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House of Commons

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 11 December (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): What representations he has made to the Burmese Government on resolving the situation in Rakhine state. [131100]

6. Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to promote peace and reconciliation in Burma. [131105]

10. Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): What steps he is taking with the Burmese and Bangladeshi Governments to assist the Rohingya Muslim community. [131109]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): We continue to raise our concerns about the recent violence in Rakhine state, as well as the conflict in Kachin and Shan states, with Burmese Ministers and Aung San Suu Kyi. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the plight of the Rohingya community in recent discussions with the Burmese President, stressing the need to resolve their citizenship status. Officials continue to emphasise the importance of our humanitarian aid programmes in Bangladesh and Rakhine with the Bangladeshi and Burmese Governments.

Mr Burrowes: I thank the Minister for that response. Does it not surprise him that Aung San Suu Kyi, the most respected and peaceable person in Burma, has been in effect excluded from steps to resolve the situation in Rakhine? Will he urge the Burmese Government to invite Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Rakhine state as soon as possible to help to calm the situation?

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Mr Swire: We very much welcome the statement that Aung San Suu Kyi made on 9 November, as chairman of the parliamentary committee on the rule of law, on the situation in Rakhine state. The issue was raised with her by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary when she was here in June, and our ambassador has raised it with her since. I will travel to that part of the world shortly and I will certainly discuss the issue with her, because I believe she has a role in resolving it and, indeed, all the problems facing Burma today.

Mr Sheerman: We hear what the Minister says, but the situation is of great concern to all of us who care about minorities. I have been a critic in this House of the way in which Christians have been treated by Muslims in Pakistan—that is on the record—but this is a question of Muslims being persecuted in Burma. Can the United Nations and this country’s leadership and Government not do something about it?

Mr Swire: Of course we remain extremely concerned about the situation in Burma, but we believe that it is moving in the right direction. We welcome President Obama’s recent visit there and I shall be taking a trade delegation on my visit. We believe that engaging with the Government commercially as well as politically is the right way to proceed. We are concerned about the ethnic violence and issues of religion, and we remain concerned—I shall raise these points forcefully when I am there—about the issue of the remaining political prisoners.

Richard Fuller: The Minister has rightly focused on issues regarding the Rohingya community in Burma, but equally there are hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh and 20,000 or 30,000 of them in refugee camps. What steps can the Minister take to persuade the Bangladesh Government to begin the registration of undocumented Rohingya refugees and to provide access for non-governmental organisations to the refugee camps?

Mr Swire: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The issue was raised by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary during a meeting with the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on 28 July. The former Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), raised it with Prime Minister Hasina on 12 August. My noble friend Baroness Warsi raised it with the Bangladesh Foreign Minister, Dipu Moni, in October 2012 and the British high commissioner has also raised it in Bangladesh. It is important that we get aid to that part of Rakhine and that the Bangladeshis make it possible for that aid to reach the people.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): The development of democracy in Burma will be successful only if it is pluralistic—a position that has long been held by the British Government. Is the Minister satisfied with the position that is being taken within the European Union, and what discussions has he had with his counterparts about ensuring that the common position does not move too quickly towards removing all sanctions and developing trade with Burma until all ethnic groupings are properly involved in its democracy?

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Mr Swire: As I have said, we have taken the view that the best way to encourage Burma on the path that we believe the President has set is to engage with them. We have taken a number of trade delegations there and I shall be taking one myself shortly. I have written to the chairman of the all-party group on Burma, the noble Baroness Kinnock, and, when I return from that part of the world—this will be in the new year—I am prepared happily to talk through what I will have learnt on the ground. I think I will be one of the few Ministers to have been to that area, so I will be able to give the hon. Lady a first-hand account of what I think is going on there.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): While the focus has been on the Rohingya people and the atrocities that they have faced, including the destruction of a mosque recently, everybody in the area is suffering as a result of these problems. Will the Minister tell us how the humanitarian aid that we are providing will encourage a resolution to the difficulties?

Mr Swire: I am pleased to say that we have an extremely good track record in that respect. We are one of the largest aid donors to Burma and have allocated £187 million to it over four years, which includes support for the process of ethnic reconciliation. We announced another £27 million in November for the humanitarian support of refugees and internally displaced people and for peace-building activities, drawing on our experiences in Northern Ireland. We have provided a further £2 million to Kachin, where there are 27,500 internally displaced people. We have a record that is second to none in providing the aid that is sorely needed in that part of the world.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I know from my visit to Burma in July that the country will welcome the trade delegation that the Minister is leading. However, I am concerned that, from feedback I have had and questions I have asked about other trade delegations that have been led by the Foreign Office in recent months, it seems that very little has been said about human rights on those trips. Will the Minister assure me that the plight of the Rohingya, the fate of political prisoners and other human rights issues in Burma will be very much on his agenda when he goes to Burma?

Mr Swire: I can certainly give the hon. Lady that assurance. Trade is one part of what we are doing, as I have attempted to outline this morning. We believe in trade because, by engaging in it, we can form relationships and show the people of Burma what future they can have. However, that we are trying to increase our bilateral trade does not mean for a moment that we will ignore our drive for increased human rights and the recognition of different ethnic groups in Burma. I shall make those points to all the politicians I meet there. Indeed, I have made those points to the Burmese politicians I have already met.

Middle East

2. Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): What his Department’s priorities for the middle east are in 2013. [131101]

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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): My priority for the middle east is to support peace and stability by urging the United States, with the strong and active support of the EU, to take a decisive lead in pushing the peace process forward; ending the violence in Syria; securing a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question; and supporting democratic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

Simon Hughes: I thank the Foreign Secretary for his commitment to those matters. Those of us who for the whole of our adult lives have been supporters of the state of Israel and of a state for Palestine were pleased by the decision of the United Nations last week, but dismayed by the response of the Israeli Government, who suggested that settlements should be built to the east of Jerusalem, effectively separating the two parts of the west bank. What does the Foreign Secretary think is the best way of getting the message through to the Israeli Government that that is neither the way to win friends nor the way to win peace?

Mr Hague: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything that he has just said. We summoned the Israeli ambassador to the Foreign Office yesterday to hear exactly that message from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who has responsibility for the middle east. If implemented, the plans that were announced on Friday would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that would make the two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital almost inconceivable, or certainly very difficult to implement. Much as we had misgivings, for some of the same reasons, about pressing for a resolution at the United Nations, we think that that was the wrong way for Israel to react. That message is coming loud and clear from all around Europe and the United States.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): Summoning the Israeli ambassador for a stage-managed dressing down will achieve nothing and nor, quite frankly, will the isolation of Israel at the United Nations. Should Ministers not be redoubling their efforts to get Palestinians and Israelis who are prepared to talk to each other and who want to see peace to work together, because that is the only way we will achieve any progress towards a stable, two-state solution with a secure and safe Israel living peacefully alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state?

Mr Hague: I agree with the main point of the hon. Gentleman’s question, although I assure him that nothing that the my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does is stage-managed. He imparted very clearly indeed the message that I think the whole House would agree with. The main point of the hon. Gentleman’s question is what I have expressed in all our discussions in the House over the past two weeks. Despite all the events of the past week, we have to achieve a return to negotiations and we particularly need the United States to play its necessary role in that. That is the only way in which we will secure a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one urgent priority must be for his Department to do whatever it can to help to

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end the indiscriminate carnage of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians by their own regime? May I commend him for persuading his European colleagues that reviews of the current arms embargo must be held every three months and not every year, and will he give urgent consideration to persuading his European colleagues—and, indeed, the Government—at least to allow air defence equipment to be made available to those trying to protect civilian communities throughout Syria?

Mr Hague: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He is right: last week the Government persuaded colleagues in the European Union that rather than roll over all sanctions on Syria for 12 months, including the arms embargo, we should do so for three months to allow ourselves flexibility to respond to a changing situation. As he knows, I do not follow him all the way in saying that we should supply air defence equipment, although opposition groups in Syria are clearly acquiring a variety of anti-aircraft weapons. The Government will be intensifying further not only our humanitarian assistance but our diplomatic efforts—including with Russia—to try to find a way forward on Syria.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Is not the building of additional illegal settlements, in addition to settlements that already house 500,000 people, a blatant breach of international law, together with the theft by the Israeli Government of huge sums of tax revenues belonging to the Palestinians? When will we take action such as economic sanctions or an arms embargo against this rogue state that is committing criminal acts?

Mr Hague: The settlements are illegal and on occupied land, and the latest announcement undermines Israel’s international reputation and creates doubts about its stated commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians. The Government have, of course, strongly advised Israel to reverse that decision. I spoke to the Israeli Foreign and Defence Ministers over the weekend, in addition to what the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, has done. We must remember, however, the point made by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin): only successful negotiation will resolve this issue, and that will require the willing participation of Israel as well as the Palestinians.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with our European partners following the General Assembly vote and Israel’s extremely regrettable response, bearing in mind the fact that the European Union is Israel’s most important trading and economic partner?

Mr Hague: I am working closely with the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, with whom I spoke over the weekend. That was why the UK and France together summoned the Israeli ambassadors yesterday, and other EU partners then did the same. I have also been talking to the French and German Foreign Ministers about how we can more actively support a US initiative in the area over the coming month, with European states contributing to incentives and disincentives for both sides to return to negotiations.

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Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary has shared with the House a number of calls that he has made to Ministers over recent days on the middle east. Given the announcement by the Israeli Government about further expansion of settlements, which we have already discussed, and the summoning of the Israeli ambassador to King Charles street yesterday, will the Foreign Secretary explain how abstaining in last week’s vote at the United Nations enhanced the UK’s influence with either Israel or the Palestinians?

Mr Hague: The United Kingdom is in exactly the same position as before regarding influence with the Palestinians and Israel. We have frank but warm relations with the Palestinians and, of course, we are always able to speak to the Israelis. Countries that voted no or yes or abstained were all in the same position over the weekend in disapproving of the Israeli decision and placing pressure on Israel to reverse it. I do not believe that the different ways in which we voted in the General Assembly made any difference to that.

Mr Alexander: Let me ask a practical question. In the light of the decision by the Israeli Government to withhold £75 million of Palestinian customs duties, what conversations have Ministers had in recent days with international partners on how to sustain a functioning Palestinian authority? In the immediate term, that would ensure the continuing operation of Palestinian security forces on the west bank, but in the medium term it holds out the prospect of credible negotiating partners for the Israelis.

