schengen and that we believe our approach is the right one. In answer to the specific question from the noble and learned Lord, we do not feel it is right to offer refuge in the UK to the refugees who are currently in Europe, but we want to see greater co-ordination within Europe and the countries which operate within the Schengen agreement. We will provide and continue to provide our support to Europe in making sure that its borders are properly policed. The noble and learned Lord asked a specific question about how the rules would apply to refugees when they arrive in this country. The same rules that exist now will apply.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, for his comments about the Attorney-General, his approach to his judgment and its being compliant with international law. The noble and learned Lord and the noble Baroness asked about publication of the Attorney-General’s advice. As the noble and learned Lord acknowledged, it is not our practice to publish that advice. He also asked me whether we would publish a statement on the general legal position. There is a distinction to be drawn between when we published the legal position that was informing our proposal to take military action in Syria and Iraq, and this occasion when we are informing Parliament of action that was taken to deal with a counterterrorism atrocity. A distinction is to be drawn there, but I certainly will look at that.

The noble Baroness asked about the person in question and what distinguished them from others who may be proposing terrible attacks in the United Kingdom. The point to emphasise is that this person was operating in a place where we had no other option as regards the action that we decided to take. We are clear that that action was legal, proportionate, legitimate and the right thing to do.

The noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord asked about scrutiny. By making this Statement and by making himself available to answer questions today, the Prime Minister is being held to account and is subject to some scrutiny. Further scrutiny that might apply—whether that be by the Intelligence and Security Committee or the independent reviewer—is something that we would want to consider. Certainly, we accept that we have undertaken action which is new and has not happened in this way before. Therefore, it is understandable that Parliament will ask questions about the scrutiny of this action.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned that the time limit for Back-Benchers has been extended from 20 minutes to 40 minutes. That is to allow more questions and is not an excuse to make speeches. I remind noble Lords that the Companion is very clear that,

“brief questions from all quarters of the House are allowed”,

and that a Statement,

“should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate”.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 5:33 pm, 7th September 2015

My Lords, in the summer of 1939, I came to Britain by good fortune on a Kindertransport. At that time, Britain was the only country taking children who came in that way. It showed enormous generosity, which is not being equalled by what the Government have announced today. Will the Government show greater generosity, both in the number of vulnerable people this country accepts and in ensuring that those who come here are given the same welcome and wonderful opportunities that I have had?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Clearly, the noble Lord is a great example of this country’s generosity and of the great contribution that people who have arrived here as refugees can make to this country. I do not accept his description that the Government, in the actions that they have set out today and have taken over the past few years in Syria, are not equalling what they have done in the past. This country has given a huge amount and will continue to do so. The noble Lord is right to emphasise children in this context but it is also right for me to remind the House, and to refer to the comments I made in the Statement, that we will be led very much by advice from the UNHCR. It would argue that in many cases it is not always the right course of action to give refuge to unaccompanied children and that sometimes it is better for the children to remain in the countries in which they are being looked after, rather than being given refuge somewhere else. We will be driven by the experts in this matter.

Photo of Baroness Chalker of Wallasey Baroness Chalker of Wallasey Conservative

Will my noble friend draw the Secretary of State for International Development’s attention to the bad conditions, through no fault of the Kurdish people, for those Iraqis who have taken refuge in the Kurdish area of Iraq? They are potentially a further stream of refugees. The conditions in the camps are one of the reasons that so many people have set out to take perilous journeys and cause the great difficulties we have within Europe at present. While I welcome the Statement, it is not enough to look just at what has happened in Syria and the camps that have taken Syrians. We have to look at the whole area. There is certainly capacity to disrupt those camps, which causes other people to flee.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my noble friend and I know how much she does to support refugees. She is very experienced in international aid and assistance. While Syria is the priority, we do not give refuge just to Syrians. There are refuge programmes, of which this country is proud, which ensure that others from other countries get assistance, but we are giving priority to those to whom the UNHCR says we should give priority at this time.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench

My Lords, I welcome the extent to which we are increasing our help for Syrian refugees. Is it not time, however, for us to put our considerable diplomatic weight behind serious attempts, with our European partners, to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis that might ultimately enable many of these migrants and asylum seekers to return to their homes? Should we not now accept that there can be no political solution to the Syrian civil war without the involvement of the regime in Damascus? Should we not be telling our Saudi, Gulf and Turkish allies that there are more important priorities than regime change in Damascus? Is it not time to accept that both the Russians and the Iranians can play an important part, not only in encouraging Damascus to work for a political solution but in helping the regime to confront ISIS, which has tragically occupied large swathes of Syria’s sovereign territory? Is there any logical reason why the Russians, who still enjoy a treaty of friendship with Damascus, do not have a right equal to that of the western coalition to protect their own interests in Chechnya and central Asia?

