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Mr. Alexander: We have been unequivocal in our condemnation of the rocket attacks that have continued from Gaza into the Israeli population, but we have been equally clear that the Government of Israel have heavy responsibilities. One of the most dispiriting aspects of my visit to Gaza was sitting with a group of Palestinian business people who told me of their investments in factories in Gaza in recent years—at a cost of being called quislings by the Hamas authorities because they were willing to trade with Israel—and of how, during the final hours of the conflict, ahead of the unilateral declaration of the ceasefire, they watched the devastation
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of the industrial region of Gaza when there was no apparent activity from Hamas forces in that part of the territory. There is a huge amount of work to be done and it is vital that the humanitarian effort continues, but, beyond the humanitarian effort, it is critical that a comprehensive middle east peace plan emerges in the weeks ahead. I hope and trust that the new Israeli Government under formation at the moment will take that forward.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware of growing concerns in the NGO community about the apparent contradiction between EU and UK law on whether NGOs can continue to support public officials such as teachers and nurses. Will the Secretary of State offer some clarity and confirm that British NGOs will be able to continue to provide vital services in Gaza without the fear of prosecution under EU law?

Mr. Alexander: The position that the British Government have adopted for some time has not changed. We urge the agencies involved to maintain the greatest possible distance from Hamas. We recognise that there might be circumstances in which there is proximity within Gaza, given Hamas’s present role, but none the less we are clear that those mechanisms that I have spoken of already need to be upheld. We need to be able to offer assurances to the British people that the aid to which they have generously contributed is not being misused and misappropriated.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State bear in mind in these exchanges that the appalling devastation in Gaza was brought about by Israel? More evidence has come to light in the past few days that Israel has in fact committed war crimes in Gaza—crimes against humanity. Although I have no time for Hamas at all—obviously not—the fact remains that far more should be done by the international community first and foremost to help the people of Gaza and secondly to try to ensure that those who have committed war crimes are brought to justice.

Mr. Alexander: I hope that my answers today have given some comfort to my hon. Friend that we are taking decisive action in providing the humanitarian support for which I know there is widespread support on both sides of the House. We are extremely concerned by the reports of killings of innocent civilians during Operation Cast Lead. The Israeli Government are carrying out an investigation into the allegations, led by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, and he has stated that the findings will be examined seriously. It is important that these investigations are carried out, not least given the severity and seriousness of the charges that are being levelled.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): Two months on from the end of the conflict, as hon. Members have pointed out, the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains absolutely desperate. We all accept that we must take every measure to avoid aid being diverted by Hamas to other ends, but the Secretary of State himself has expressed concerns about the Israeli Government, who are allowing through only about a fifth of the humanitarian assistance that the NGOs and others say they need. Is it not time that
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the Secretary of State spelled out what steps the Israelis must take to let that assistance in and what will happen if they do not do that? For the sake of the NGOs, will he spell out the difference between legitimate co-ordination with officials in Gaza and illegitimate engagement with Hamas?

Mr. Alexander: I have of course met the NGOs that are working in Gaza. I reiterate at the Dispatch Box today that if they have concerns they can come and talk to us directly in the Department. In relation to the point on the Israelis, the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that we continue to have deep concerns about the level of access that is being denied—in terms not simply of the quantity of aid, but of the range of products that are being allowed in—and about international aid workers’ inability, in certain circumstances, to enter Gaza to offer their expertise in the light of the continuing humanitarian situation. That is why I have raised that issue with the Israeli Government and why, only yesterday, we once again raised it with Isaac Herzog, the Social Affairs Minister.

St. Helena

4. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): When he expects the consultation on options for access to the island of St. Helena to conclude. [266027]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): We expect the consultation to start in April and take 16 weeks. The consultation document will set out details of the timetable and of how people can participate. We will run the exercise in line with the Government’s code of conduct for holding public consultations.

Anne Snelgrove: As my hon. Friend is aware, Swindon has the largest St. Helena community outside London. What hope can he give my constituents, who are British citizens, that their families will not be left stranded and that the consultation will not delay the introduction of 21st century transport links for that very remote island?