Mr Hague: Of course we are in discussions with other countries on this matter. We must assess exactly what the financial implications are. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are already a major donor to the Palestinian Authority and the fourth biggest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The immediate action has been that the consul general in Jerusalem and a Department for International Development team have visited Gaza to assess the situation there, but we must see how we can further assist if there is a deepening financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority.


3. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What discussions his Department has had with the Libyan Government on reparations for previous victims of Libyan Semtex. [131102]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): The Gaddafi regime left a terrible legacy, with many victims both in Libya and in the UK. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I have consistently raised Gaddafi’s relationship with the IRA when we have seen the Libyan authorities.

David Mowat: It is now accepted that Libya provided the Semtex used both at Lockerbie and at the Warrington bombing in 1993. The US Government are vigorously pursuing a claim on behalf of the Lockerbie victims, whereas the UK is more passive in its support for the equivalent McCue case. Will the Minister review our position and undertake to go the extra mile for the UK victims, including those living in Warrington?

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Alistair Burt: I know my hon. Friend’s position and his close relationship with those who suffered in Warrington, not least Colin Parry and his family. It has not been the UK’s position specifically to support individual compensation claims—that has been done privately—but the UK has offered facilitation and support to those making such claims. More important, the UK has also been able to support a process of reconciliation with the new Libyan authorities to make good the comment of President Magarief at the UN in September—he apologised for the crimes of the despot and is looking to try to ensure that things are repaired. We are working continually with the Libyan authorities on that. I am going there next week to help in that process.

Mr Speaker: We are obliged to the Minister.

Single Market

5. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on protecting the integrity of the single market. [131104]

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I regularly discuss the single market with my counterparts both at bilateral meetings and in formal sessions of the Council.

Gordon Banks: With the Prime Minister increasingly marginalised and nobody believing a word that comes out of the Scottish First Minister’s mouth, what can the Minister do to protect the £9.7 billion of exports from Scotland to the EU, and to ensure that there is a credible single market in future?

Mr Lidington: I fear that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before he saw the outcome of the European Council at the end of last month. Given the emphasis he places on trade, I am sure he will have warmly welcomed our Prime Minister’s intervention to secure the free trade agreement between the EU and South Korea, which is already delivering opportunities for British businesses. I am sure he will also welcome the British Government’s strong support for the opening of trade negotiations between Europe and Japan, which was agreed last week.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Now that the penny has finally dropped within the eurozone that it cannot have monetary union without fiscal union, which in turn leads to closer political and economic union, what guarantees can the Government give that a caucus within the eurozone will not override UK interests within the single market?

Mr Lidington: This is something to which we are giving priority both in the immediate discussions on banking union and in all future negotiations on the future of the EU. I can give some reassurance to my hon. Friend. The requirements of the single market are written into the treaties and the terms of numerous items of EU legislation. On top of that, all 27 Heads of State and Government have made repeated commitments at European Councils that they are committed to defend the integrity of the single market.

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Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): But the Minister knows how important access to the single market is to our ability to attract foreign investment in, for example, car manufacturing. Surely he admits that there is a growing resistance in Europe to what is seen as the Government’s à la carte approach to their membership. Does he accept that that is becoming dangerous to our economic interests?

Mr Lidington: Our colleagues in the EU fully accept that we have taken a sovereign decision, which I thought was supported on both sides of the House, to stay out of the euro. It therefore follows that we do not take part in certain arrangements. However, I also find that my European counterparts are eager to work closely with us on measures to develop free trade further; to strengthen the single market—for example, to cover the digital economy, transport and energy—and to find ways to cut the cost and complexity of regulation, which applies to all European businesses.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): There appear to be a number of siren voices now starting to question the value of the single market to the United Kingdom. Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, do some detailed work to set out the exact value to the UK of our being part of the single market, and put that work in the Library?

Mr Lidington: A lot of this type of information is likely to emerge from submissions by businesses and their representative organisations to the balance of competences review which is now under way. To take one example, British car manufacturers would probably face tariffs of just under £1 billion a year were we to be outside the single market and paying the 10% tariff to export to the EU. Membership of the single market directly sustains jobs and prosperity in places such as Swindon, Solihull and Washington New Town.

Middle East

7. Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to encourage Israel to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. [131106]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): During the recent Gaza conflict, I underlined to Israel the need to abide by international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties. I welcome the ceasefire reached on 21 November, and I am urging all parties to fulfil their commitments under that agreement.

Ann McKechin: Although I welcome the ceasefire, does the Foreign Secretary share my concerns that UN figures show that since 2003 as many Gazans have died during periods of calm as they have during periods of conflict? That appears to show that there has been systemic failure by the Israelis in protecting civilians in Gaza. What he is going to do about that?

Mr Hague: Of course we are concerned about the wider situation, including the humanitarian situation—I spoke a moment ago about the visit of the Department for International Development and the consul general.

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It is why we urge all parties concerned to take the opportunity that might arise from the tragic events of the past few weeks not only to observe the ceasefire but to go on to make agreements that will open up Gaza to trade and to development more effectively, and to end the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. If those things could be achieved, the situation would be much brighter for all the people of Gaza.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): During the recent conflict, many of the rockets fired from Gaza never actually left Gaza and injured large numbers of Palestinians. At the same time, the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt appear to have reopened, allowing the Iranian-supplied missiles to be restocked in Hamas’s arsenal. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to stop that practice, so that conflict does not arise again?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to those factors. The answer is connected to the answer I gave a moment ago to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin). There is an opportunity for Egyptian-led negotiations to bring the smuggling of weapons to an end, and to open up access into Gaza. That is an opportunity that all concerned must seize. We have strongly encouraged the Egyptian Foreign Minister in that work. I congratulated him on the night of the ceasefire on achieving that. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire, who has responsibility for the middle east, has spoken to the Egyptians to encourage this—it is the way forward.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what recent discussions he has had with the Russian Government in relation to Gaza and Syria?

Mr Hague: I will be with the Russian Foreign Minister on several occasions this week, including in Dublin on Thursday at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit, so I anticipate holding discussions with the Russians during the course of this week.


8. Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): What steps he is taking to support political transition in Yemen. [131107]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): The United Kingdom plays a leading role in supporting the political transition efforts in Yemen. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary chairs the Friends of Yemen ministerial group, and our ambassador is in regular contact with Government, the opposition and civil society in Yemen.

Keith Vaz: I thank the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for giving Yemen their personal attention. I draw his attention to the publication today of the Amnesty International report showing that Ansar al-Sharia might be resurgent in the southern part of Yemen. They were responsible for extra-judicial killings, crucifixions and torture. What support can the Government give to President Hadi to deal with this terrible group?

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Alistair Burt: In return, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his unfailing attention to this, his courtesy in dealing with us and our officials, and the work of his all-party group.

The circumstances in the south continue to cause great concern. I am aware of the Amnesty International report, and we will continue to work in the south to bring the parties together and resolve the political difficulties that are now part of the national political dialogue. However, the re-entry into the area of such an unpleasant and dangerous group will be a focus of a visit to Yemen that I hope to make in the not-too-distant future, when I hope to be able to raise the subject directly with the authorities there.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Will the Minister please ensure that the political settlement process remains as genuinely inclusive as possible? In particular, will he ensure that the temptation to exclude the Houthi group, for being pro-Iranian, or parts of the Hirak, because of their extremism, is resisted and that as many people as possible are at the table?

Alistair Burt: As my hon. Friend knows from his own recent activities there, the Yemeni process manages to bring together people who, in other circumstances, it might be difficult to get round the table. I have not yet experienced a sense of exclusion of certain parties, but it is always a danger. If there is to be an answer in Yemen—among the many difficulties in the region, the process in Yemen towards a political transition has been more successful than most—it is essential that it comprises all those with a role to play. Certainly, his concerns will be borne in mind by the ambassador and all the rest of us.

Middle East

9. Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Israel and Gaza. [131108]

14. Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): What his latest assessment is of the prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. [131113]

15. Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Israel and Palestine. [131114]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): We welcome the agreed ceasefire following the crisis in Gaza. The recent violence only highlights the urgent need for the United States, supported by the UK and other partners, to launch a new initiative to push the peace process forward in 2013 to achieve a two-state solution.

Chi Onwurah: Like many MPs, I am sure, I have been overwhelmed by messages from constituents asking me to express their horror and despair at the violence and the casualties in Gaza. What reassurances can the Foreign Secretary offer them regarding the security of civilians in Gaza, and does he agree that there cannot be a two-state solution without secure and viable borders for both states?

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Mr Hague: Yes, absolutely. The way forward is what we discussed a few moments ago: to make a success of the second stage of the ceasefire negotiations. Egypt did a very good job, supported by the UN Secretary-General and the United States, in bringing about the ceasefire. Now it is important to conclude the second stage, which will bring—we hope—improved access and an end to the smuggling of weapons. The hon. Lady is right to say that secure borders are necessary for Israel, as, too, is having a viable, sovereign state of Palestine. That is what we want for Palestinians.

Stephen Timms: The Foreign Secretary told the House earlier that the additional settlement building in the E1 area of East Jerusalem announced last week would clearly be unlawful. What prospect is there of prevailing on Israel to comply instead with the requirements of international law?

Mr Hague: That is the point that the world is stressing to Israel—that those settlements are illegal, that they are on occupied land and, in particular, that the unfreezing of development in what is known as the E1 block threatens the prospect of a future Palestinian state being able to operate on contiguous land. This point is being made strongly, not only by us and our European partners but by the US and the whole Arab world. I hope that despite the election campaign in Israel—election campaigns affect the politics of any country—it will listen carefully to those points.

Duncan Hames: I welcome those comments from the Foreign Secretary, but we have been here before, and he must grow weary of repeating to the Israeli Government his condemnation of illegal settlement activity. Given the importance of Europe as a market for Israeli goods and services, which European Ministers shy away from putting economic muscle behind our protestations, and can he assure the House that he is not one of them?