I note that the Statement describes the Syrian refugees as fleeing the terror of Assad and ISIL. We ought to consider more closely the differing objectives of our coalition allies in arming and supporting the Syrian rebels, whether it is the removal of Assad’s Government, part of a wider Sunni conflict or attempts to destroy the PKK. Is continuing our present policies seriously in our national interest?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Lord has covered a lot of ground in that contribution. Briefly, I would say that he is, of course, right that there has to be a political solution to the crisis in Syria. We agree that that requires the involvement of many, many actors in that region and other powerful regions around the world. I do not agree with his assessment of Assad. As he may recall from my responses to questions on previous Statements before the Recess, the UK is in dialogue with the Russians in order for them to use what influence they have over Assad, but we are very clear that the way in which we progress will not be one in which we are willing to work with Assad.

Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister realises what a discreditable attempt at press management it is to bring these two Statements together to us this afternoon. On the question of refugees, may I ask her to confirm what I think she said a moment ago—that any child or orphan brought in under this scheme will, as is the case under present legislation, be deported at the age of 18? That is what she seemed to say. Is that correct? And can she please explain the logic whereby the Government say that they will help refugees who are already housed and secure, and already being fed, in refugee camps outside Europe, but will do nothing for refugees who are desperate, and in some cases dying, for want of those things inside Europe? Is the difficult thing, which the Government cannot say, the words “inside Europe”?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am not going to dignify the noble Lord’s comments about press management with a response. In response to the specific questions he asked, the point I was trying to make about the way in which we will support refugees who come to us who are children is that there is a clear legal framework that applies when people arrive here as refugees, which includes, after so many years, people being entitled to residency in the United Kingdom. I am not suggesting that there is a new set of rules, or a change to existing rules, because of this expanded refugee programme at this time. As for those seeking refuge who have already arrived in Europe, I agree with the noble Lord that we have seen harrowing evidence of suffering not just over the last few days but over the last few weeks, but we are very clear in our mind as a Government that the best policy is the one that we are pursuing: to support people in Syria and to offer refuge to those in the camps in the countries on the borders of Syria, in order to prevent more people risking their lives by crossing the Mediterranean to seek refuge. We really believe that that is the right way forward.

Photo of The Archbishop of Canterbury The Archbishop of Canterbury Bishop

I warmly welcome this start in the response of domestic hospitality, which comes in addition to the very considerable work that we have done overseas through the overseas aid budget and the work of the Royal Navy. It is on that basis that, challenged by this, the churches, starting this morning, are working urgently to add to what they have already been doing locally, and to work together to achieve and support a coherent, compassionate and credible public policy. I have spoken today to Cardinal Nichols about this. Does the Minister accept, however, that 20,000 is still a very slim response in comparison both to the figures given by the UNHCR and the European Commission, and to the other needs we see, and that it is likely to have to rise over the next five years, unless of course the driver, which I hope she accepts is local conditions in the camps, is dealt with significantly? Does she also accept that within the camps there is significant intimidation and radicalisation, and that many of the Christian population, in particular, who have been forced to flee, are unable to be in the camps? What is the Government’s policy about reaching out to those who are not actually in the camps? Finally, does she accept that, regardless of membership of Schengen, a problem on this scale can only morally and credibly be dealt with by widespread European collaboration?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am very grateful to the most reverend Primate for being here today and contributing on this Statement, and for his leadership, and that of other faith leaders, over the last few days and the recent period while we have been observing such terrible scenes. He raises some important points. He described our response as a slim one; he will not be surprised that I do not accept that definition. As I have said, we do not believe that this is just about providing refuge to individuals here in the United Kingdom; we must support people who are in and around Syria and are very much in need, and we have been doing that in a substantial way. No other European country has contributed as we have over the last few years, and I really believe that we should be proud of what we have done to support people in that part of the world. We want to continue doing so, and we are targeting our aid in that area—using the increase, in monetary terms, in the aid budget because of the rise in GDP—so that we can ensure that, as the most reverend Primate highlights, local conditions in the camps are addressed. As for the Christians being among those who are most in need because they are not receiving the support that others are, this is something for us to discuss with the UNHCR. It is important that when the UNHCR considers the criteria for those who are most vulnerable, those should include Christians who are not receiving the kind of support that others may receive.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, since the Prime Minister’s harder line last week, we have seen the tragic photographs of that drowned little boy. Recalling that his family fled from Syria to Turkey and were trying to get to Greece rather than go into a camp, will the Minister confirm that that family would not have been helped in any way by this Statement? Secondly, does the status of the five-year humanitarian protection visa mean that people would be in danger of being deported at the end of the five years, if conditions were to change? Does that accord with our obligations under the refugee convention? What is the legal advice on that? Finally, I want to ask about the letter to the President of the UN Security Council that is said to justify action in respect of a named individual. Does that letter just give a bare assertion that this man was planning action, or has planned action, against the UK, or was evidence supplied that came from our intelligence services? Clearly it would be wrong for this House to ask for the evidence, but surely there must be some evidence, rather than a bare assertion, if we are to convince the UN Security Council that we are acting in accordance with proper legal principles.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I will have to come back to the noble Lord on his last question about the letter to the UN. I am not clear about the specific terms in which a sovereign nation has to inform the United Nations and the detail it is necessary to set out. However, I am confident that we will have complied with the necessary requirements in informing the United Nations. As the noble Lord acknowledges, it is not possible for me to go into the detail of the evidence as that would compromise our security procedures. On his questions about our existing arrangements for refugees, as I am not familiar with the detail of how refugees are supported when they come to the United Kingdom in terms of their status, residency and so on, and as this question has been raised a couple of times, I will place a letter in the Library outlining the situation. However, I reassure the House that the existing arrangements will continue to apply. I am happy to outline that in a letter.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Conservative