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is always a keen advocate for her constituents, especially the Saints in Swindon. I reassure her that the consultation document, when it is produced, will make it absolutely clear that we remain fully committed to providing access to St. Helena.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the view across the House that the Government are guilty of a breach of faith and of dithering in their handling of this matter? What will the new consultation tell him that he does not already know from the past nine years of this process?

Mr. Foster: I do not recognise the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the consultation exercise, but I look forward to reading his contribution—and perhaps that of his constituents on the Falcon Lodge estate in Sutton Coldfield, for instance—to see whether they think that it is right, in the current economic circumstances, to spend the amount of money that is being considered on an airport for St. Helena.

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Mr. Mitchell: Does the Minister not understand that Ministers’ handling of this matter has been shameful, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), the respected former Foreign Office Minister, has eloquently explained? The people of St. Helena are British citizens, so do we not have a duty to them to resolve this issue? Is not it time that he and his colleagues got a grip?

Mr. Foster: At a time of global downturn, we are talking about 50 million people around the world being unemployed. An extra 90 million people will earn less than $1.25 a day, and it is expected that an extra 3 million children will die as a result of the global downturn. We have to take all those circumstances into account when making a decision about spending the amount of money that we are talking about on an airport for St. Helena.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [266009] Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 March.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is today in New York, meeting UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon as part of a range of meetings to discuss the world economy, prior to the G20 meeting in London.

Joan Ryan: When I met my constituents in Highway ward on Saturday, they told me that the single biggest issue was their rising fear of burglary. Measures such as the security fund that help people to make their homes more secure are very important and necessary. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give me an assurance that the Government will do all they can, while working closely with the police, to combat that growing fear?

Ms Harman: The Home Secretary can give that assurance, as do I. Against the background of concern about burglary, I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) will reassure her constituents that there are more police on the beat and tougher penalties against those who are caught and prosecuted. I know that she supports police community support officers, and she can reassure her constituents that burglary across London has fallen by half.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Three weeks ago, I asked the right hon. and learned Lady about the Government’s failure to implement the working capital scheme, which is meant to provide loan guarantees to help businesses. She said then that the scheme was being finalised. The scheme has received state-aid clearance from the EU, and the Government said that it would be up and running from 1 March. Is it not unacceptable that it is still not up and running, and that still no loans have been guaranteed under it?

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Ms Harman: As the right hon. Gentleman said, we now have state-aid approval for that working capital scheme, and I can tell the House that, under the agreement with Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland, £5 billion will now be released to business. The tax payment deferrals, which give businesses direct cash help through deferring their tax payments, have meant help for 93 businesses all around the country— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Leader of the House reply.

Ms Harman: If the Opposition had their way, it would not even be 93 businesses, but under our programme it is 93,000 businesses. We are taking action to give direct support to businesses and to families, and to back up the economy in the face of an unprecedented global financial crisis.

Mr. Hague: More than 2 million people are now unemployed in this country, and thousands of businesses have gone under. The job recruitment scheme announced in January has been delayed until April. The mortgage support scheme is also not up and running. This is a matter of cross-party concern. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson)—he knows a lot about loan guarantees—said on the radio this morning:

Does the right hon. and learned Lady not agree with her hon. Friend, with all his Treasury experience, that the Government are still behind the game?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman is wrong about the job recruitment scheme. We said that the extra help for people who have been unemployed for six months would come in from April this year and it is on target. There would be more unemployed if there were the cuts in capital that the Tories propose. It would be more difficult for the unemployed if there were cuts in jobcentres. The reality is that we are putting money into the economy, with a fiscal stimulus for money direct to businesses and to families, whereas the Opposition would take no action and make the recession worse and longer.

Mr. Hague: My party called for a national loan guarantee scheme all the way back in November and the Government have dithered about it ever since. They are all over the place. The Prime Minister is on his way to Chile. The Business Secretary has just arrived in Brazil. Should he not be implementing those schemes instead of unpacking his Speedos on a Latin American beach? Is it not time to get on with those things?

On the fiscal stimulus, yesterday the Governor of the Bank of England warned against another significant round of fiscal expansion when the deficit is already as big as it is. This morning, the gilt auction has apparently failed for the first time in many years. Was the Governor of the Bank of England not right to give that warning?