Mr Hague: I do not think there is enthusiasm around the European Union for that. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) talked earlier about economic sanctions in Europe against Israel, but I do not believe there would be anywhere near a consensus on that, nor is it our approach. We continue to try to bring both sides back into negotiations. Nevertheless, if there is no reversal of the decision that has been announced, we will want to consider what further steps European countries can take and I will discuss that with my counterparts in other EU nations.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that peace talks would bring added security to Israel and Gaza? What steps does he intend to take to get the parties to the table again? Indeed, what steps would need to be taken to introduce a sanctions regime, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames)?

Mr Hague: On the latter point, my reaction is the one I have already given. On the steps that are necessary to resume negotiations, of course this will require all sides to draw back from steps that make entering into negotiations more difficult. We have seen a sequence over the last week that has taken us further away from negotiations, rather than closer to them. This will require the decisive

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involvement of the United States. Indeed, I have said to Secretary Clinton that it will require from the United States the greatest efforts since the Oslo peace accords—a level of that intensity—to carry forward and restart the negotiation process.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the Foreign Secretary’s earlier reply, now that Iranian-manufactured weapons have been fired from Gaza and have landed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, what urgent action is he taking to stop the transportation of such weapons and how concerned is he about Iran’s role in fomenting conflict in the region?

Mr Hague: I am very concerned about Iran’s role, as I think I have said before in the House. Indeed, there is substantial evidence of Iranian involvement and Iranian weapons being supplied, including those fired against Israel. The hon. Lady is quite right about that. Of course, the solution to that is ending the smuggling of weapons in Gaza from wherever they come—from Iran or anywhere else. It is now possible to reach such an agreement, with good will and further effort after the ceasefire agreement on all sides, so our main effort will be supporting that diplomatic initiative.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): Is not one of the most offensive features of recent days the fact that the exercise of a legal right by the Palestinians at the United Nations has been met by illegal retaliation by the Israeli Government? Does my right hon. Friend accept that such illegal action serves only to undermine the authority of Mahmoud Abbas—and indeed of the Palestinian National Authority, which he leads—and in addition encourages those Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, who wrongly believe that violence is justified?

Mr Hague: The announcement of additional housing units and the unfreezing of development in the E1 block undermines Israel’s reputation, as I said earlier, but it also undermines the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to bring about a two-state solution and could therefore embolden more extreme elements. These are among the reasons why it is an unwise policy and why we will look to Israel to reverse it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary has told us of the representations that he and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), have made to the Israeli Government. Will he tell us something of Israel’s response to those representations? What assessment has he made of the growing legal opinion internationally that anyone who trades with an illegal entity is themselves complicit in an illegal act?

Mr Hague: Clearly the Israeli Government have not yet changed or reversed their decision. Ambassadors in these situations take back the representations of the host Government, which the Israeli ambassador committed himself to do at the meeting with the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire. We will continue to make such representations, as will so many other countries, but Sunday’s cabinet did not reverse the decision that was announced on Friday, so we will need to continue with this work.

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The answer on trade and sanctions is really the one I gave earlier. Arms exports are covered by our consolidated criteria—we look at those strictly—but it is highly unlikely that wider economic measures in any direction will contribute to peace in the middle east.

Mr Speaker: I cannot fault the comprehensiveness of the right hon. Gentleman’s reply. We are genuinely grateful; he is trying to help the House.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a retrograde step to break off diplomatic relations with Israel, especially given that successive Israeli Governments have said that they would withdraw from most of the west bank under a properly negotiated treaty?

Mr Hague: We hope of course that that will happen in due course. Diplomacy is what is needed most of all in this situation, so I do not think that we would contemplate breaking off diplomatic relations with any of those involved, but we are going to have to ramp up our diplomatic efforts in various ways. I am not going to rule out any diplomatic options over the coming weeks.

EU Banking Union

11. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the UK’s position at the December 2012 European Council meeting on the development of a banking union. [131110]

13. Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the UK’s position at the December 2012 European Council meeting on the development of a banking union. [131112]

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I have made it clear to my colleagues in the European Union that while we accept that the eurozone needs a banking union, the detailed arrangements need to safeguard the interests of those member states that will not be part of the eurozone or of the banking union.

Chris Ruane: This Government are relatively friendless in Europe in this regard. How will they ensure that any agreement on a banking union will continue to allow the UK to stay in the room during negotiations on shaping the supervisory rules?

Mr Lidington: I reject the hon. Gentleman’s caricature of our position. We are playing an extremely active and constructive part in the negotiations. We recognise that getting the arrangements for a banking union sorted out is of real importance to our friends and partners who have committed themselves to the single currency, and that their financial stability will be of great benefit to the United Kingdom’s economic interests.

Mr Bain: The International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde said at the weekend that a banking union was the first priority in saving the eurozone. If the Minister agrees with that, will he tell us precisely how many EU states agree with his plan for double majority voting to

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ensure that rules applying to banks in Britain are not dictated by a banking union bloc through the European Banking Authority?

Mr Lidington: All 27 EU Heads of State and Government said in the conclusions to the October European Council that, in the arrangements for a banking union, there needed to be a “level playing field” between the ins and the outs, as well as safeguards

“in full respect of the integrity of the single market in financial services.”

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read the blueprint published over the weekend by Mr Barroso, which contains 50 pages of detailed proposals for a full banking, fiscal and, ultimately, political union? Does he think that any of the proposals that this country has made have the remotest chance of being listened to in the context of that document, and of what Mr Noyer said the other day? Lastly, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the European Scrutiny Committee receives an early explanatory memorandum from the Government on those proposals?

Mr Speaker: I know that the legendary intellectual agility of the Minister of State will enable him to provide one pithy reply to the three questions that have just been posed.

Mr Lidington: I read President Barroso’s comments with interest. He was of course talking not about the immediate negotiations on a banking union but about the longer-term development of the eurozone and how to safeguard its stability. That objective is in the interests of the United Kingdom, but it is true to say that at some stage there needs to be a sensible, grown-up conversation between all members of the EU to work out the right architecture for a future Europe in which some will be members of the single currency and others will remain outside it.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): At the recent European Union Council, the UK held a quadrilateral meeting with the Danes, the Dutch, the Swedes and the Finns. Will the Minister take this opportunity to outline the areas of common interest with those nations, and to underscore the importance of joint working with our northern European neighbours?

Mr Lidington: We talk to our northern European neighbours and, indeed, to other member states about the whole range of issues on the agenda of any particular European Council meeting. The countries that are not in the single currency certainly have a common interest in ensuring that whatever arrangements the eurozone may agree—they are some distance from agreeing among themselves about the right design at the moment—they take proper account of the integrity of the single market and the interests of those who are not part of the euro.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): Following the failure of the Government’s too little, too late approach to the recent EU budget negotiations and given the Government’s isolation in Europe, there are now indications that the Prime Minister is preparing to cede powers and influence over the eurozone banking union in return for minor tweaks to the EU budget.

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Is there not now a real risk that the Government will neither secure a good deal for British taxpayers nor deliver safeguards to British business on the banking union?

Mr Lidington: That was another script written before the European Council concluded. I have to say to the hon. Lady not only that this Government have a confirmed commitment and record of working to secure the national interest of the United Kingdom, but that that record sits in stark contrast with the record of the shadow Foreign Secretary, who gave away £7 billion of the United Kingdom’s rebate when he held this office.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I gently say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has now left the Chamber and for whom I have the highest regard, that it is a courtesy to remain within the Chamber until all exchanges on the question posed have been completed. I feel sure that the hon. Member for Stone is as interested in everybody else’s opinions as he undoubtedly is in his own.


12. Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): What recent reports he has received on the humanitarian situation in Syria. [131111]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): The humanitarian situation in Syria is dire. We have provided £53.5 million of assistance so far and are urging others to increase donations to the UN appeal.

Mike Gapes: Forty thousand dead, 2.5 million internally displaced, 200,000 refugees and, yesterday, more people killed in Syria by the Ba’athist regime than were killed in the whole of the Gaza conflict. President Obama has talked about “serious consequences” if Assad uses chemical weapons. Why are there no serious consequences already from the international community about what is going on in Syria, and what does President Obama mean by “serious consequences”?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman is familiar with the policy we have pursued towards Syria. There is no military solution in Syria; we are seeking a peaceful, political and diplomatic solution. We continue to do that, while recognising the new national coalition of the opposition, giving it increased but non-lethal assistance and delivering humanitarian aid on the scale I have described. I want to reiterate what President Obama has said—that any use of chemical or biological weapons would be even more abhorrent than anything we have seen so far. We have made it clear that this would draw a serious response from the international community. We have made that very clear to representatives of the Syrian regime and have said that we would seek to hold them responsible for such actions.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement a few minutes ago that he will shortly have further discussions with Russia. How will he respond if the Russians make it clear that they are not going to allow a western-backed Sunni rebellion to overthrow the Alawite regime?

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Mr Hague: My right hon. Friend’s question poses a number of questions. As we have discussed before, the motivations of the opposition in Syria are very complex. Yes, there is of course a lot of Sunni influence, but people of many different religious affiliations are involved in the opposition. They are not merely western-backed—they are particularly Arab-backed, so I would not want to define them as a western-backed opposition. It is in Russia’s interest to agree to a diplomatic solution for a transitional Government in Syria, and I hope the Russians will see the arguments for that at the meetings this week and subsequently.


16. Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Government of Rwanda on violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. [131115]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mark Simmonds): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have pressed Presidents Kagame and Kabila to work together to end the crisis. When I spoke at the United Nations in September, I made it clear that external support for the M23 rebels must stop. We welcome the communiqués that were issued recently by the Presidents of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, but it is crucial that they are translated into action to achieve sustainable stability in the eastern DRC.

Tom Blenkinsop: The final report from the United Nations group of experts on M23 and the DRC has been publicly released, and the Prime Minister himself has said that the international community cannot ignore evidence of Rwandan involvement with M23. In view of the report, does the Secretary of State think that the decision of the former Secretary of State for International Development to reinstate budget support was wise?

Mark Simmonds: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the subject of the report from the UN group of experts, which has formed part of the information that the International Development Secretary has considered in reaching a decision about the aid budget and direct support for the Rwandan Government. However, the communiqués issued by the Ugandan, Rwandan and DRC Presidents stipulate that there must be a solution to the problem in the eastern DRC, which means not just a resolution of the conflict now but longer-term measures to ensure that the cycle of conflict is broken.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): In September, when the former International Development Secretary gave £21 million of aid to Rwanda, what advice did the Department offer ahead of his decision? What advice did it offer last week, when the current Secretary of State cancelled the money? Was it different from the advice that was given in September?