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the reports that ISIL boasts that it will infiltrate thousands of jihadists into the tens of thousands of refugees leaving Syria? Will she therefore give a cast-iron guarantee that we will concentrate our priorities on women, children and the vulnerable, and that they will all be thoroughly screened before coming to this country? Will she therefore treat with extreme caution demands that we take some of the fit and well-fed young men we saw fighting Hungarian police, because it seems to me that, if they are willing to do that, they might not be the best fighters for British values?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My noble friend makes an important point. One of the reasons why we believe that the policy we have adopted of giving refuge to people via a resettlement programme that includes a very thorough screening process by the UNHCR is the right one is that it offers us a much better assurance that we do not risk people coming to this country to attack us. We cannot have the same assurances in respect of those fleeing Syria who have been accepted through routes adopted by others in the European Union.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, I welcome the Statement’s explicit commitment—

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

We cannot all speak at once. It is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench

The Statement is a Statement, is a Statement, and the Leader has my support and sympathy. There are many things in the Statement with which I agree. However, I am puzzled by what it does not say. In particular, I am puzzled by the noble Baroness’s answers to the question asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Lords, Lord Ashdown, Lord Dubs and Lord Anderson. We are saying that we will not help one of the 366,000 people who are now in continental Europe and that had the little boy on the beach at Bodrum lived, he would have been no concern of ours. Unlike our friends in Dublin, who are not bound by Schengen any more than we are but are voluntarily taking some of these tragic refugees, we are saying that we will take not one of them, however awful their case, and that is what we will say at the European Union meeting this week. Are we sure that reflects the spirit of the country? Are we sure that is in the national interest? Are we sure that a little magnanimity might not come in handy?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, I am clear that we as a nation have decided that the best way of supporting—

Noble Lords:

The Government have—

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

If your Lordships prefer, I will say “Government”. This democratically elected Government have decided that this country will support those in need through the approach that I have outlined. Indeed, that has been our policy for a considerable time. We have given refuge to 5,000 people from Syria since the crisis started. Alongside the refuge that we are offering, we have made a huge contribution to support those people affected by this crisis in the region. That is not something that can be said about all the other member states in the European Union. We think that our approach is the right one for the refugees, and the right one in the long-term interests of achieving stability in that area and supporting people in need.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I regret deeply the absence of any reference in the Statement by the Government to co-operation with other countries.