Ms Harman: As far as the gilts are concerned, the head of the Debt Management Office has said it would be wrong to read anything into the result of one auction. He says that

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The Opposition’s proposal for a loan guarantee scheme would not have guaranteed anything to anyone because there was no money behind it. On the action we are taking in the face of an unprecedented global financial crisis, in November, in the pre-Budget report, we said we would have a fiscal stimulus to help with investment in housing, in transport and in apprenticeships. That is what the country needed. The country needed it and the Governor of the Bank of England backed it—only the Tories opposed it.

Mr. Hague: I now notice that the Government are too ashamed of the VAT cut to mention it in the list of what they did last November. Let us be absolutely clear about what the Governor of the Bank of England said yesterday:

For a Governor of the Bank of England to speak in that way, ahead of a Budget, is exceptional and extraordinary, especially when the Prime Minister was in the very act of proclaiming a fiscal stimulus before the European Parliament. It is a defining moment in the debate in this country about how to deal with the recession. Today, the right hon. and learned Lady speaks for the whole Government and the Chancellor is sitting alongside her. Do they agree with the Governor of the Bank of England? Yes or no?

Ms Harman: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is a defining time, because whereas we take the necessary action, the Conservatives would do nothing. It is a defining time because this weekend, they decided to press ahead with their plans for tax cuts for just 3,000 millionaires. At the same time, they preach financial rectitude.

The right hon. Gentleman said that I had missed out the VAT cut; well, I am sorry, and I will rectify that. I will mention the VAT cut, which will put £275 into the budget of every family in this country. I will also mention the help for pensioners that started in January this year. I will mention the help with extra child tax credit. The big, defining dividing line is that we want to make sure that we give help to 22 million families with tax cuts, whereas the Conservatives’ priority is to give £200,000 each in tax cuts to just 3,000 millionaires.

Mr. Hague: The question was about the Governor of the Bank of England. I know that inheritance may preoccupy the niece of the Countess of Longford, but it is no good attacking our policy, which is to reward people who have saved hard and worked hard all their life, and which, when we announced it, the Government tried to copy. Let us be very clear what the Governor of the Bank of England said:

The question to the Leader of the House today is whether she agrees with the Governor of the Bank of England—yes or no?

Ms Harman: The Budget will be on 22 April. The Governor of the Bank of England agreed with us when he said that our fiscal stimulus was “perfectly reasonable and appropriate”. When it comes to fiscal measures, how can the right hon. Gentleman justify £2 billion of public money being squandered on 3,000 of the richest people in this country? That is unfairness and irresponsibility.

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Mr. Hague: The CBI said this week of the British economy that

The ITEM Club said that

The chief executive of the Audit Commission said that we are facing an “Armageddon scenario” because of the “scale of indebtedness”. The Governor of the Bank of England said the words that I have now read out twice to the right hon. and learned Lady—that this country cannot afford another substantial, significant fiscal stimulus. May I give her, in my last question, a third opportunity to agree with the Governor of the Bank of England? Otherwise, the nation will rightly conclude that the Government are now in open disagreement with the Bank of England, and are no longer in control of either the public finances or the policies of this country. Yes or no—does she agree with him?

Ms Harman: This country will rightly conclude that while the Tories say that they have changed their ways, they have not. I want to make it quite clear that while we are investing—we will continue to invest—they call for cuts. When our Prime Minister is working with world leaders, they drift off to Europe’s far right. While we are giving tax cuts to millions of people, they would give tax cuts only to millionaires. They have set out their stall: it is the millionaire’s manifesto.

Hon. Members: More, more!

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the predictions of a serious increase in youth unemployment this summer? Does she therefore agree with the independent member of the Monetary Policy Committee and others, who think that there should be a strong fiscal stimulus specifically targeted at ensuring that young people can get jobs this summer?

Ms Harman: The extra investment of £2 billion in our jobcentres will particularly help young people. We have made more investment in training, and a central part of the fiscal stimulus is more investment in apprenticeships. I fully support the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Yesterday we had a very British coup d’état when the Governor of the Bank of England sent his tanks down the Mall, effectively seized control of the British economy through his command of monetary policy, and put the Government under house arrest. If the Prime Minister still thinks it is worth his while returning from a sunny exile in south America, what freedom of manoeuvre do he and the Government have in respect of taxation and public spending?

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