Mark Simmonds: Before the decision made in September by the former Secretary of State and the decisions made by the current Secretary of State, the Foreign Office and other relevant Departments were consulted, and the decisions were made across Government with the full agreement of those Departments.

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Topical Questions

T1. [131125] Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): Today I shall attend the NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels, where I shall support Turkey’s request for NATO to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey. Tomorrow I shall host a trilateral meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss Pakistan’s support for the stabilisation of Afghanistan.

Sheila Gilmore: I have listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary’s responses in relation to Israel and Palestine, but can he explain to us clearly what advantage was gained by Britain’s abstention in the recent UN vote on Palestinian recognition?

Mr Hague: I think that we were right to argue that pressing a resolution at the United Nations at this juncture—at this very moment—could lead to fresh complications, that we were right to argue that its amendment would have mitigated the consequences, and that we are right to argue now that Israel should not expand settlements on occupied land. All those positions are, I believe, correct.

T4. [131128] Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Do Ministers consider it a possibility that next year it could be a UK Government priority and a European Union priority to seek to end the division of Cyprus once its new President has been elected in February, given the good will that I understand exists in both communities in Cyprus—in part—in Turkey, and, I hope, in Greece?

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I certainly hope that that will prove possible, but clearly a major new initiative must await the outcome of the Cypriot presidential election in February. I hope that whoever is elected will set ambitious goals, working with Turkish Cypriot leaders, the guarantor powers, the United Nations and others to bring about a settlement that would be profoundly in the interests of all communities on the island.

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): In view of heightened international anxiety about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, the United States has indicated that it is preparing contingency plans. Can the Foreign Secretary say whether the British Government’s assessment of that potential threat has been heightened in recent days, and whether the United Kingdom is contributing, or has already contributed, to international contingency planning?

Mr Hague: Yes, our understanding of the threat has been heightened in recent days. We have seen some of the same evidence as the United States. I cannot give any more details, but I can say that we have already reacted diplomatically. We have expressed in no uncertain terms, directly to the Syrian regime, the gravity of any use of chemical weapons. In our view, as the Prime Minister has said before, that would require us to revisit

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our approach to Syria. I cannot, of course, discuss contingency plans in any detail, but we in the UK, including those of us in the Ministry of Defence, are always ready with a wide range of such plans.

T5. [131129] Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): As chairman of the all-party group on Azerbaijan, yesterday I met representatives of the Azerbaijan Foundation of Democracy Development and Human Rights Protection. They made clear to me their strong desire to see the development of a free press in Azerbaijan. What can Britain and the British Government do to promote a free and unregulated press in Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus?

Mr Lidington: I share my hon. Friend’s view that a free press is integral to democracy in any country. The British Government have provided funding for professional training for journalists in Azerbaijan, and we support vigorously the work of the Council of Europe, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to encourage and promote media freedom both in Azerbaijan and more widely in the southern Caucasus region.

T3. [131127] Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): On trade with the middle east, what discussions have been held with the European Commission on the labelling of settlement goods?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): The EU is actively considering whether the voluntary labelling scheme that has been in existence in the United Kingdom for some time might be extended to other countries. This matter is frequently taken up by our representatives, and discussions are ongoing.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): The alarm bells are ringing over President Morsi of Egypt’s vast expansion of powers by presidential decree. A generous interpretation is that he is trying, by hook or by crook, to get the constitution on to the statute book; less charitably, it could be seen as a path to an Islamic state without the involvement of, or consultation with, Christians, liberals or women. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend’s question illustrates the arguments on both sides in Egypt, and we have taken the view that it is not helpful for us to give a day-to-day commentary on a political controversy or struggle within that country. We are, of course, calling for effective dialogue between all the parties involved in Egypt, and we have expressed our concerns about a democratic constitution not being agreed that is satisfactory to most of the country, but there will be a referendum, now scheduled for 15 December, and it is interesting to note that as of yesterday the Salafists, who are on the more strongly Islamic wing of Egyptian politics, are threatening to boycott the referendum because the proposal is not Islamic enough.

T6. [131131] Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Is it not clear that the Netanyahu Government are completely impervious to words of condemnation or even the summoning of ambassadors, and that the time has

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come for action? Uncharacteristically, the Secretary of State dodged earlier questions about trade with the illegal settlements. Will he now take the lead in Europe by implementing a ban on all trade with the settlements, which, as he himself has repeated again in this House, are illegal?

Mr Hague: My reaction to calls for economic sanctions of various kinds has not changed, but I also want to stress another point I made earlier: we will be discussing with other EU nations what our next steps will be, because the Israeli Government have not yet responded favourably to the representations we and other countries have made. We will be discussing that with other European Governments, therefore, but I would not want to raise the right hon. Gentleman’s hopes that there would be enthusiasm around the EU for such economic measures.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I know the Minister will join me in welcoming the premiers, chief ministers and Heads of Government of the British overseas territories, who are in London this week for the first overseas territories ministerial council. Will he update the House on the progress the Government are making with our overseas territories following the publication of this year’s White Paper?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mark Simmonds): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, and I congratulate him on the important work he has done in ensuring there are strengthening ties between the UK and the overseas territories. As he said, most, if not all, the overseas territories leaders are in London this week for the first joint ministerial council, at which we will be exploring how the UK Government, and most of the UK Government Departments, can strengthen ties in respect of financial and fiscal responsibility, building capacity in the Governments of the overseas territories and, importantly, strengthening environmental and economic and trade ties.

T7. [131133] Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): In the light of the increasing instability in the middle east and concerns about a possible nuclear arms race in the region, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what pressure the British Government are exerting on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty?

Mr Hague: This is a long-running issue, on top of all the other issues concerning Israel and the middle east that we have discussed today. Israel has maintained a position over decades of not signing the NPT. In the last review conference of the NPT we strongly encouraged the idea that there should be a conference dedicated to the middle east, and a Finnish facilitator of that conference has now been appointed. Disappointingly, the conference is not taking place this year, but we hope it will take place soon.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): May I support the Government’s work towards an arms trade treaty? Does the Minister agree that as we seek to build a more sustainable economic model, we would do well to think about selling to the fastest-emerging nations our leadership in science—in agriculture and medicine—rather than arms?

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Alistair Burt: I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for our work on an arms trade treaty, and we head towards a final conference at the UN next March seeking a robust, effective and legally binding one. His point about extending our opportunities through life sciences to growing economies—the USA, Canada, Brazil and India—is well taken. UK Trade and Investment is working hard on this matter and has already supported life science conferences in Abu Dhabi, Brazil and Germany this year.

T8. [131134] Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Why was the Foreign Secretary unsuccessful in stopping the former International Development Secretary’s decision to restore aid to Rwanda, despite the breach of the memorandum of understanding between the UK and Rwanda—or was he fully in favour of that decision?

Mark Simmonds: The hon. Gentleman is trying to rewrite history. The previous Secretary of State for International Development first suspended direct budgetary support to Rwanda in July. He then, through detailed consultation with the Foreign Office and other Departments, partially restored it in September. The report by the group of experts, whose evidence we find compelling and credible, came out and we analysed it. As the partnership agreements between DFID and the Rwandan Government were also clearly not being honoured, the decision was made by the International Development Secretary, in consultation with Departments, to suspend direct budgetary support to Rwanda.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Rape is a pernicious weapon of war. Given the violence inflicted on women in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo by the M23, what conversations is the Minister having with his counterparts in Rwanda to get them to use their influence to end such violence?

Mark Simmonds: My hon. Friend is right to raise this very important issue. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has instigated a policy and a determination to instil a preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative to end immunity. I have had discussions in the region with senior Ministers in the Rwandan Government and with the President of the DRC to try to encourage them to engage with this very important initiative, to stop not just the rapes, but having child soldiers in the eastern DRC.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Ministers have been careful not to accuse the Burmese Government of orchestrating the violence towards the Rohingya. Last night, al-Jazeera released new evidence to suggest that the Burmese authorities, the military, the security services and local government officials have been involved in that sectarian violence towards the Rohingya. Will the Minister examine that evidence? If he finds it compelling, will he make the strongest possible representations to the Burmese Government that this violence has to end and that the Rohingya should be granted citizenship?

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): Of course the Burmese Government have set up an internal review into what has gone on in Rakhine, and we await the outcome of that. I can say to the hon. Gentleman only what I said

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earlier in the House: I shall travel to the area shortly and on my return I shall make myself available to the all-party group on Burma, when I will be able to pass on first-hand experience of what I have found on the ground, rather than some of these stories coming out of Burma at the moment.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): There are substantial opportunities for trade with Brazil as it prepares for the Olympics and World cup. Being able to speak Portuguese is a big advantage in doing business in Brazil, so will my right hon. Friend outline what progress is being made in improving foreign language skills for the purpose of boosting trade?

Mr Swire: We are very keen to improve foreign language skills, not least in Brazil. I was there on a visit with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a few months ago, and one of the things we discussed was getting more people to learn English in Brazil. We have had some extremely successful visits to Brazil by the sports Minister and others in the run-up to the Rio Olympics. As my hon. Friend says, our bilateral relations with Brazil are extremely good, and we hope that we can look forward to a period of increased trade.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): Actions speak louder than words and despite the Foreign Secretary’s comments that our vote last week at the UN made no difference to our negotiation position, I can assure him that the UK’s failure to back the Palestinian resolution has severely undermined our credibility in the middle east. What actions are the UK Government taking to end the growth of illegal settlements and end the siege and blockade on Gaza?

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Mr Hague: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will visit the Gulf over the weekend and I think that we will find that UK influence is as strong as it was. It has grown considerably in recent years, and that will continue. We are making efforts, which I have described throughout this Question Time, to support the work of the Egyptian Government on Gaza, to deliver an unequivocal message to Israel and to encourage all back into negotiations, including Palestinians, without preconditions.

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): The Secretary of State constantly confirms that the occupation of Palestinian land is illegal under international law. What does he think the difference is in the mind of the Israeli Government between something lawful and something unlawful but unenforced by the international community? What is the difference?