At least in July before we rose, the Prime Minister’s Statement referred to the need for Britain to operate within a broad international coalition. Does not the noble Baroness accept that this is a common problem that we share above all with our neighbours on the European continent and that there has to be common action, particularly European action? Does she not accept, for example, that what is happening in Calais, which directly affects us, is part of this same movement of peoples across Europe; that we depend on co-operation with the French and others in this respect; and that co-operation, not unilateral action by Britain alone, is where we have to take things forward from here?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Lord makes a good point about Calais. Clearly, we have co-operated with the French over the summer to address the situation that worsened earlier in the summer. The Home Secretary was one of the Home Affairs and Justice Ministers who called for the meeting that will take place next week because we think it right that Europe should co-operate more. However, those within the Schengen agreement are not operating in a co-ordinated, coherent way. We want to support them but we are very clear that we do not believe it is in the best interests of this country or those who are most in need to join the action that has been taken by other member states. We are co-operating all the time with our partners in Europe by helping them strengthen their operations on the borders and trying to provide them with the expertise they need. However, in the end they have decided that they want to pursue the course they are following. We believe that by pursuing that course they are increasing the flow of refugees from Syria and that is putting people’s lives at risk unnecessarily. We think that a much better approach is the one we are pursuing, which is to provide refuge but to do so for people from the camps directly.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords), Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, can we please have order? I am afraid that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, arrived in the Chamber not only after the Statement had been read but also after the contribution had been made from her own Front Bench. In the circumstances she ought to follow the Companion and not speak. It is the Labour Party’s turn and the noble Lord, Lord Davies, is on his feet.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour

My Lords, on the basis of the admittedly limited evidence that we have, the Government were absolutely right to take a decision to eliminate those three terrorists. I think that in similar circumstances they will have the support of almost the whole country in taking action when it is necessary and clearly called for in instances of that kind.

Is it not the case that we badly need a debate on refugees, not just a Statement, not least because of the longer-term consequences and almost certainly a great increase in the number of refugees and immigration applicants from all sorts of places as a result of the drama of the last few weeks? Is it not however, sadly, really rather nauseating for the Prime Minister to congratulate himself on a policy of “extraordinary compassion”—that is the phrase used in the Statement this afternoon—when, in fact, we are taking none at all of the refugees from Syria who are currently on the move? We are taking only up to 20,000 over five years. Have not the Germans, who have undertaken to take 800,000 almost immediately, thoroughly put us to shame on that? Is there not also the rather unpleasant sense that on this very important issue, as in so many others, the Government’s policies seem driven by a PR agenda? Ten days ago when immigrants or refugees were bad news generally in many people’s minds in the Government, the Government were not prepared to take a single new Syrian refugee. Then the media published pictures of dead children on the beach—

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am sorry to interrupt but can the noble Lord please be brief and ask a brief question?

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour

Is it not very unfortunate that the impression should be given that it is a PR agenda rather than a matter of principle or even a long-term analysis of national interest on which the Government’s decisions in this area have been based?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As regards the noble Lord’s request for a debate, my noble friend the Chief Whip has already scheduled time for a debate on the humanitarian situation. That is scheduled for a week on Wednesday. Regarding the other points made by the noble Lord, I can only repeat what I said before. This is a policy that the Government have adopted over the last few years. We believe that the contribution we are making to support people in and around that region is significant. It is much greater than any other European country. As far as expanding the refugee programme, the policy remains the same; we are simply expanding it because we see an increased need at this time.

Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative

My Lords, it is very important that migrants in danger of drowning in the Mediterranean should be rescued. However, at present after being rescued they are then disembarked in the European Union, thereby adding to the number of people coming across the borders. Does my noble friend agree that it is not really compatible with our policy that we should continue to do that, because at the moment the traffickers are able to say, “Don’t worry if the boats look unseaworthy. You’ll be rescued by the navy and taken to your destination anyway”? Therefore, they are encouraged even more to take the risk. More broadly, do we not have a definite interest in the Schengen agreement, which results in the situation in Calais, as has been pointed out? Should we not take a much stronger line in persuading our European partners that they ought—at any rate on a temporary basis—to suspend Schengen because it is not compatible with having external borders that are clearly not effective?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My noble friend remarked on those crossing the Mediterranean. I think we were right to provide assistance via the Royal Navy to those who require rescue from the crossings. However, he raised an important point that I do not think I have yet addressed in response. There are criminals involved in taking advantage of these very vulnerable and desperate people. They are making money out of people in great danger. By following our policy, we are trying to make it clear that there is another way to refuge that does not require the risk. It should also mean, therefore, that we are able to disrupt the criminal behaviour of people abusing the weakness and vulnerability of people.

On my noble friend’s point about Schengen, he is absolutely right that it is very important that the borders of the European Union are properly held and policed and that we, although we are not a member of Schengen, should do all that we can to make sure that those borders are strong. That is where we make a very strong contribution, have done for a long time, and will continue to do, because we do not think that Europe is doing all that it should in maintaining its borders.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again. It is actually the turn of the Cross Benches and then we can come to Labour.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, first, I warmly endorse the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond. Both he and I are former ambassadors in Damascus. We have first-hand knowledge of that country and its regime. We have been long concerned about the Government’s policy towards Syria and we think it is time for it to be reviewed. That said, does the Minister agree that the focus of the debate has been entirely on refugees, which of course is right? However, not all migrants are refugees. We have to keep in mind that a significant number—we do not know how many and we will not know until their cases have been considered—are in fact economic migrants.

