European Council: March 2016 — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 21st March 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 6:24 pm, 21st March 2016

My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister earlier today. I have to say that it was not quite the Statement that we were expecting after the media noise over the last day or so. She may have noticed when she was speaking that noble Lords were flicking through the Statement that was released, because the last part that she read out was not released to the Opposition or to your Lordships’ House in the usual way. I do not imply any discourtesy, but I suspect that the crescendo that we heard in defence of compassionate Conservativism at the end probably had not been written in time for the printed copy.

As MPs and Peers left Westminster on Thursday evening, no one could have foreseen the events of the weekend. Clearly, problems were simmering at the heart of the Government, which led to the dramatic resignation of the Work and Pensions Secretary on Friday evening, just as many of us were about to turn in for the night. In the Statement, the Prime Minister paid fulsome tribute to Iain Duncan Smith for his work in government. But for those who read his resignation letter and watched him on TV yesterday, it is clear that his concerns and the reasons for his resignation are deeply held. Although some feel that this had been building up for some time, others such as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, took to the airwaves to condemn it as a more recent conversion. We may never know the truth.

I genuinely welcome the fact that, despite these distractions, the Prime Minister was able to focus on what was an extremely important EU Council, on which I want to focus. Europe is facing the most severe migration crisis since the Second World War. Many have observed that this is the biggest challenge that the EU has ever faced. Given the scale and the seriousness of the crisis, and the importance of the EU Council meeting, I find it disappointing that internal government political problems dominated the weekend’s news coverage.

Before we get into the detail, we should just reflect on how the human misery at the heart of the crisis is too often lost in the language of EU agreements and treaties. This is nothing less than a matter of life or death for the people involved. You just have to imagine being a parent and paying your life’s savings to someone you know full well to be a criminal just to try to possibly escape the horror that has convulsed your country, with no real prospect of peace in sight. We have seen this in Syria, Afghanistan and north Africa. Many of these families know that they face a great risk, but they believe that staying is a greater risk for them. We just have to imagine and think how absolutely desperate they must be. They have not packed suitcases to go off on holiday, nor have they have been able to sit down and make a rational choice to leave their homes. They feel that there is no alternative but to seek refuge and a better, safer life for them and their children elsewhere.

In 2015, more than 1 million people made that dangerous journey to Europe in a desperate search for safety. Upon arrival, if indeed they make it that far, despite the best efforts of charities, the authorities and volunteers, they all too often face appalling conditions. There is no proper access to all those things that we take for granted: homes, food, sanitation, healthcare and schools. They do not have them in the way that we expect to have them. This is a humanitarian crisis on the most enormous scale. Talk of migrants—especially “bunches of migrants”, a phrase that we have heard—merely dehumanises each and every individual tragedy that we are faced with. Perhaps we should all try to remember that and think about how we speak.

It is right that our response to a crisis of this magnitude is an EU-wide response. It is also right that, through the EU, we engage with Turkey. The need for Europe-wide co-operation underlines the case for remaining in the EU. Labour supports Turkey’s application to join the EU, but we also recognise that this is certainly not an immediate prospect: important issues have to be addressed first and conditions met. We want to be satisfied with regard to human rights, governance, free media, the rule of law and Turkey’s relationship with Cyprus. However, the agreement reached over the weekend, if implemented properly and fully, could relieve some of the pressure that both Turkey and Greece are facing. I welcome the clarification on Turkish visas and Schengen. We also pay tribute to those from our Armed Forces and military engaged in the EU naval operations for their vital work on this issue.

However, questions remain both on refugees and on the wider issues, which I hope the noble Baroness can address in her response. For those seeking refuge who are to be returned, what measures will be taken to ensure that they do not again fall into the hands of traffickers and that they are protected by international law? What measures are guaranteed for those claiming asylum in terms of access to interpreters and to legal advice and representation? Is the noble Baroness able to confirm whether Turkish travel documents have a sufficient level of integrity and security in line with EU standards, including on fingerprints? In repeating the Statement today, she gave some figures on the number of refugees who have settled in the UK. If she could update those figures, that would be helpful.

What progress has been made with ensuring that Turkey fully respects the Geneva Convention on human rights, to ensure that all those arriving from other countries receive formal international protection? What steps are being taken to ensure that those arriving in Turkey do not simply shift via other routes—for example, through Libya? What support is being given to Greece to enable it to execute the terms of the deal at such notice?

Finally, on the other issue that the Prime Minister mentioned, the tampon tax, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Primarolo, who is in her place. She tells the story of how, as a Treasury Minister, she sought and, in 2000, succeeded in reducing VAT on female sanitary protection to the then lowest level of 5% from the higher level that we as a Government inherited of 17.5%. It was not easy. She was told the justification for why it could not be reduced to the lower level of 5% in a scene worthy of “Yes Minister”. She was told: “But Minister, it is only for essential products”. When she asked for examples of what those could possibly be, she was told, “Well, Minister, essential products like razor blades”.

Today, we welcome the progress made and recognise the efforts of my noble friend in getting us to this point. The right decision has been made. The Chancellor said last week in his Statement that the money raised from that 5% VAT would go to charities. Does that mean that charities will not receive that income, or will the Chancellor find some other way to make up the deficit of the money that they were expecting? I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to answer my questions.