Mr Hague: I think the hon. Gentleman would have to direct that question to the Israeli Government. We are clear that the settlements are illegal and on occupied land, but we are also clear, as we have discussed in this House several times over the past few weeks, that we will resolve that only through a successful negotiation. I have not heard anybody argue that there is any other way to resolve it other than Israelis and Palestinians succeeding in negotiation together. We must encourage that process, which of course constrains us in many other things that people advocate that we do.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, including some who have been trying hard, but I am afraid that demand has massively exceeded supply today. I hope that that is understood.

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Points of Order

12.36 pm

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, the Home Secretary met the deadline for appeal to the Court of Appeal in respect of Abu Qatada. She also wrote to me that rather than seeking to uphold the test confirmed by our own highest court, under which she could deport Qatada:

“A decision was taken to adopt the test laid down in January by the Strasbourg court, essentially because we considered the domestic courts were bound to follow it”.

Is it not the duty of Ministers to uphold the law as passed by this House and interpreted by our highest court rather than to surrender to Strasbourg?

Mr Speaker: Although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s extreme strength of feeling on this matter, I do not see a point of order there. I also think he is in some danger of veering or trending into areas that are essentially sub judice and I would urge him to be cautious about that. I know that he will find other ways in which to pursue his concerns on this matter and I am sure that will happen.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You said that owing to the limitations of time a number of Members could not be called and we all understand that. We cannot change time. You will have heard the strength of feeling, however, on the Palestinian/Israeli issue that was expressed from Members on both sides of the House about what the Israelis intend to do, which is totally unacceptable. Will there be an opportunity before the Christmas recess to raise that question, as the next Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions will take place well into next year?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. There are various possibilities. First, there is the business question on Thursday morning, at which Members can seek an assurance from the Leader of the House about debating time before Christmas. Secondly, it is open to any hon. Member to apply to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate in short order. Thirdly, there are other mechanisms open to Members if they seek to engage Ministers in further exchanges on such matters. I say that without prejudice, but I hope that it is a helpful reply to the hon. Gentleman. I am certainly conscious of his strength of feeling and a wider sense of it within the House.

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Human Rights Act 1998 (Repeal)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

12.39 pm

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998; and for connected purposes.

The Human Rights Act 1998 gives effect in UK law to the rights and freedoms under the European convention on human rights and makes available in UK courts a remedy for breach of a convention right. Under section 2 of the Act, a court or tribunal in the UK determining a question that has arisen in connection with a convention right must take into account any judgment, decision, declaration or advisory opinion of the European Court of Human Rights. Under section 3, primary and subordinate legislation must, so far as it is possible to do so, be read and given effect in a way that is compatible with the convention rights. This applies to any primary and subordinate legislation whenever it was enacted.

Section 3 also states that this provision does not affect the validity of any incompatible legislation, although it is also true under section 6 that it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible with a convention right. As we have seen, the view of successive Governments over the years has been that when a UK law is found to be incompatible with the European convention, it is the UK law that gives way to secure compliance with the convention.

Indeed, the Human Rights Act conveniently supplies a fast-track procedure to facilitate this happening quickly. Under section 10, a Minister of the Crown may make such amendments to primary legislation as are considered necessary to enable the incompatibility to be removed by the simple expedient of making an order. In effect, because the accepted practice is that the United Kingdom observes its international obligations, a supranational court can impose its will against ours. In my view this is fundamentally undemocratic.

However, there is no point in belonging to a club if one is not prepared to obey its rules. The solution is therefore not to defy judgments of the Court, but rather to remove the power of the Court over us. The fundamental point is that one cannot alter the political nature of a decision by changing the location where the decision is made. Judges do not have access to a tablet of stone not available to the rest of us which enables them to discern what our people need better than we can possibly do as their elected, fallible, corrigible representatives. There is no set of values that are so universally agreed that we can appeal to them as a useful final arbiter. In the end they will always be shown up as either uselessly vague or controversially specific. Questions of major social policy, whether on abortion, capital punishment, the right to bear firearms or workers rights, should ultimately be decided by elected representatives and not by unelected judges.

Let us take the recent example of prisoner voting. The view of the Court is that, although the Council of Europe member states has a margin of appreciation in deciding how far prisoners should be enfranchised, a complete ban on voting was outside that margin. The fact that we do not have a blanket ban on prisoners

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voting does not seem to have troubled the Court, even though the Attorney-General went out of his way to point this out in person when he appeared before the Court. There are several categories of prisoner who have the vote now—prisoners who are on remand, prisoners who are sentenced but not convicted, and prisoners who are in prison for defaulting on fines. But the Court is in effect saying, “Sorry, we don’t like your arrangements. We prefer ours.”

Although I personally object to the idea of prisoners having the vote, my much more fundamental objection is to the idea that a court sitting overseas, composed of judges from among other countries Latvia, Liechtenstein and Azerbaijan, however fine they may be as people, should have more say over what laws should apply in the United Kingdom than our constituents do through their elected Members of Parliament. Some may say that that is what the UK signed up to, to which I would only reply, “Precisely.” That is why we need to repeal the Human Rights Act and resile from the convention.

The idea that that would make us a pariah state is simply nonsense. For example, Canada is a member of the Organisation of American States, the equivalent of the Council of Europe for the Americas, but has not signed up to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court, without becoming in any sense a pariah state.

Some might say that it would raise all kinds of other legal problems, that everything from the United Nations convention against torture to the Good Friday agreement is predicated upon our membership of the European convention so that it would be impossibly difficult to change things. I do not find that persuasive. It was not that many years ago that people said that a Bill of Rights of any kind would be impossible in the United Kingdom because of parliamentary sovereignty. The truth is that if one wants to do something badly enough, one can find a way to do it, and to do it legally—that is precisely what one keeps clever lawyers for. Goodness, if one wants something badly enough, it turns out one can even go to war in defiance of both world opinion and international law and find a lawyer to say that it is perfectly lawful.

I particularly commend the second Kingsland memorial lecture, given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who is a sponsor of the Bill, in which he set out the argument at much greater length. His central point, with which I agree, is that on prisoner voting, as on so much else, we should not defy the ECHR, but resile from it altogether.

I will end by reflecting on the comment of Judge Learned Hand:

“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it… What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few”.

In my view, our best check is not unelected judges, but the spirit of liberty in the hearts of the elected representatives in this House. I commend the Bill to the House.

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12.46 pm

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I am most grateful for the opportunity to respond to the motion. The Human Rights Act is a statute that rarely receives a good word and is subject to more than its fair share of the bad, yet it is one of the most important pieces of legislation passed by the previous Labour Government. Here I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who was instrumental in the formulation and implementation of the policy and remains one of the most coherent voices on the role and, crucially, limitations of the Act. I am also incredibly grateful to him for his advice in preparing for this speech; he has been generous with his time and counsel.

Despite what some newspapers and, it appears, some Government Members claim, the Human Rights Act is not some badly drafted and rushed piece of legislation, a Dangerous Dogs Act for civil liberties. Rather, the opposite is true. The legislation benefited from three years of development in the mid-’90s while Labour was in opposition, on a cross-party basis and with the assistance of the Liberal Democrats. It was further improved by careful consideration in this Chamber and the other place.

The Act is noticeable as a piece of legislation by the very fact that, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn and Lord Irvine are rightly known as its midwives, its DNA draws from a far wider and deeper genetic pool. That is an incredible strength of the Act and undoubtedly one of the reasons why it has not been seriously challenged in the 14 years since it received Royal Assent.

It is interesting that in the eight years since Michael Howard first declared that the Tories wanted to repeal the Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, not one significant step of progress has been made by the Conservative party in developing a coherent alternative. That is testament to those parliamentary draftsmen working at the end of the last century.

The Act itself can be seen as a key plank of the constitutional framework built by the Labour Government alongside devolution. It sets out in clear and unambiguous language those human rights that our nation holds to be dear and that we rightly regard as vital in any modern free society: the right to life; the prohibition of torture, slavery and forced labour; the right to liberty, security and a fair trial; no punishment without law; the right to respect for family and private life; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of speech; the right to marry; the freedom of assembly and association; and the prohibition of discrimination.

The Act also does something profoundly important for our democratic system—it writes into law the supremacy of Parliament over the courts and the Executive. It places limitations on how far the Executive can interpret their powers without the consent of Parliament. In essence, it requires the Executive to seek and obtain the agreement of Parliament before they may implement new policies. It is therefore no surprise that many Secretaries of State on both sides of the House have expressed irritation at the Act or bridled at the limitations imposed on their authority. Equally, though, the Act is clear that it does not prevent a Secretary of State from ultimately achieving their goal, provided that the Government are

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prepared to seek parliamentary approval through legislation; it merely prevents a Government from unilaterally setting a new policy without the endorsement of the people through their elected representatives or without due regard for the law. It is bizarre that in our modern democratic system some politicians, particularly one as well regarded as the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), would seriously propose to repeal this safeguard.

Moreover, the Act places limitations on the power of the courts. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn was careful in his drafting so that it merely requires that the legislature should be “mindful of”, not “bound by”, court decisions. The Act has provision for Parliament to set aside court rulings if it sees fit. For example, in 2005 British courts, through the Law Lords, ruled that it was inhumane and degrading to deny some asylum seekers the right to earn a wage to support themselves and simultaneously deny them the right to receive any benefits from the state—in effect, to place them in destitution without any support apart from charities and churches. As my right hon. Friend has said, this was one of those decisions of our courts which could be classed as inconvenient to the Executive, and I recall that it caused quite a stir at the time. However, if we, as the then Executive, had decided to ask Parliament to pass primary legislation that said in plain, unambiguous terms that certain categories of asylum seeker were indeed to be rendered destitute, and Parliament had agreed, that would have been it—the end of the matter—as far as the British courts were concerned.

Some argue, legitimately, that Parliament should not seek to overturn court decisions. Others argue, erroneously, that in the United States the Supreme Court is indeed supreme and the defender of its constitution. However, the US Congress, with the support of states and the White House, may overturn the Supreme Court through constitutional amendments, as has already happened 27 times in that nation’s history.

On prisoner voting, which the hon. Member for South Norfolk mentioned, the Human Rights Act is perfectly compatible with the principled decision taken by this House. The House voted—and voted overwhelmingly—to remove from convicted prisoners the right to vote in elections, and thus they have no recourse under the Act. Our membership of the European convention on human rights has forced this issue to the European courts. Indeed, another strength of the Act is that it has provided a mechanism whereby British courts may seek to influence the working of the European courts.