It is very important that the actions taken by Governments in Europe and in the UK do not have the unintended effect of causing a very large flow of people into the Union and this country who have no right to be here. Does the Minister therefore agree that this is exactly the wrong moment to cut the resources available to the Home Office and the Border Force to distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants? They should be doing the exact opposite. We have a new and major crisis on this whole front and that should be recognised in the way we address it.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Lord raises an important point—that not all those arriving in Europe are refugees, and some are economic migrants. That is another reason why we believe that our policy is better than the one that others in Europe are adopting because, informed by the specific advice from the UNHCR, we are able to make sure that those to whom we give refuge are not seeking a better life for themselves for only economic reasons while not at immediate risk. Regarding the other points raised by the noble Lord, clearly it is essential that we maintain our borders and that is something that we continue to do.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify a couple of points in the Statement. It makes the point that this country has provided sanctuary for more than 5,000 Syrians so far. It goes on to say that we will settle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the Parliament. Are we in total proposing to settle 25,000 or are the 5,000 already subsumed in the 20,000 mentioned later in the Statement?

The Statement also says that we will play our part,

“alongside our other European partners”,

and then goes on to say that we will decide our “own approach”. While I did not altogether welcome the tone of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, he does have a very strong point indeed. Surely a child who has drowned on a beach in Europe does every bit as much to excite our compassion as a child washed up on a beach outside our borders. The response of the British public in the last 10 days or so has shown that actually people are not that concerned whether we are taking people solely from the refugee camps pinpointed in the Statement. Surely it is right that if we really are demonstrating compassion we extend it to people who are suffering every bit as much in the countries of Europe of which we are a part. I hope the Minister can assure us that that point will be kept under constant review and that the Government will keep listening to what the British people say about this, because I for one do not believe that the Government have quite got the message yet.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I can confirm for the noble Baroness and the House that the 20,000 mentioned in the Statement are in addition to the 5,000 refugees that we have already given sanctuary to, so that number will not be absorbed into the 20,000. As far as her other comments are concerned, I agree that the people of this country do not draw a distinction when looking at the plight of people in desperate need. We are all moved by those in need of help and support, and by the tragic circumstances of those who have sought refuge and, on the way, have lost their own children. But alongside their not drawing a distinction between where people are coming from, at the same time, what people in this country look for—and what we as a Government are trying to do in our response to this situation—is for us to combine two simultaneous requests from the public. They are that we show our compassion by providing support for people in desperate need but do so in a way which is well organised, is actually sustainable and, in the long term, will not make matters worse; and that we have a policy that will ultimately help to bring an end to the situation causing all this desperation. I think that they look for something which is comprehensive, and that is what we are trying to deliver.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat

My Lords, as we have already said, many local authorities up and down the country have been preparing contingency plans to assist them to make room for the refugees. Many of these local authorities have growing lists of residents who are in temporary accommodation but are nevertheless willing to help. All local authorities should be able to say how many refugees they will accept, and central government must say what it will do to make sure that the refugees get the funding needed. Will the noble Baroness say in what way the Syrian refugees are to be dispersed throughout the country and how their children are to be integrated into our schools and education system?

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The discussions between central government and local government are only just starting, although there is already very much a partnership in place with those local authorities that have been giving assistance and refuge to those whom we have already helped over the last few years. I assure the noble Baroness that we will work with the local authorities and, as I say, adopt a partnership approach.

Photo of Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we have very little time. It is the turn of the Conservatives.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

Does my noble friend accept that the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, remarking upon the fact that many Christians cannot stay in the camps because of intimidation, mean that the policy of the Government, which may be logical in every way, ought to be reconsidered in such a way that we can take those refugees who have had to leave the camps and find themselves on the continent of Europe? To refuse to do that would not represent or respect what the British people want.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My noble friend heard what I said in response to the most reverend Primate and I do not really have anything to add to that. I have tried in my responses today to demonstrate that the Government are providing refuge to people in desperate need. We are building on a programme of support that has been extensive and very much at the forefront of what else is being provided by other members of the European Union. We will continue to do all that we can. I am sure we will continue to discuss this on other occasions, and I very much look forward to that.