Palestinian School Curriculum: Radicalisation — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:00 pm, 10th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I congratulate Jonathan Gullis on securing his first debate. He started with a tough subject, for which I admire him. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I declare an interest as I visited the region with the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians.

We all care deeply about the education of children across the world. Nobody comes to this place thinking that that is not exceptionally important. It is even more important in the vulnerable refugee communities that are rightly at the forefront of the Department for International Development’s work. I want to be clear that there is no place for promoting hate or intolerance in school curricula or textbooks anywhere in the world. We have a double responsibility where UK aid may be present, either tangentially or in another form.

Last month, I visited the consul general. Hanging outside his residence is a sign that reads,

“Our mission in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. To advance the United Kingdom’s security and prosperity through a just peace between a stable, democratic Palestinian State and Israel, based on 1967 borders, ending the Occupation by agreement. To strengthen the ties of friendship between the Palestinian and British peoples.”

That is a worthy goal and a worthy ideal that I suspect all 650 MPs would just about agree with. That is the context for the debate. With a sense of sadness, I echo the point made by Alyn Smith that perhaps we are having this debate a few months too early. The exceptionally important review of the Georg Eckert Institute will set a context beyond the anger that has properly flown around, and settle things in independent facts. As a result, we will have a better discussion.

I do not mean to be critical, but I was concerned by references to the IMPACT-se report. When Alistair Burt, who is no longer of this parish but who was admired on both sides of the House, was the responsible Minister, he said in a written answer that he was “concerned at…the allegations” in the report and was

“working to commission a robust study” of it, but that his assessment was that it was

“not objective in its findings and lacked methodological rigour”.

As long as our debates are based on such facts, we will struggle to move forwards. We have a responsibility to try to assemble the best facts.

The Department was right, therefore, when it said last March that it wanted to take an active interest in the issue in conjunction with international partners. If we are to have something that everybody has confidence in, it is best to act collectively, and the EU is an obvious actor in that place. The Opposition have supported the review throughout, and we will to continue to support it, because it has significant implications. What stems from the review will have an impact on the lives of refugee children—what they learn, where they learn and whether they receive an education at all. Those are exceptionally important matters that make a significant difference to people’s lives. We need to work collectively. It was bad when the United States unilaterally pulled out of UNRWA, because that does not promote anything. Even if a country has problems with institutions, to act in that way does not promote peaceful goals and certainly not a two-state solution.

We were expecting the review to be completed in September, so we are six months on. Since it was launched, there has been a lot of change in the Department’s leadership. There have been four Secretaries of State in that time; the Minister is the third Minister who I have shadowed. There is a fear that things will be missed. We hope that there will now be a period of stability and genuine commitment to the Department by the Government.

I know and respect the Minister. He is a good Minister who will do a good job. Like me, he is a plain speaker, so I have some plain questions that I hope will some get plain answers. When will the report be published? What are the Government doing to roll the pitch so that we are ready to act on those recommendations? What conversations are taking place with the Palestinian Authority and what is the nature of those conversations? The hon. Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned the importance of the Palestinian Authority, and my hon. Friend Steve McCabe asked the Minister what the Palestinian Authority are willing to do. From talking to colleagues in the sector, my understanding is that the PA have said that they are willing to accept criticism and to engage. That has to be the right thing to do.

I do not know Christian Wakeford well, but he made the outstanding contribution of the debate and spoke brilliantly when he said that we have to see the issue through a lens of reform being possible. That was not the tone of the whole debate. We need to work on it as a moving thing and a live thing. To do that, we need the debate.

UNRWA is another live matter. We were flyered outside the Chamber by someone wanting to put a report about UNRWA into our hands. Many people use this subject—I am not referring to hon. Members who have engaged with it seriously and soberly—as a proxy measure to damn UNRWA’s work and undermine it. We do that at our peril. UNRWA supports 5.5 million refugees with a range of vital services including education, healthcare, social services, infrastructure services and microfinance, about which Mary Robinson spoke strongly. When we undermine UNRWA, we pick at and risk those things.

When I visited the occupied territories last month and I was at the Aida refugee camp, I met UNRWA staff and my first question was about textbooks. Their analysis was that, in their opinion, less than about 3% contravene UN principles, largely on age appropriateness, gender representation and inclusiveness, rather than on issues with Israel; they said that, in response, they had supplemented the curriculum with human rights content. I am interested to hear the Minister’s reflections on whether that chimes with the best information he has. Robert Courts suggested that the curriculum was saturated. It is absolutely critical that we know the facts, so we know where to go next.