As we have seen again today, one of the greatest challenges that the Act must constantly overcome is urban myths and misconceptions. No one could forget the powerful speech delivered by the current Home Secretary to last year’s Conservative party conference when she said:

“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act...about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.”

Unfortunately for the Home Secretary, whoever wrote her speech had in fact made it up. In the case of the cat, it appears that the Home Office lost a reconsideration case after the initial verdict was successfully appealed

4 Dec 2012 : Column 732

because it failed to meet the requirements set out in the UK Border Agency guidelines, not because of the Human Rights Act. So the hon. Gentleman might have been better served by introducing a human rights education Bill which would involve mandatory attendance by the Cabinet.

In the final analysis, the single strongest argument against repeal is that this is the decade in which we hope to welcome more countries, particularly our neighbours to the east of Europe and Asia, and to the south of Europe, into the family of democratic, civilised nations. To turn our back on, tear up and cast aside the Act that enshrines in law the fundamental human rights that we ask others to respect would remove the legitimacy of our position. How can we ask developing countries—the new democracies—to respect human rights when we seek to remove them from our statute book? I urge the House to reject this Bill.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

The House divided:

Ayes 72, Noes 195.

Division No. 110]


12.55 pm


Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Bacon, Mr Richard

Barclay, Stephen

Baron, Mr John

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Bray, Angie

Bridgen, Andrew

Byles, Dan

Cairns, Alun

Cash, Mr William

Clappison, Mr James

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Philip

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Duddridge, James

Elphicke, Charlie

Evans, Graham

Field, Mark

Griffiths, Andrew

Halfon, Robert

Henderson, Gordon

Herbert, rh Nick

Holloway, Mr Adam

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Jackson, Mr Stewart

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Jones, Mr Marcus

Leadsom, Andrea

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lumley, Karen

Main, Mrs Anne

McCartney, Jason

McCrea, Dr William

McPartland, Stephen

Metcalfe, Stephen

Mills, Nigel

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Mosley, Stephen

Murray, Sheryll

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Dr Matthew

Parish, Neil

Phillips, Stephen

Pincher, Christopher

Reckless, Mark

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rosindell, Andrew

Shannon, Jim

Simpson, David

Smith, Henry

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stewart, Iain

Stuart, Mr Graham

Tomlinson, Justin

Turner, Mr Andrew

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Weatherley, Mike

Wheeler, Heather

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr Peter Bone


Mr Philip Hollobone


Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Allen, Mr Graham

Ashworth, Jonathan

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Benton, Mr Joe

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Bryant, Chris

Burden, Richard

Campbell, Mr Alan

Caton, Martin

Champion, Sarah

Chapman, Jenny

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Crockart, Mike

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

David, Wayne

Davies, Geraint

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Doughty, Stephen

Doyle, Gemma

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Evans, Jonathan

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

George, Andrew

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hamilton, Mr David

Harris, Mr Tom

Harvey, Sir Nick

Havard, Mr Dai

Hemming, John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Heyes, David

Hilling, Julie

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hood, Mr Jim

Hopkins, Kelvin

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hughes, rh Simon

Huhne, rh Chris

Huppert, Dr Julian

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Lucas, Caroline

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Shabana

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCarthy, Kerry

McDonald, Andy

McDonnell, John

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morrice, Graeme


Mulholland, Greg

Munn, Meg

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Ottaway, Richard

Owen, Albert

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Phillipson, Bridget

Powell, Lucy

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Steve

Reeves, Rachel

Reid, Mr Alan

Reynolds, Emma

Robertson, Angus

Rogerson, Dan

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Russell, Sir Bob

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sarwar, Anas

Sawford, Andy

Seabeck, Alison

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Sir Robert

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Stunell, rh Andrew

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Swales, Ian

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Ward, Mr David

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williams, Hywel

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Noes:

Grahame M. Morris


Thomas Docherty

Question accordingly negatived.

4 Dec 2012 : Column 733

4 Dec 2012 : Column 734

4 Dec 2012 : Column 735

Public Service Pensions Bill

Consideration of Bill, as amended in Public Bill Committee

Mr Speaker: Before I call the Opposition Front Bencher to move new clause 2, I should tell the House that I have revised my provisional selection of amendments and moved amendments 29 to 31 and amendment 33, tabled by Dr Eilidh Whiteford, to the third group from the first group. A revised list will be circulated shortly. I hope that that information is helpful, not only to the hon. Lady, but, indeed, to the House.

New Clause 2

Member communications

‘(1) Scheme regulations for a scheme under section 1 shall provide for the provision of annual benefit statements to all members of the scheme.

(2) Benefit statements under subsection 1 shall show the following information—

(a) the member’s pension benefits earned to date;

(b) the projected annual pension and lump sum payments if the member retires at his normal pension age; and

(c) the member’s and employer’s current contribution rates.’.—(Chris Leslie.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.6 pm

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 3—Fair deal

‘A member of a public service pension scheme is entitled to remain an active member of that scheme following—

(a) the compulsory transfer of his contract of employment to an independent contractor; and

(b) any subsequent compulsory transfer of his contract of employment.’.

Amendment 11, in clause 3, page 2, line 25, at end insert—

‘(5A) This Act shall not apply to scheme regulations relating to local government workers in Scotland unless the Scottish Parliament approves its application.’.

Amendment 12, in clause 7, page 4, line 29, at end insert—

‘(3A) A scheme under section 1 which replaces a final salary scheme may only be established as a career average revalued earnings scheme or a defined benefits scheme of such other description as Treasury regulations may specify.’.

Amendment 4, in clause 12, page 8, line 9, after ‘scheme manager’, insert ‘and employee representatives’.

Amendment 19, in clause 16, page 9, line 36, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

‘(1) New scheme regulations made under section 1 and 3 shall replace existing schemes’ current regulations and shall take effect on the amendment date.

(1A) Following the implementation of new scheme regulations under subsection (1), benefits shall only be provided in accordance with those new regulations.’.

Amendment 20,  page 10, line 5, leave out ‘closing’ and insert ‘amendment’.

4 Dec 2012 : Column 736

Amendment 21,  page 10, line 6, leave out ‘1 April’ and insert ‘2 April’.

Amendment 32,  page 10, line 7, after ‘scheme,’, insert—

‘(aa) 1 April 2016 for a Scottish scheme,’.

Amendment 22,  page 10, line 8, leave out ‘5 April’ and insert ‘6 April’.

Amendment 23,  page 10, line 10, leave out ‘(1)’ and insert ‘(1A)’.

Amendment 24,  page 10, line 21, leave out ‘(1)’ and insert ‘(1A)’.

Amendment 25,  page 10, line 23, leave out ‘closing’ and insert ‘amendment’.

Amendment 26, page 10, line 27, at end insert ‘regulations’.

Amendment 27,  page 10, line 28, leave out ‘(1)’ and insert ‘(1A)’.

Amendment 28,  page 10, line 28, leave out from ‘benefits’ to ‘includes’.

Government amendment 35.

Amendment 7, in clause 28, page 15, line 12, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.

Amendment 8,  page 15, line 12, after ‘new’, insert ‘defined benefit’.

Government amendments 36 to 39.

Chris Leslie: Having spent a considerable number of weeks serving on the Bill Committee, I am pleased that we now have the opportunity to press the Government on questions that remain unanswered and largely unaddressed. Considerable changes are being made to many of the public service pension schemes as a result of Lord Hutton’s report on the future shape of those schemes. The report was largely welcomed throughout the House and that has contributed greatly to the improvement of the reforms. However, a number of the report’s aspects have not been adopted in full by the Government in this Bill, and we are concerned about that.

New clause 2, the first in a considerable group of suggested changes specifically to pension schemes, would implement recommendation 18 on page 132 of the Hutton report that

“public service pension schemes should issue regular benefit statements to active scheme members, at least annually and without being requested”.

At present, defined benefit public service schemes are obliged to provide such information only if they are requested to do so. That limited obligation is set out in the Occupational Pension Schemes (Disclosure of Information) Regulations 1996, but normal occupational pension schemes that do not have an arrangement for either a final salary or career average payment at the end of the scheme are obviously a different state of affairs from defined contribution schemes. New clause 2 would simply implement Lord Hutton’s recommendation and ensure that public service workers have a better understanding of the benefits that they have accumulated to date and what they stand to receive if they continue working until their normal retirement age.

We had a very healthy debate on this matter in Committee, where the exchange of views did not follow the usual to-ing and fro-ing of partisan speechmaking.

4 Dec 2012 : Column 737

A number of Members agreed that it would be very healthy if we improved the information and transparency for employees to enable them to make more informed decisions in planning for their savings and their financial future. For example, members of the schemes would be better able to judge whether they were saving enough for their retirement. The new clause is therefore compatible with the aim of reducing people’s need for state benefits in retirement—something that many Members across the House want to achieve.

When we tabled a similar amendment in Committee, it gained quite a degree of vocal support. The hon. Members for Bedford (Richard Fuller) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who are in the Chamber today, helpfully pressed the Minister to resist his usual logic, which says in big block capital letters, “This is an Opposition amendment; thou shalt resist this devious device by Labour Members to do something nasty in the legislation.” That was not our intention. We actually wanted to implement Lord Hutton’s recommendation and bring defined benefit schemes into the modern age, especially in respect of communicating more regularly and effectively with scheme members. I live in hope that those hon. Gentlemen will chip in and offer their support again, because surely the goal of improving people’s understanding of their pension and helping them to plan more effectively for their retirement should find favour on both sides of the House.

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Leslie: I will give way. In fact, I was just about the quote the hon. Gentleman. He said:

“If we want people genuinely to prepare for their pensions, we need to give them the maximum amount of information. Just suggesting that it is good practice without putting in place any requirement is the wrong thing to do.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2012; c. 455.]

It gives me great pleasure to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mike Freer: I am flattered that the shadow Minister should pay such attention to my words. Does he agree that it is rather perverse that when taking out a pension, particularly a private pension, a customer has to read reams of documentation about the risks, the forecasts, the potential growth rates and what might or might not happen, but when one has a public service pension, that level of detail is not provided and, most importantly, the annual statement provides scant information, even if it is requested?

