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The position is very difficult to understand. While I was in Beirut, I heard a story about a bridge that the Israelis feared would be used to bring supplies to Hezbollah from Syria. I am not certain, but I believe that the bridge may have been paid for with European Union aid money. It certainly cost €70 million. I understand from everyone to whom I spoke that there was a big hole in one end of the bridge. The bridge was reparable in time, but instead it was attacked again and again until it had been utterly destroyed. I do not see the sense in attacking the Lebanese infrastructure in that way.

Worse still, I heard of a Lebanese army barracks in which 17 or 18 engineers were killed. It was very close to the British ambassador’s residence. If the aim is to go in and try to disarm Hezbollah, whether by persuasion or by force, where is the sense—tactical or otherwise—in dropping a bomb on the very force whose help is required in establishing law and order and extending the Government’s remit right down to the Israeli border? It makes no sense. I made that view known to the Israelis—including the Israeli Foreign Minister—and I know that they realise they must be very judicious in the way in which they attack such targets if they are to win opinion on the Arab streets.


7. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): If she will make a statement on the political situation in Burma. [87874]

8. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): If she will make a statement on the political situation in Burma. [87876]

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): We remain concerned about the political situation in Burma, which is unchanged. I summoned the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and wrote to the Burmese Foreign Minister setting out our concerns in detail. I also raised Burma with the Governments of China, India, Japan, Thailand and South Korea and I met Juan Mendes, the UN special adviser for the prevention of genocide, to discuss the Burmese situation. Indeed, I invited Mr. Mendes to come here to Parliament to meet Members of both Houses and discuss their continuing concerns about Burma. I hope to able to arrange that in the near future, and we will continue to press for positive change in Burma.

Mr. Crabb: I thank the Minister for that reply and I encourage him to continue taking specific steps to build international support for a UN Security Council resolution on Burma, particularly in the light of the extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest in May and the continuing Burmese army offensive against the Karen people, which has resulted in the displacement of more than 18,000 individuals this year alone.

Mr. McCartney: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. He referred to a group of specific issues, which I also raised with the ambassador and with the Foreign Ministers of other countries in order to secure
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co-operative action in the region to get Burma to accept its international obligations. First, Burma should allow the UN to enter the country. Secondly, it should allow in the UN refugee administration and, thirdly, it should also allow a UN rapporteur into the country to investigate allegations of torture and other inhumane treatment against ethnic minorities. Countries in the region must take some responsibility for developing a comprehensive strategy to bring Burma into the public domain and to get it to live up to its requirements on human rights and for its own civil society. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am continually raising the issues that he mentioned with both the Burmese Administration and the countries around Burma, which could exert a greater influence than they have up to now.

John Bercow: I warmly welcome the Minister’s robust answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). Given that the remorseless bestiality of the military junta has caused the patience of the Malaysian Prime Minister and his colleagues in the Association of South East Asian Nations finally to snap, and given that no fewer than 313 hon. Members have signed early-day motion 902, calling for a UN Security Council intervention in Burma, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House today what particular steps he is taking to try to persuade Ghana, Tanzania and Congo-Brazzaville to back a robust resolution that will force the regime to stop subjugating its citizens and to start liberating them?

Mr. McCartney: Again, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we support a proposal for a Security Council resolution on Burma and we are working closely not only with the United States, but with other partners on the Council to ensure that we have a full debate on Burma, which we hope will lead to a resolution. Our first objective—to answer the hon. Gentleman’s main question—is to get Burma formally added to the UN Security Council agenda. To achieve that, we need nine votes and we are working with like-minded partners to secure those votes. I cannot yet tell the House that I have secured the nine, but we are close to doing so. I hope that, having achieved the nine votes, we can proceed to put the motion at the Council. That is a clear indication that the international community has not just lost its patience with Burma, but is prepared to take action to represent the needs of the Burmese people who are trapped in that country. They are powerless and voiceless and only we can help them to resolve their problems.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Burmese regime is propped up by the highest number of child soldiers in the world? It has been reported that the Burmese regime frequently apprehends boys as young as 12 at train and bus stations, markets and other public places, forcing them into the army and even to participate in executions. When he next meets the Burmese—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must now allow the Minister to answer the question.

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Mr. McCartney: It is not normal to put into the public domain discussions with an ambassador, even of that regime. However, on the issue of child soldiers, I asked the ambassador to look me in the eye and tell me—not as an ambassador or politician, but as a father and a grandfather—why so many of his children or grandchildren have had their childhoods stolen and how many of them are fighting an inhumane war against their own fellow children and fellow human beings instead of playing in the streets and doing the things that children take for granted in this country. He did not answer that question, but I looked him in the eye again and I asked him again and again, and I will continue to ask him until he rids his country of child soldiers.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my right hon. Friend says, which is very impressive, but what are the Chinese doing? What discussions has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had with the Chinese? The key to putting pressure on Burma must be found in China changing its position and beginning to condemn that awful regime.

Mr. McCartney: I can confirm that I have had three conversations with different representatives of the Chinese Government—their ambassador, whom I will meet again soon, their Vice-Foreign Minister and their Deputy Foreign Minister, the latter of whom I spoke to only last week in Beijing. I have asked them to consider finding a practical way forward. They are obviously concerned about security on their own border. However, China and the other nations in the region have a direct responsibility not just to get fed up with Burma and its actions, but to do something about being fed up. I am having those delicate discussions on the basis of securing, first, a UN Security Council resolution and, secondly, co-operation to allow the UN to enter Burma freely and to start doing the work that we need to do there on behalf of the people of Burma.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): As has been made clear in these exchanges, the Burma regime is one of the most inhumane in the world. The Minister has recently had high-level talks with the Chinese, who are key players in bringing about change, first, because of their major influence on ASEAN; secondly, because of their increasing trade with Burma, through their building of ports to gain access to the Indian ocean and through gas supplies; and, thirdly, because they are one of the key nations that are blocking a binding resolution. Precisely what discussions has he had with the Chinese to bring about a change in their attitude towards Burma, because they need to start taking a more responsible attitude in the international community towards bad human rights records in countries such as Burma?

Mr. McCartney: I have had what can be best described, as a diplomat, as a rather positive discussion and—

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): A frank exchange of views.

Mr. McCartney: Yes, as the military strategist says. Why does a military strategist become a Member of Parliament? I can give an assurance that we asked our
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colleagues in China to do a number of things: first, to help facilitate access by the UN; and, secondly, to think seriously and to help facilitate a UN resolution and a resolution in the Human Rights Council on a better proactive dialogue to allow the various commissioners appointed by the UN to deal with Burma and to be able to do their jobs. We have yet to get a full response, but at least they are prepared to discuss it. Their recent actions in regard to Iran and North Korea are surely a really good sign of their being more proactive in the region on an international basis. By taking those two steps forward, I hope that we can take steps forward in terms of Burma as well.

Middle East

10. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the situation in the middle east. [87878]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We are gravely concerned by the situation in Lebanon, Israel and the occupied territories. We are urging restraint on all sides and are working with international partners to secure a durable ceasefire. It is important that the abducted Israeli soldiers are released and that Israel acts proportionately, conforms with international law and avoids civilian death and suffering. Ultimately, to resolve the situation in both Gaza and Lebanon, we need to deal with the underlying causes, so we must get negotiations between Israel and Palestinians back on track and make progress towards the two-state solution.

Ann Clwyd: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. If she recalls, there was a summit at Sharm el-Sheikh last year, and the Israelis promised to release
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Palestinian prisoners. However, there are still 9,000 Palestinians in detention or prison, including 400 children. In addition, 33 Palestinian Ministers and Members of Parliament are also in detention. The Israelis must understand that there cannot be peace and stability in that region unless they give the Palestinians their independence and their liberty.

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is one of the more distinguished contributors for her record in all of these spheres, and I understand the concern that she expresses. I can tell her that, particularly with regard to the recent detention of Ministers and Members of Parliament, international concern has been expressed and there continue to be calls for their release. I can also tell her that the wider concerns that she expresses about Palestinian prisoners in general are shared, and that much discussion and negotiation is going on at the current time about all of these issues.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that a ceasefire will be short lived unless both Hezbollah and Hamas agree to give up their weapons and agree to a ceasefire themselves, and that, sadly, neither looks like happening?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East said in response to earlier questions—and as Senator Mitchell said on the “Today” programme this morning—it is of course the case that any ceasefire that is other than a ceasefire on both sides, and any ceasefire that does not have the capacity to be durable and sustainable, simply will not hold. The right hon. Gentleman is right that, sadly, there seems to be little evidence that either Hamas or Hezbollah has much interest at present in such a ceasefire.

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Immigration Service

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): Last week, I set out to the House our plans for transforming the Home Office and for rebalancing the criminal justice system. Today, as I promised, I return to the House with further proposals for reform of the immigration and nationality directorate, with the aims of making it fair, effective, transparent and trusted, and of rebuilding confidence in our immigration system. I will now set out our plan, a copy of which I have placed in the Library.

In this area, as in others, we are not starting from year zero. For instance, I wish to thank the Home Affairs Committee and its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), for the work that it has done, and for its newly published report on immigration control. A number of its recommendations are reflected in the proposals that I shall outline today, and we will study the report carefully and respond in full in due course.

Once again, I pay tribute to my predecessors for their significant achievements, which include the closure of Sangatte, the 72 per cent. reduction in asylum applications from their peak, the speeding up of the processing of asylum decisions from the 22 months that it took in 1997 to two months now, and achieving the tipping point target of removing more failed asylum seekers than those coming in.

However, recent events have highlighted weaknesses within the IND, and we need to reform its systems so that they are truly able to meet the challenges of what are hugely changed circumstances. In approaching that, over the past six weeks we—in particular my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality and I—have examined the immigration system from the perspective of the front line, by talking directly to more than 600 immigration workers, case workers and managers and consulting several thousand others about what they need to make the organisation work better. Their views have helped shape our plans for reforms, and they will continue to do so.

To change the IND, I have set out four new strategic objectives. Our first objective is to strengthen our borders, to use tougher checks abroad so that only those with permission can travel to the United Kingdom, and to ensure that we know who leaves so that we can take action against those who break the rules. We will bring together resources, increased powers, new technology and the increased visibility that staff say they need to transform our border services.

By 2008, we will have in place biometric ID requirements for the highest risk countries, taking fingerprints from all visa applicants from those countries. We will perform border checks on people before they travel to this country, targeting high-risk routes through effective threat and risk analysis. We will progressively reinstate exit—in other words, embarkation—controls in stages, starting with the higher-risk routes and people, identify who overstays and count everyone in and out by 2014. We will strengthen the powers and the surveillance capability of our border service to enforce our physical borders more
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effectively and to deter illegal entry, and make it a visible, uniformed presence.

Secondly, we will enforce compliance with our immigration rules, removing the most harmful people first and denying the privileges of Britain to those who stay here illegally. We will double what we spend on enforcement and compliance by 2009-10 and we will expand our activity. For foreign national prisoners, we will require evidence of nationality during contact with the criminal justice system itself, link criminality more clearly to deportation, remove in-country rights of appeal, streamline our procedures and otherwise remove barriers to deportation and removal.

A key challenge is to extend the United Kingdom’s ability, in law, to deport or remove those who threaten our security. A proportion of those eligible for deportation or removal are not removed because the country to which they would be returned is considered unsafe, and because we are not currently able to balance the threat posed by an individual to our national security against the risk of mistreatment if the individual concerned is returned to their own country. We are prevented from making this balance by the Chahal judgment in the European Court in 1996—before we had the Human Rights Act 1998 in this country. We are seeking to change this through our intervention in a Dutch case before the European Court. We want to be able to take into account the threat to national security and to be able to rely on assurances given by the returnee country.

Changing the Chahal judgment is the essential requirement. But in any event, we intend to consult on making it easier to deport people under UK law within the terms of the judgment, limiting as far as possible the ability to stop the deportation of those whom the Government consider it necessary to deport or to remove for reasons of national security. We will redouble our efforts on deportation and removal, including through changes to the law, where necessary.

We will also do much more on enforcement and compliance within the United Kingdom. We will work across government to shut down fraudulent access to benefits and services, and tackle illegal working. We will penalise rogue employers who employ illegal workers through fines and through seizing the assets of persistent offenders. We will do this in step with providing more efficient support to help respectable employers check who is entitled to be here. We will disbar company officers who are criminally liable for consenting to, or conniving in, knowingly employing illegal workers. We will make immigration a truly cross-government issue, with shared targets.

Thirdly, we will fast-track asylum cases, remove those whose claims fail and integrate those who need our protection. We will continue to remove more failed asylum seekers who make unfounded claims, now that we have reached the tipping point. By the end of 2009, in three years’ time, we aim to deal with 75 per cent. of new asylum cases—granting or removing, as appropriate—within six months. In five years’ time, by the end of 2011, we intend to deal with 90 per cent. within six months, and we have set out plans to achieve that. We will deal with the legacy of unresolved cases in five years or less, as I said last week. We will prioritise those who may pose a risk to the public and then focus on those who can be more easily removed, those
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receiving support and those who may be granted leave. All cases will be dealt with on their individual merits: there will be no amnesty.

Finally, we will boost Britain’s economy by bringing the right skills here from around the world and ensuring that this country is easy to visit legally, through managed migration. We will implement the points-based system to attract the workers and students we want to bring to Britain. We will exploit biometrics to help trusted travellers enter and leave the country faster.

To deliver those four strategic objectives, we need to make radical changes to the IND as an organisation and to the environment in which it operates. We intend to do that in several important ways. We will strengthen and simplify our immigration laws to make the system more effective and give our work force effective powers to do the job we ask them to do. As a first step, we will take new powers, including to ensure that foreign national prisoners automatically face deportation, and to strengthen our border through inter-agency working. As a second step, we will radically reform and simplify the immigration laws, rules and guidance under which the work force has to work.

We will also create a strong framework for delivery and accountability. We will therefore establish IND as a shadow agency from April 2007. It will be given the operational freedoms and the regional structure it needs to deliver its business, while being more clearly accountable to Parliament and the public. We will consult on streamlining the existing fragmented regulation and inspection regime by the creation of a new single immigration regulator to give an independent and consistent perspective on the performance of IND as a whole. And we will consult on setting up a new migration advisory committee, which would publish recommendations to Government on where in the economy migration should sensibly help to fill skills gaps, and provide an informed and non-partisan view.

In addition to these proposals, we will introduce a range of measures, including strengthening IND’s leadership and management at all levels, and a change of culture. In that context, I am pleased to announce that Stuart Hyde, an assistant chief constable with the West Midlands police, has joined IND as the new senior director for enforcement.

These are outline proposals. Over the next few months, we will publish further details and we will act and consult where necessary. Some changes will happen quickly, others will take time. This is a long-term investment that will require endurance and persistence: it is not a quick fix. But we are committed to achieving a transformation in the way IND works over the next few years, so that we can deliver the services that Parliament and the public rightly expect. I command this plan to the House.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I think that the word should have been “commend”. Perhaps the Home Secretary thinks that he is still at the Ministry of Defence.

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