Chris Leslie: That is an anachronism that has to change. The hon. Gentleman is correct that just because somebody is in a public service scheme or a defined benefit scheme does not mean that they should not think through carefully what the financial consequences will be for them on retirement. This Bill is the perfect opportunity to take that small but significant step forward.

In Committee, the Minister initially went into rebuttal mode and said that we could not have the new clause for a number of reasons. At first, he said that there were different ways of providing information to members of the scheme, that we did not want to be too prescriptive and that legislation was not necessary. However, the new

4 Dec 2012 : Column 738

clause does not prescribe the manner in which the information is provided; it would merely ensure that annual statements were provided in some form.

The Minister’s other objection in Committee was that defined benefit schemes in the private sector are not obliged to provide annual statements, so it would not be right for public sector schemes to do so. However, Government Members again disagreed. I cannot do better than to quote again the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green:

“We have a pensions problem in this country, and saying that private sector schemes are not required to provide statements—though many do…—is not a good enough reason for not requiring public sector schemes to provide them.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2012; c. 455.]

Amen to that excellent argument. The Minister said at the time that he would consider the issue further.

Last week, I wrote to the Minister saying that it was our intention to table new clause 2. I rather hoped that he would table his own variant. Usually, there are accusations that the Opposition have not thought through the drafting of the phraseology of an amendment and there is some technical reason why it cannot be accepted. However, we have offered the Minister the chance to correct that. It is a matter of great regret that the Minister did not come forward with his own new clause. Perhaps I should be more optimistic and assume that that means that the Minister will stand up and accept new clause 2 straight away. That would be fantastic.

It is worth noting that all defined contribution pension schemes are required by the 1996 occupational pension schemes regulations to provide much more detailed statements than those proposed in the new clause. There is therefore no reason to think that there would be any problem in implementing the arrangements.

It would be helpful if the Minister made this change. If he wants to do it in the House of Lords when the Bill gets down there, we could probably accept that, but I think that most Members would accept the change.

1.15 pm

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): In Committee, we also talked about the risk of people with public sector pensions making the perverse decision not to contribute to their pension because they feel that the contribution rate is going up significantly, missing the fact that a significant contribution is being made to their pension scheme by the taxpayer. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the new clause would assist members of public sector pension schemes in identifying what a large contribution the taxpayer is making, and therefore help to reduce the number of people who take the irrational step of opting out of the pension scheme?

Chris Leslie: Even though the quality of the scheme has been eroded, as we saw with the unilateral imposition of the average 3% increase in employee contributions—that might even have been before Lord Hutton reported—they are still good defined benefit schemes and we encourage public sector members to stay in them. We have debated our concerns elsewhere over whether the viability of the schemes will be jeopardised by employees being deterred from joining or deciding to opt out. However, we encourage members to stay in the schemes. Unfortunately, the 3% additional contribution is not part of this legislation,

4 Dec 2012 : Column 739

so it would be outwith the scope of the Bill to table amendments on that or to debate it. That is a great shame.

It is important that annual benefit statements include not only the employee’s contribution, but the employer’s contribution, as set out in the new clause. If the defined benefit schemes are good, there is no reason not to have that level of clarity and transparency. I have no problem with accepting that that should be part of the information that is given to scheme members. I hope that the Minister will accept that.

New clause 3 is one of the most important proposals in this group. The Government promised to implement what is known as the new fair deal, which is one of the most important aspects of the agreement that was reached in the negotiations between the employee side and Government or employer side of the scheme. The new fair deal would ensure that all public service workers who were compulsorily transferred to an independent contractor, be it a private company, a charity or another third sector body, would be entitled to remain an active member of their public service pension scheme. That is a basic requirement and it was a core part of the agreement. We were glad that the Government committed to it.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirmed the Government’s commitment to the new fair deal in a written statement in July, which stated that

“the Government have reviewed the fair deal policy and agreed to maintain the overall approach, but deliver this by offering access to public service pension schemes for transferring staff. When implemented, this means that all staff whose employment is compulsorily transferred from the public service under TUPE, including subsequent TUPE transfers, to independent providers of public services will retain membership of their current employer’s pension arrangements.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2012; Vol. 547, c. 54WS.]

That is an improvement on the current fair deal arrangements, which ensure that outsourced staff receive broadly comparable arrangements to those under the public service schemes. The Government’s promise to implement the new fair deal was central to the rationale and at the heart of why many public service workers agreed to support the new proposed pensions reform, even though aspects of it were detrimental to them.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): A few months ago in the Open Public Services White Paper, the Government expressed enthusiasm for transferring services to voluntary organisations and social enterprise—we have not heard so much about that recently. If that is to work, however, is it not particularly important to have the proposed provision on pensions?

Chris Leslie: Many public service workers whose services have been transferred to independent providers, whether they have been outsourced, find themselves in the voluntary sector or wherever, still want to ensure that their deferred wages—that is what pensions are—will be protected in a particular way. That was a positive development in the negotiations, but to what extent has such protection found its way into the Bill? That is why the Opposition are concerned and have tabled new clause 3.

4 Dec 2012 : Column 740

Mr Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will know that the fair deal arrangements introduced in 1999 by the Labour Government were not statutory. Why was he happy to support and serve in a Government who had a non-statutory approach to the fair deal, but in opposition he seeks to make that approach statutory?

Chris Leslie: The situation now is different because of the level of trust on which public service employees feel tested when looking at significant changes by the Government. Employee contributions were unilaterally increased by 3% without consultation or discussion—that was simply imposed, even though Lord Hutton was putting measures through. The evaluation arrangement was unilaterally changed from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. A typical public service employee must have said, “Hold on a minute. Are we supposed to just take this on faith? We are glad that the Government are in negotiations, but as we know, Ministers are here today and gone tomorrow.” In no way do I cast aspersion on the Economic Secretary who I am sure will remain on the Front Bench in days to come. However, we cannot simply rely on statements from particular Ministers at a particular point in time.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): My hon. Friend is absolutely right about trust, which is critical following the experience of many public service workers and Government decisions on pensions. Does he not underplay the importance of the fair deal? He described it as a positive development in the negotiations, but for many public service workers and their unions it was not just a positive development but a deal maker that allowed them to accept a package which, as he said, was detrimental in other areas. It was important that people took that provision as a clear guarantee, but doubt has now been cast on it, which underlines the importance of including it in the Bill and therefore the importance of new clause 3.

Chris Leslie: My right hon. Friend is correct. When we get a sense of the Government pulling the odd thread here or there or watering down elements of the provision—if I may mix my metaphors—it is no wonder that people start to question whether the words of Ministers at a particular point in time will carry through into what should be a 25-year commitment as set out in legislation. The provision was part of those negotiations but it has not found its way into the Bill.

Even more worryingly, the Economic Secretary made some peculiar statements in Committee about something that we thought was a done deal. He said:

“it is important that we consider in full the views of all stakeholders, including of course those who will be affected, through further consultation before making a final decision on the issue. It would therefore be inappropriate to include the fair deal policy in the Bill.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2012; c. 459.]

It is as though negotiations had not been completed or decisions reached. Indeed, it sounded very much as if the Government were reneging on their commitment.

The Government need to lay to rest any suggestion that they are going back on their promise, and the only way to do that is to accept new clause 3. Failure to do so

4 Dec 2012 : Column 741

risks reopening debates and potential disputes with public service workers who will—justifiably—feel they have been misled.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Part of the concern and need to write such provisions into the Bill comes from the fact that no one predicted clause 3. It has been described as a Henry VIII clause, as it gives sweeping powers to Ministers to legislate on schemes through statutory instruments or even retrospectively.

Chris Leslie: Indeed; we will debate some of the worst aspects of clause 3 later. It feels as though when writing the Bill Ministers did not consider it as enshrining an arrangement involving give and take on both sides. They have included certain things to the advantage of the employer, but there are scant—if any—safeguards of sufficiency and longevity for the employee, and that is causing anxiety.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is making an important argument in response to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). It is not just that the Bill includes certain things that advantage employers; the measures are principally to the advantage of the Treasury, which is given the whip hand and ultimate say over schemes that should be run by their members and managers accountable to them.

My hon. Friend quoted the Economic Secretary in Committee. When the Minister rises to his feet, is it not important that he explain the discrepancy between what he said in Committee and what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said to this House in December last year? He said:

“Because we have agreed to establish new schemes on a career average basis, I can tell the House that we have agreed to retain the fair deal provision and extend access for transferring staff.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 1203.]

There is a big difference between those two statements and the Economic Secretary needs to explain himself on that point.

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) replies, let me say that although I have indulged the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) on this occasion I hope he will not repeat such a long intervention. I do not want him to induce the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) into following bad habits. That would be a very undesirable state of affairs.

Chris Leslie: It may be a bad habit but it was a jolly good intervention. I do not often do this, but I commend my right hon. Friend for quoting the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. What is the difference between the Chief Secretary and the Economic Secretary? Well, one is a Liberal Democrat and the other a Conservative. However, my right hon. Friend should take that with a pinch of salt, as I too have a quote from the Chief Secretary, who said that

“establishing a relationship of trust and confidence between the Government and public service workers is critical to the success of these reforms.”

4 Dec 2012 : Column 742

How long will this coalition Government persist? What we need is not just a commitment from a Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury whose parliamentary and ministerial career might not endure. We need to know what would happen should there be the dreadful set of circumstances of a Conservative majority Administration. Would a promise on the new fair deal, given only verbally by Ministers, endure in such circumstances?

Given the Minister’s trajectory and career momentum, I want to hear a commitment from him to the new fair deal on behalf of the Conservative party. That might mean something, although I would still prefer to see it in the Bill. It would be invidious for the Government to speak against new clause 3, let alone vote against it if we decided to test the opinion of the House. I am conscious of the time so I will move on.

Amendment 11 relates to issues of local government workers in Scotland and would exclude the Scottish local government pension scheme from the Bill, unless agreed to by the Scottish Parliament. Primary legislation on public service pension schemes has always been reserved to the UK Parliament. Scottish Ministers have had responsibility for regulations for public service schemes but those have been subject to Treasury approval and have tended to mirror arrangements for England and Wales. The exception is the Scottish local government pension scheme, which is a funded scheme that has not been subject to Treasury approval in the past. The Bill extends certain prescriptions to the design of the Scottish local government pension scheme that, in practice, have previously been left to Scottish Ministers to negotiate and decide—most importantly, they negotiated and decided on normal pension age; that benefits should be based on career-average revalued earnings and not final salary; on the cost cap, as it is known; and on rules for governance and fund valuations.

1.30 pm

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if the Scottish Government can find the ways and means to fund their pensions, they should be free from penalties from the Treasury at Westminster?

Chris Leslie: That comes down to how the legislation is drafted. There are different financial consequences for local government pension schemes than for other public service pension schemes. That is why we need clarity in the legislation. I am conscious that the Scottish National party Government in Scotland have argued that there is no need for a legislative consent motion to cover the matter because, in theory, the UK Parliament always had primary legislative power over the local government pension scheme in Scotland but has hitherto chosen not to use it. The Government in Scotland have been quick to accept the UK’s proposals, which is unusual, because they normally argue that more power should sit with Holyrood. The movement of the regulation-making powers means that the Scottish Government will not need to grapple with difficult decisions on the reform of certain pensions, but the Opposition feel it would be better for Members of the Scottish Parliament to have an opportunity to scrutinise and debate the application of the legislation to the local government pension scheme in Scotland. Amendment 11 to clause 3

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would mean that the Bill would not apply to the local government pension scheme in Scotland unless that is explicitly approved by the Scottish Parliament. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and others have tabled parallel amendments—I gather they are in the third group, so we will probably return to this debate later.

Amendment 12, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), relates to another key Government promise made to public service workers. It seeks to enshrine in the legislation another Government promise made to public service workers—the Government promised that their final salary schemes would be replaced with career-average revalued earnings schemes. That would ensure that public service workers continue to receive a defined benefit pension.

The Bill does not explicitly honour that promise, and clause 7 provides that schemes created under the Bill can be defined benefit or defined contribution schemes, or any scheme of any other description. That is fundamental to the arguments on the Bill, but it is also fundamental to the arguments that Hutton made and the agreements that were reached. All schemes were supposed to be succeeded by career-average defined benefit schemes. In some cases, the Government might like to continue small defined contribution schemes, but the amendment would not affect those; it would apply only to final salary schemes and ensure that they are replaced with another defined benefit arrangement. The amendment therefore simply seeks to put the Government’s promise to public service workers on a statutory footing.

A similar amendment was opposed in Committee, but the reasons given by the Minister were concerning. He claimed that the Government intended to replace the final salary schemes with career-average schemes, but that “the flexibility embedded in” the Bill

“could be helpful to scheme members in future.”

He added that

“it would not be appropriate for this Government to tie the hands of future generations and pension scheme members who might decide that, subject to the protection offered by the enhanced consultation and reporting obligations of clause 20, defined benefit schemes were no longer the most appropriate for public service workers.”––[Official Report, Public Service Pensions Public Bill Committee, 13 November 2012; c. 291-92.]

That is not the first time we have heard the Minister’s bizarre argument that legislation could bind the hands of future Governments. No Government can bind the hands of their successors in that way. Unless the Minister has an insight into changes in the democratic process of which we are unaware, that remains absolutely the case.

Therefore, the argument that clause 7 provides welcome flexibility to scheme members now or in future is, in the Opposition’s view, potentially misleading. In the rare circumstances that a defined contribution scheme is better than the defined benefit one, and scheme members and the Government wish to change schemes to defined contributions schemes, clauses 19 and 20 allow that to happen. Clause 7 provides no flexibility that does not exist in clauses 19 and 20. If we do not make the amendment, we allow the Government to go back on their promises. We seek to keep them to their word on those arrangements.

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I know that many hon. Members wish to speak to proposals in this large group, so I shall make my final point on the question of closing local government pension schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) and the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), among others, have had extensive experience of local government schemes. In Committee, there was anxiety that the Bill mentions closing existing LGP schemes and beginning new ones. The problem with closing schemes is that there can be unintended and adverse consequences. We heard in Committee about triggering debts which might need to be crystallised on closure. Of course, not just big local authorities but small academies, charities and others are members of such schemes. They might find that they suddenly need to shell out one great lump of money simply because an existing scheme closes and the deficit needs to be dealt with there and then.

The Minister assured us that regulatory provisions did not require such crystallisation, and that there could be protections. The Opposition are not massively happy with that, but even if we accept the Minister’s word that closure does not mean closure, thousands of employers in the local government pension fund have individual admission agreements governing the terms of their participation—the agreements are not necessarily in a standard form, meaning that there could be thousands of different admissions contracts for the schemes. It is likely that at least some of the agreements will set out various powers for local authorities in the event of closure, including the power to collect a debt from the employer equal to its share of the scheme’s deficit. That would put a massive strain on participating employers and could put some of them out of business.

The Minister gave assurances on some of those points in Committee, but he missed the problem that the Bill allows local authorities to close their funds. The Government cannot prevent them from doing so under the Bill. The problem of triggering debts therefore remains substantive. There is also the question of whether closure means closure or continuing a scheme. The Opposition believe that a different approach is needed and that the Bill needs better drafting, which is why we have tabled amendments 20 to 28. We are not trying to add costs to the public purse and are keeping the Government’s proposals, but we are saying that it would be better to amend an existing scheme rather than to close and reopen it. They are in some ways technical proposals, but it would be better to err on the side of caution and provide that new regulations can amend scheme rules to ensure that all future benefits are accrued according to the provisions of the Bill and negotiated arrangements.

Those are essentially my comments on the Opposition’s proposals. My hon. Friends and others have tabled amendments in this group, but I shall let them make the case for them.

Mr Gibb: I rise to speak briefly to Opposition new clause 3, which is on fair deal arrangements. Hon. Members will be aware that fair deal arrangements were originally addressed by Lord Hutton in his interim report in October 2010. Hutton was concerned that the arrangements at that time created barriers to the plurality of public service provision. He said:

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“At present, when employees are transferred to non-public service bodies, the organisation they move to is required to ensure that there is ‘broadly comparable’ pension provision for future service, through the Fair Deal provisions…This arrangement has maintained the level of pension provision for those compulsorily transferred out of the public sector. However…this can make it harder for private sector and third sector organisations to provide public services because providing a ‘broadly comparable’ defined benefit pension scheme can be significantly more expensive and risky for private sector organisations than for public sector employers.”

That was the starting point of the debate. In box 1.A—a shaded box, the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) will be intrigued to know—Lord Hutton concluded:

“Ultimately, it is for the Government to consider carefully the best way of moving forward with Fair Deal in a way that delivers its wider objective of encouraging a broader range of public service providers while remaining consistent with good employment practices.”

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): My principal concern, fresh from the doorsteps of Corby, is for the many individual members of the pension scheme. In his extensive piece of work, Lord Hutton considered the future of public service reform and the relationships between the public and private sectors. What I am most concerned about in the debate today and in supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) on the fair deal, is giving an assurance to those individuals in Corby and East Northamptonshire—cleaners and nurses and so on—that the goalposts will not be constantly shifted away from what they expect from their pension. From the 3p in the pound change to the RPI to CPI change, they feel buffeted by huge changes that are really affecting them at the moment. That is why we need the assurance in the Bill.

Mr Gibb: I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on his election to the House. His intervention indicates the seriousness with which he takes his new role. I am grateful for that and I take his point. All of us on the Government Benches want to ensure that we have sustainable, good-quality defined benefit pensions in the public sector, but to achieve that there has to be major reform to public service pensions for a raft of reasons to do with longevity, cost, poor performance of the stock market in the past 12 years and tax changes that occurred in 1997. For all those reasons, if we are to have good-quality, defined benefit pensions for public service employees, there have to be major reforms.

The Government have been clear, open and transparent in the negotiating process, and an ample number of documents are circulating that set out precisely the conclusion to the negotiations, not least the proposed final agreements. The idea that without changing primary legislation the Government can somehow slip through major changes to the quality of benefits to the employees, which the hon. Gentleman is talking about, is just not in the real world. All Governments have to behave reasonably, and this Government are no different from any other. Not only have they behaved reasonably in these negotiations, but, I believe, they have given rise to high-quality public service pension arrangements that offer benefits way beyond the arrangements in the private sector. That is a sign that the Government recognise the important contribution that public sector employees make to our society.

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I point the hon. Gentleman to the consultation on the new deal that took place between March and June 2011. That was a broad consultation, to which there were more than 100 responses. In July this year, in a written ministerial statement, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated:

“the Government have reviewed the fair deal policy and agreed to maintain the overall approach, but deliver this by offering access to public service pension schemes for transferring staff…this means that all staff whose employment is compulsorily transferred from the public service under TUPE…to independent providers of public services will retain membership of their current employer’s pension arrangements.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2012; Vol. 547, c. 54WS.]

That is on the record and should provide the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House with the assurance they need.

Chris Leslie: We hear what the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury says, but can the hon. Gentleman, as a Conservative MP, give us a guarantee that that would also be the case under a future Conservative Government?

1.45 pm

Mr Gibb: Alas, I no longer speak on behalf of the Government, but that is a commitment given by Ministers of this coalition Government. The hon. Gentleman is trying to create a division between the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats in our approach to public service pension reform, and there is no such division. There is no such difference in attitude between the two parties on public service reform.

John Healey: I rise to support the hon. Gentleman. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East, the House and the public have a right to take at face value the words of a Chief Secretary—a Chief Secretary is a Chief Secretary is a Chief Secretary. That is a statement of Government policy and of coalition Government intent. Therefore, I think the onus is not on the hon. Gentleman, but on the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to explain why his statement is different from the Chief Secretary’s statement.

Mr Gibb: I listened carefully to my hon. Friend and to the Chief Secretary and I did not find any difference. My hon. Friend was addressing whether particular matters should be in primary legislation; the Chief Secretary was setting out the case for the policy.

On teachers’ pensions, there was anxiety that the current arrangements, under which teachers in the independent sector can be members of the teachers’ pension scheme if their employer signs up to the scheme, might be put in jeopardy by the words of Lord Hutton’s interim report, so the Chief Secretary’s statement was welcome news to teachers. Paragraph 8 of the proposed final agreement states:

“the Government agrees to retain Fair Deal provision and extend access to public service pension schemes for transferring staff. This means that all staff whose employment is compulsorily transferred from maintained schools (including academies)…under TUPE…will…be able to retain membership of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme when transferred.”

That is welcome news. The agreement goes on to state: