Let me now turn to the substance of what the Secretary of State has said. He is right to say that the IRP provides excellent support and advice to Ministers. It did so to me and my predecessors in the last Government, and I am sure it is doing the same for the current Government. Where it can be shown that changes will save lives and reduce disability, in my view all Members of this House have a moral obligation to support them. Changes to vascular services in Cumbria and Lancashire clearly fall into that category. The concentration of this highly specialised surgery on three sites will save and improve lives, but given the geography it is essential that people are supported with travel. The Secretary of State made a vague commitment, but can he be more specific about the support that will be made available to patients,

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particularly in the sparsely populated northern part of our region, who will now have to travel much further to receive this life-saving surgery?

Although we support the Secretary of State’s decision on Lancashire and Cumbria, we have much greater concerns about the process that has led to the decisions today about Trafford hospital. While the IRP has undoubtedly done what it has been asked to do, I wrote to the Secretary of State in November last year to express serious reservations about the Trafford review proceeding ahead of Healthier Together, a much wider review of acute and emergency services across Greater Manchester. Speaking as a Greater Manchester MP, I cannot see why it makes sense to pick off Trafford hospital ahead of this review without looking at things in the round. It does not feel to me that this is part of a coherent plan for the NHS in our city region, and I ask the Secretary of State today why his decision is justified, given that the wider considerations affecting health services in Greater Manchester have not yet been completed.

The Secretary of State claims that the patients affected by the closure of Trafford can be easily and safely absorbed by the neighbouring A and Es. How can he say that when all the A and Es that will now have to absorb extra patients missed his own A and E target for at least four months during the worst winter in the NHS for a decade? Have the Secretary of State and the IRP made their decision looking at the very latest evidence of growing pressure on A and E departments in Greater Manchester? He mentions extra funding for Wythenshawe, which is welcome, as the hospital was built for 70,000 patients a year and is currently seeing almost 100,000, but will other affected A and Es also receive additional funding?

Finally, Mr Speaker, the appalling mishandling of this statement today, which has left the people affected unable to put the Secretary of State under scrutiny, is just the latest example of the wider mishandling of hospital reconfiguration under the coalition, which has seriously damaged public trust in our ability to make changes to hospitals. Picking off Trafford ahead of a wider review broke the illusory moratorium on hospital changes announced just days after the general election outside Chase Farm hospital by the Secretary of State’s predecessor and the Prime Minister—incidentally, that hospital is also now downgraded.

Sir David Nicholson has today said:

“If a political manifesto does not say that service change is absolutely essential and that you need to concentrate and centralise services—it will not be being straight forward with the British people.”

Might he just have had the last Conservative manifesto in mind when he made that statement? Will the Secretary of State today admit that this false moratorium was a cynical and dishonest policy designed to win votes in marginal seats, and will he commit never to repeat it?

Worse still, the Secretary of State’s officials have been in court in the past few days trying to justify the indefensible: a decision to rob a local community in south London of a successful A and E to solve problems in another trust that were not of its making. Is all this not causing severe damage to trust in how these decisions are made? Will he give a commitment to the House today that if the court finds against him, he will abandon

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his plans to downgrade Lewisham A and E? Labour Members will support changes where they are clinically justified, but where communities are picked off unfairly by this arrogant Government we will stand with them and fight for fairness.

Mr Hunt: Many members of the public are understandably concerned about these decisions, but from someone who was Health Secretary and who argued the case many times for changing services what we have heard today is not sensible argument, but political opportunism.

Let us examine what the right hon. Gentleman said only last week in Hastings. He said that people like him have a moral imperative to support the doctors who are making these decisions. Well, these changes are supported by the Trafford clinical commissioning group, Greater Manchester critical care network, the Royal College of Surgeons and many other doctors. How many doctors does he need to support this decision before he actually does what he said he would do last Friday, which is support doctors making difficult decisions? On the very day that NHS England is talking about the need to protect services for patients by facing up to difficult decisions, his approach is more than inconsistent—it is irresponsible, and he knows it. Let us examine what he said about changes in Trafford when he was Health Secretary—

Andy Burnham: Answer the questions.

Mr Speaker: Order. We must have order from those on the Opposition Front Bench, and I know that the Secretary of State will want to respond to the questions asked of him. I just remind the House that it is not a generalised debate; it is a statement and a response to questions.

Mr Hunt: Absolutely, Mr Speaker. I think that it is very important that on both sides of this House we have consistent arguments. It is very important to the questions that I was asked that I remind the right hon. Gentleman of what he said when he was Health Secretary. “I am disappointed,” he said, that politicians

“are going around Greater Manchester undermining the clinically-led process”.—[Official Report, 30 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 620.]

The local medical director says that these changes will save—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The temperature needs to fall. This is a very highly charged matter, there is considerable sensitivity about it, it is extremely important and we want to hear what the Secretary of State has to say. When he has said it, everybody will get a chance to come in, but please let us lower the decibel level. We certainly do not want to imitate what happened to the considerable discredit of the House yesterday.

Mr Hunt: The other point the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) made was that we should not make these changes to A and E services when those in other hospitals are under pressure. It is important that I remind the House of what he did when he was Health Secretary. After 2004-05, Labour missed its A and E targets in 12 quarters but closed or downgraded 12 A and Es. Now, in Wales, the A and E target has not been

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met since 2009, yet Labour is embarking on a big reconfiguration programme with his full support. So it is one policy when Labour is in opposition, another when it is in power. There is one person who agrees with the right hon. Gentleman, and he was campaigning in Trafford on Friday—Len McCluskey. When it comes to a choice between supporting local doctors or the unions, the Opposition support the unions.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Order. We cannot have points of order in the middle of a statement. The Secretary of State has been asked specific questions and I know that he will now respond without any delay to those specific questions and nothing more. Other Members wish to contribute and there is other business. The Secretary of State is an extremely important man, of course, but there are a lot of other people involved, too, and we need to get on and hear them. I call the Secretary of State to respond briefly.

Mr Hunt: Thank you for that rare compliment, Mr Speaker.

The right hon. Member for Leigh asked a specific question about travel and I will ask the local NHS trusts to work closely with the overview and scrutiny committees to ensure that proper arrangements are put in place for people who have to travel further. He asked me about deferring the decision until the Healthier Together programme for the whole of Greater Manchester was decided, but the IRP specifically said that it would be wrong to defer the decision—the point is that local doctors are saying that doing so would not be safe for patients, and that is why I am accepting the advice.

The NHS is a great institution, but we have to take difficult decisions sometimes. The proposals will help patients, but I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is interested only in politics.

Mr Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West) (Con): Many people will be disappointed, of course, by the decision on Trafford general, but I thank my right hon. Friend and his ministerial team for their openness in hearing the concerns of local Members and Trafford council in building up to what has obviously been a serious and carefully made decision. I thank him for the extra investment for Wythenshawe and for making the changes contingent on ensuring that the capacity is there in surrounding hospitals to ensure that this is safe. Will he also give us an assurance that the Trafford health economy will not suffer financially if those contingencies are not met in time?

Mr Hunt: I thank my hon. Friend for the constructive approach he has taken in this process. I assure him that this will help the local Trafford economy. Three major teaching hospitals are used by the people of Trafford. Two of the three are meeting their A and E targets and one is not. These proposals will help the one that is not meeting its target to do so. They will also mean that an extra £3.5 million can be invested in community and prevention services, including local geriatricians and community matrons. That will be of huge benefit to my hon. Friend’s constituents and to many other people in the local area.

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Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): May I first ask the Secretary of State to respond to the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) about the lack of notice of the statement? I have had good news for my constituency from the Secretary of State, but many of my colleagues have had bad news and it is genuinely discourteous for the House not to have been informed. This is not a market-sensitive issue, after all, and we could have been told yesterday or earlier.

Secondly, on the merits of the concentration of vascular services in Lancashire and Cumbria, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the decision that he has made, not least in respect of East Lancashire Hospitals Trust in Blackburn? This is an important vote of confidence in the excellence of the facilities in Blackburn at a time when many of the clinicians and others have been under great anxiety because they have been subject to the Keogh review. I think all my constituents recognise that sometimes they will have to travel, as mine have had to travel to Blackpool for many years, for very serious cardiovascular surgery. Provided the outcomes are much better where there is a concentration of resources, and assistance with travel is given in appropriate cases, I think my public and that across the north-west will accept these decisions.

Mr Hunt: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his wise words. If we level with the public about these difficult changes, they do understand that there are times when they get a better outcome even if they have to travel further. Perhaps the most dramatic example of that has been how trauma services have been centralised on fewer hospitals. Even after incidents as dramatic and dangerous as road traffic accidents, people are not necessarily taken to their nearest A and E. They are stabilised and then they are taken to an A and E that has the equipment that is necessary to give them the treatment that is most likely to save their lives. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that.

I absolutely followed and would always want to follow the procedures of the House with respect to advance notice of statements. The request for a statement went in only last night. The Speaker made his decision this morning. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) is here and I hope she is allowed to speak. I said to her on the phone this morning that I am willing to meet her separately to go through any concerns that she has. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy. I know the right hon. Gentleman well, and I know that he would not seek for one moment to mislead the House. He was trying candidly to respond to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). For the avoidance of doubt, let us be absolutely clear. I can quite accept that the Secretary of State requested, within the Government machine, permission to make a statement today. However, the House will wish to be aware that I myself was aware of the request to make a statement only this morning. Let us be clear about that.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): There is a strong clinical case for the concentration of vascular services in Cumbria and Lancashire at three sites, but is it not ludicrous that the three that have been chosen are so geographically located that one is virtually on the Scottish border, then there is a gap of almost 100 miles,

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and then there are two that are nine miles apart? Does not that leave south Cumbria and north Lancashire dangerously under-provided for? Given the current difficulties, shall we say, at Morecambe Bay, does not robbing Morecambe Bay of those skills and that expertise make a difficult situation potentially even worse?

Mr Hunt: I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned, rightly, to represent the concerns of his constituents about the extra travel that they will have to undertake. I would like to reassure him that we considered that issue very carefully. The Independent Reconfiguration Panel recognises that travel is a consideration, but also believes that for his constituents, even for the people who have to travel further, there will be better clinical outcomes for specialist vascular surgery. We are not talking about routine surgery, diagnosis or rehabilitation work but about conditions such as aneurysms and carotid artery disease which require specialist care. Patients can get much better help if that is concentrated in specialist centres.

As to why those particular centres were chosen, it was a genuinely difficult decision. There is a bigger concentration of population in the south of the region and there is also more social deprivation and more unmet need. I know it was a difficult decision, but it was decided that that would be best for the 2.8 million people in the area and also better for my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to ask a question, and I apologise for missing the opening statements. As you know, I think, it was only when we saw this morning’s Order Paper that we knew that a statement would be made this morning, and I was on the way to Manchester at the time to meet constituents. I am very grateful indeed for the opportunity to ask the Secretary of State a question. My constituents would be horrified were I not in the Chamber this morning to do so.

This has been one of the most contentious and difficult issues facing the health economy in Trafford since my election. Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s offer to meet me and I was grateful for his time on the phone this morning, he will understand that people are concerned that doubts and fears about the future of Trafford general hospital are already leading to a downward spiral in people going to that hospital and the level of staffing and service that they receive there. What absolute guarantees can he give my constituents that there will be no diminution whatsoever of the service they receive during what may have to be a very protracted transition process, and that in particular there will be no repeat of our experiences over the most recent winter months, when neither Manchester Royal infirmary nor Wythenshawe A and Es were able to meet the accident and emergency waiting time targets on more than 15% of occasions?

Mr Hunt: I recognise that the hon. Lady would have liked to have been here for the statement, and indeed that she made a huge effort to get here. As I told her on the phone this morning, I am more than happy to meet her separately to discuss her concerns. With regard to her concern about a downward spiral, I hope today to reassure her constituents that a clear decision has been taken that will secure the hospital’s future as a

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successful and important hospital, a centre of excellence for elective orthopaedic work, and a hospital that has a very important role to play in the local health economy. We are making huge efforts to ensure that there will be no diminution of services but that services will improve. Of the three major teaching hospitals that will now provide A and E services for her constituency, one—Central Manchester university hospital—is not meeting its A and E targets. The measures announced today will help it meet those targets and make it more likely that her constituents will get a better service in A and E. However, as I made absolutely clear in my statement, I will not allow the changes to be made until all three hospitals are consistently meeting their A and E targets.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the decision on Trafford general hospital should not be seen as putting the provision of A and E services at Fairfield hospital at risk?

Mr Hunt: This decision is about Trafford general hospital’s A and E services. What we are considering in this decision is whether the other hospitals can absorb the extra patients who will come to them as a result. We think that the neighbouring A and Es will initially have to absorb only about 25 patients in total. It is not a decision about the future of other A and Es.

Sir Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): The new service in Cumbria will have to be managed, and part of the problem in Cumbria is poor management, yet we have been waiting for two and a half years for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to take over in Cumbria. When will we see that acquisition?

Mr Hunt: I am keen to resolve that issue as soon as possible. Indeed, I think that it is really important, given what we heard this morning from NHS England about the big challenges facing the NHS, that we try to take these difficult decisions much more quickly than normally happens. When we have paralysis and decisions being put on hold, that creates uncertainty and the worries that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about, so I want to ensure that we decide these things as quickly as possible.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Dr Nigel Guest, chief clinical officer at Trafford clinical commissioning group, has said that making these changes to services at Trafford general hospital

“is vital to secure a long and vibrant future for the hospital.”

Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that that will be the case?

Mr Hunt: Yes, and I hope that what we have announced today will give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We have announced a future for Trafford general hospital as a centre of excellence for elective orthopaedic work. We have also announced a significant increase in investment in community services, an extra £3.5 million that will pay for community matrons, community geriatricians, a 72-hour rapid response team and better support in A and Es for people with mental health needs. This is a very big step forward, but it is part of the country that has gone further and faster than many others in delivering

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integrated care. This announcement will take that further and will mean that it stands out as a beacon of what good care can look like in an ageing society.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): May I echo the comments of right hon. and hon. Friends about the lack of notice? It really is outrageous that Members with a constituency interest were not given adequate notice.

May I ask the Secretary of State specifically about the funds that he says have been earmarked for the expansion of the A and E department at Wythenshawe hospital? That is essential, because at least another 4,500 patients will be coming to the A and E following his decision. Can he confirm absolutely this morning that that funding will be made available in full, in advance of any changes? How will the funding be made available? University Hospital of South Manchester is a foundation trust, which means that it cannot receive NHS capital, and it has already borrowed to the limit.

Mr Hunt: First, let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that 25 extra patients a day will have to be absorbed by the three neighbouring hospitals to Trafford, so it is not a large number. We want to make sure that all hospitals, including Wythenshawe, which I have visited—it is a superb hospital—are able to absorb that capacity. It is currently meeting its A and E target. The application that has been made for extra capital grant to help it to expand its A and E department will be treated as a priority.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): Safety should always be paramount, but public confidence is also important. As the Secretary of State faces further tough decisions on reconfiguration in the coming years, will he assure me and other Members of this House of two things: that he will be conscious of not applying urban solutions to rural areas; and that where alternative pathways of care can be put in place, that will happen before changes take place?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend makes two important points. I explicitly said that we will not proceed with any of these changes until neighbouring hospitals have been consistently meeting their A and E standards and any necessary changes have been put in place so that we can be sure that they will improve care for patients. That is really important if we are going to maintain confidence.

On my hon. Friend’s point about urban versus rural, part of the underlying reason for these changes is that we need to get more care out of big hospitals, which are often in urban areas, and into the community—into settings near people’s homes. That is very important for rural communities where there are often large concentrations of older people. Today’s decision will mean an additional investment in those community services. As we look at the big changes we need to make in the NHS, we will need to make more decisions that allow more to be invested in out-of-hospital care if we are to prevent the illnesses that ultimately put so much pressure on our A and E departments.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): Is any consideration being given within the Secretary of State’s Department or NHS England to reconfiguring the A and E services

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between St Helens and Whiston hospitals and Warrington and Halton hospitals? He might not be aware that the chief executive of Warrington and Halton hospitals and the chair of its trust board recently told me and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) that they think they will run out of money in about 18 months’ time such are the pressures that they have at the moment. Will the Secretary of State investigate this and tell me whether any consideration of that reconfiguration is taking place?

Mr Hunt: With regard to pressures on A and E, we are working very hard with A and Es across the country to make sure that they learn the lessons from what happened last winter and are properly prepared for this winter. Those discussions will include the A and E departments that serve his constituents. He will know that any decisions about service changes or reconfigurations are a matter for the local NHS; they come to me only if they are referred to me following a formal proposal by a local health overview and scrutiny committee, and that has not happened in this case.

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): Like other Members across the House—I speak particularly on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock)—I condemn the poltroonish way in which this statement has been handled. Will the Secretary of State concede that instability is corroding health services right across Cumbria? Will he guarantee that when North Cumbria University Hospitals Trust is acquired by Northumbria Trust this decision will not be yet again reconsidered?

Mr Hunt: Today is a sitting Thursday and we have followed parliamentary procedures. I am doing everything I can to help the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) to have as much engagement as she needs given that she was not able to be here at the start of the process. With regard to stability, the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he wants stability and wants decisions to be taken decisively, then he has to support the Government when they take difficult decisions like today’s and not be opportunistic, in the way that the shadow Secretary of State was.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) about the apparent benefits of relocating to Blackburn and concentrating resources, but despite seemingly being a beneficiary of this reconfiguration, I am worried about the treatment of Lancashire and Cumbria MPs. What notification was given to those Members, and what consultation took place with them on the decision?

Mr Hunt: The process has taken a long time because we have consulted extensively with the local community and local Members. There have been debates in the House about it, and Members have regularly asked about it during oral questions. I asked for hon. Members to be given advance notice of today’s statement. Consultation is important, and we asked for advice from the Independent Reconfiguration Panel—

Andy Burnham: No; wrong. You did not give advance notice.

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Mr Hunt: I follow the procedures of the House, and the right hon. Gentleman should know that we did nothing different from what he did when he was Health Secretary.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The Secretary of State cites social deprivation as a justification for his decision on the configuration for Cumbria and Lancashire. I fully support that principle, so will he take it further by ensuring that those of us who represent constituencies in which health outcomes are much worse than those in the south of England, for example, get larger allocations of cash in future distributions of moneys? If he is going to use the principle once, he must do so consistently.

Mr Hunt: That is already built into the funding formula. We made reducing health inequalities a duty of NHS England in the NHS mandate, and that needs to be done in a way that is also fair to socially deprived people living in the countryside, in rural areas and even in the fringes of affluent areas. We have to find a way of ensuring that the process is fair to everyone who is socially deprived and to do what we can to reduce health inequalities.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): No one should be in any doubt that there will be huge shock back home in Greater Manchester at the announcement about Trafford. The conurbation has specific problems with its hospitals, such as mine in Tameside, where we have finally changed the management. We have the Healthier Together process, which is reviewing practically everything, and we are still coping with the impact of the reorganisation with which the whole country has to contend, and now we turn up at Parliament on a Thursday morning to hear the unilateral announcement that Trafford is going. Given the scope of the Healthier Together process, how can the Secretary of State honour the assurances that he gave in his statement? He could not answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) about foundation trusts and capital at all. What further changes to hospitals in Greater Manchester is he going to spring on us in the future?

Mr Hunt: Foundation trusts can apply for a capital grant, and I said in my statement that, as soon as we get a business case, we will give that a high priority. We are sympathetic to awarding it, but we have to wait for the business case to be presented.

In a period in which the NHS faces huge pressures, it is important to show leadership, and that means local MPs understanding that difficult decisions sometimes need to be taken that are in the interests of their constituents, as a number of Members have done today. It also involves supporting what local doctors have been arguing for over many years, but taking the line of the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) by supporting the unions, not the doctors, is totally irresponsible.

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Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. May I say to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) that I am sure that she would not seek to use this statement as a back-door method of talking about health services in Lewisham? If she wishes to expatiate on health services in the north-west, we will hear from her.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

The Health Secretary repeatedly said that changes will be made at Trafford only if the neighbouring hospitals that have to take additional patients are consistently meeting their waiting time targets for A and E. Will he define “consistently” and clarify exactly what he means by that? Will it apply to all A and E reconfigurations throughout the country?

Mr Hunt: We are absolutely clear that we will not proceed with A and E reconfigurations unless the outcome will be an improvement in clinical care. That applies across the country as well as in Trafford.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I say to the hon. Lady that it is only exceptionally that points of order are taken between statements, and if they are taken they must relate to the matter just discussed, which I rather suspect hers will. I am not going to have a general debate; I shall take one point of order from the hon. Lady.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for a Secretary of State for Health to announce the closure of another Member’s A and E, which is a very serious matter for all MPs, without making any effort whatsoever to even advise the Member concerned that they might wish to attend the Chamber the following day?

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): It is quite simple.

Mr Speaker: It is quite simple. The short answer is that nothing disorderly has taken place. The Secretary of State is entitled to come to the House and make a statement at a time of his choosing. I have experienced a great many Ministers in my time in the House. Different Ministers adopt different approaches. In some cases Ministers have conversations with Members in advance—I know that the Secretary of State himself has done so on other occasions—and signal an intention to make a statement, or the possibility of a statement, at a particular time, but on other occasions they do not do so. On the strict question of whether it is in order, I can confirm that the Secretary of State’s conduct is not disorderly. Beyond that, it is for hon. and right hon. Members to make their own assessment of the handling of the matter. There is scope, as with so many matters, for different points of view. I think that is the fairest thing I can say.

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Electronic Tagging

12.6 pm

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the Ministry of Justice’s electronic monitoring contracts with G4S Care and Justice Services and Serco Monitoring.

These contracts provide for the tagging of individuals on bail and offenders under supervision in the community. The current contracts were awarded under the previous Government in November 2004 and are due to expire shortly.

The House will recall that I made an announcement on 17 May indicating that my Department had identified a number of issues surrounding the way in which we have been billed for monitoring under the current contracts, and that as a result I had ordered an independent audit of the billing arrangements under both contracts.

Let me begin by explaining to the House the nature of the issues that prompted the audit. As part of my Department’s work on tightening up procedures—both to prepare for the new electronic monitoring contracts which are now out to tender and to improve the quality of our contract management—we identified what appeared to be a significant anomaly in the billing practices under the current contracts. It appeared that we were being charged in ways not justified by the contracts and for people who were not in fact being monitored.

Following this discovery, I took immediate steps to investigate the issue, commissioning an audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers. I also sought assurances that there was no risk to the public as a result of issues we discovered, and I am clear that these billing issues have not given rise to any risk to public safety.

This audit has now confirmed the circumstances in which the Department was billed for services. This has included instances where our suppliers were not in fact providing electronic monitoring. It included charges for people who were back in prison and had had their tags removed, people who had left the country, and those who had never been tagged in the first place but who had instead been returned to court. There are a small number of cases where charging continued for a period when the subject was known to have died. In some instances, charging continued for a period of many months and indeed years after active monitoring had ceased. The House will share my view that this is a wholly indefensible and unacceptable state of affairs.

The audit team is at present confirming its calculations, but the current estimate is that the sums involved are significant and run into the low tens of millions of pounds in total, for both companies, since the contracts commenced in 2005. The audit shows that the overcharging began at least as far back as the commencement of the current electronic monitoring contracts in 2005. It might even date back as far as the previous contracts let in 1999.

The audit also reveals that contract managers in the Ministry of Justice discovered some of the issues around billing practices following a routine inspection in 2008. Although it appears that these contract managers had only a limited idea of the scope and scale of the problem, nothing substantive was done at that time to

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address the issues. None of that, however, justifies the billing practices followed by the suppliers. The House will share my astonishment that two of the Government’s biggest suppliers would seek to charge in this way. The House will also be surprised and disappointed, as was I, to learn that staff in the Ministry of Justice were aware of a potential problem and yet did not take adequate steps to address it.

Let me set out for the House what we are doing in response to these findings. The billing practices in question were clearly unacceptable and the Government will take all necessary steps to secure a refund for the taxpayer. In view of the seriousness of the issue, however, and having taken full legal advice, I am clear that, as Lord Chancellor, I must not only take action in terms of financial recovery, but seek to rule out the possibility that what went on involved dishonesty by anyone involved in the contracts. I have therefore put it to the two companies that we should now carry out an independent forensic audit, not just of the contractual arrangements, but of the evidence, such as internal e-mail trails between their executives, to establish the detail of what happened. I have now received their responses.

Let me deal with each company in turn. Serco, which is one of the Government’s biggest and most important suppliers, has agreed in full to such a forensic audit. It has said that it will co-operate fully with our auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and that it takes the issue extremely seriously, and it assures me that senior management were not aware of it. It does not believe that anything dishonest has taken place, but we have agreed that if the audit does show dishonest action, we will jointly call in the relevant authorities to address it. Serco has also agreed to a forensic audit of all my Department’s contracts with it to ensure that there are no other issues. In addition, it has decided that it would not be appropriate for it to continue to participate in the current tender process for electronic monitoring and has agreed to withdraw. I am grateful to Serco for its co-operation.

Let me now turn to G4S. We put the same proposal for a further detailed forensic audit to G4S last night. It has rejected that proposal. I have given careful consideration to how to respond. I should state that I have no information to confirm that dishonesty has taken place on the part of either supplier, but given the nature of the findings of the audit work so far and the very clear legal advice that I have received, I am today asking the Serious Fraud Office to consider whether an investigation is appropriate into what happened in G4S and to confirm to me whether any of the actions of anyone in that company represent more than a contractual breach. I am also disappointed that G4S still feels it appropriate to participate in the tendering process for the next generation of electronic monitoring contracts, which we are in the process of renewing. I have therefore started a formal process to determine whether to exclude it from this competition. Furthermore, we will be commencing forensic audits of all existing contracts that the Department has with G4S.

Let me deal with some other immediate procurement issues that I need to address. My Department was also due to announce the results of the competition to take over the management of prisons in Northumberland and Yorkshire. I can tell the House that the winning bidder for Northumberland is Sodexo, and that this

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transfer will continue as planned. However, the leading bidder in Yorkshire was Serco. I have decided that we will delay the award of this contract until the audit process I have put in place is complete, and clearly it will only be awarded if that process is completed to our satisfaction. We have also begun work on two new house blocks at prisons run by Serco and G4S. Since these are construction contracts at existing prisons and are an essential part of our replacement strategy for the older parts of the prison estate, I intend to proceed with this construction work.

As I have said, it is not only the behaviour of the suppliers that needs to be examined closely. I am making changes in my Department because it is quite clear that the management of these contracts has been wholly inadequate. I have put in place an entirely new contract management team, led by my procurement director and validated by the independent auditors. The Permanent Secretary is also instituting disciplinary investigations to consider whether failings on the part of individual members of staff constitute misconduct. I have also commissioned an urgent review of contract management across my Department’s major contracts, which will report by the early autumn. It will include independent audit expertise and will be overseen by my Department’s lead non-executive director, Tim Breedon, the former chief executive of Legal and General. I want to put in place arrangements that are robust and at all times deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

On wider Government contracting, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), is today announcing a review of all contracts held by both G4S and Serco across Government. In addition, this review will determine how Government will better manage similar contracts in the future. Separately, the National Audit Office is looking at the scale of Government contracting activity with key suppliers and how effectively those relationships are being managed by Government.

I have made it clear from the outset that I regard this as a very serious issue and have taken immediate action to address it. I would, though, like to reassure the House that, however serious these problems are, they concern billing arrangements rather than wider issues of public protection. I remain committed to the use of electronic monitoring as a powerful tool in supervising offenders. The steps we are taking to retender the contracts will deliver a significantly improved service that will be subject to robust contract management in the years ahead. I believe that the private sector brings significant benefits in delivering efficient and cost-effective services to the public, but we will not tolerate unacceptable activity of any kind, no matter who is responsible. I am angry at what has happened and am determined to put it right. I commend this statement to the House.

12.16 pm

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I thank the Justice Secretary for advance sight of his statement, which I read in the presence of his officials 20 minutes ago. I can honestly say that I was left speechless.

Tagging is a crucial part of the criminal justice system, and the use of this technology has allowed the much greater use of curfews and home detention over the past

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20 years. The Justice Secretary’s statement is a serious one, with wide-reaching consequences, and I have some questions for him. What other sanctions has he considered taking against the companies concerned? I remind him of what has happened: charging for people who were back in prison and had had their tags removed; charging for people who had left the country; charging for those who had never been tagged in the first place, having been returned to court; charging continuing when the subject was known to have died; and, in some instances, charging continuing for many months and years after active monitoring had ceased.

To the lay public, that appears to be straightforward fraud: obtaining property by deception. The Justice Secretary mentioned the SFO, but does he not agree that both companies should be investigated by the SFO, not simply G4S? Will he pass on all the papers from the audit to the police and the SFO and ask them to investigate whether any criminal offences have been committed? I am sure he will agree that the law applies to everyone, including big multinationals. What we need is the police and the SFO going to G4S and Serco offices and preserving evidence, not some cosy arrangement with one of the two companies. Will he confirm that all the evidence has been preserved by the two companies, as well as the Ministry of Justice? A forensic audit is one thing; what we need now, though, is the proper external authorities to investigate. I hope he agrees.

How soon will G4S and Serco be repaying the amount overbilled, or, as some will infer, claimed by fraud, and how much will it be? Have the companies concerned accepted guilt? Have the MOJ officials accepted their part in this? In May, I asked the Justice Secretary to ask the Public Accounts Committee for a full investigation into this? Will he now ask it to do so?

In 2012 and 2013, G4S and Serco were paid more than £500 million of taxpayers’ money just by the MOJ, and the MOJ paid nearly £800 million—10% of its entire budget—to five companies. Will the Justice Secretary agree an independent audit of all contracts with the MOJ? How confident is he that none of the other private companies with which the MOJ has contracts has over-billed?

I understand that G4S and Serco have a number of contracts with the Home Office and a number of other Departments—I know the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), raised a number of concerns over the past year about the conduct of G4S. Serco and G4S are two of the Government’s biggest contractors. The Justice Secretary mentioned the Cabinet Office, but in the light of his statement will he agree to the National Audit Office investigating all contracts that those two companies have with the Government?

There appears to have been a systematic pattern of fraud, and if we add to that the events of the past week and the inquest verdict, the fiasco at last year’s Olympics and the security that G4S failed to provide, we see a pattern emerging. Will the Justice Secretary confirm that those two companies will not be awarded any further Government contracts? Giving that tagging involves potentially dangerous offenders, we must be sure that public safety has not been compromised. Some 20,000 people are tagged at any one time, so what specific assurances can the Justice Secretary provide that public safety was not undermined at any time?

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At the same time as serious failings have been exposed in the way the MOJ buys in hundreds of millions of pounds of services, the Justice Secretary is proposing a massive expansion in the amount of work handed over to private companies. He will be aware that the same two companies responsible for today’s statement are responsible for a number of other contracts in the MOJ—he has already referred to the prisons contracts—and they are the leading contenders for the privatisation of the probation service. In the light of that, will he confirm whether he intends to bar those companies from the retendering process for tagging and from any future contracts? He will be aware of concerns about the risk register and the privatisation of the probation service. Given today’s statement and its implications for G4S and Serco, will he delay the roll-out of the privatisation of the probation service to allow full and proper consideration of those findings?

The Justice Secretary has raised serious matters and we must not only get to the bottom of what has happened and see justice, but lessons need to be learned. We hope that the Justice Secretary will learn the right lessons.

Chris Grayling: On the last point, it is important to say that we are learning the right lessons. That is why the issue emerged in the first place. The tighter contract management procedures that we are putting in place have revealed shortcomings that took place under a contract that was let in 2005, and information that came to the Department in 2008. The right hon. Gentleman will remember who were in government in those two years. This Government are taking a more robust approach to contract management, and this issue has arisen as a result.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about the privatisation of the probation service. We are outsourcing probation to a range of different organisations not linked to today’s situation, and a large number of organisations have expressed an interest, including those from the voluntary sector that have immense skills in this area. I would not countenance a situation in which those organisations are tainted by the actions of two individual companies, or where we allowed a debate about two contractors to taint the reputations of outsourcing organisations that work and do a good job across government.

The right hon. Gentleman made some specific points about the two companies involved. Last night, we put to those companies that we would ask for a forensic audit, at a level that will meet any kind of investigative standards, to be carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of our leading independent auditors that works on such investigations. I am satisfied about the quality of the investigation it will carry out with Serco, and the management of Serco has accepted that the consequence of that investigation, if dishonesty is found, will be a joint reference to the authorities. To my mind, that audit meets any test we need to address. Unfortunately, G4S has not chosen to accept such an audit, and we have therefore passed the matter straight to the Serious Fraud Office.

I must be careful because this is a sensitive legal process. At this time, I do not have evidence of dishonesty. I have a situation of unacceptable practice, but not of dishonesty, and that is why I have commissioned a detailed forensic audit from those with expertise in such

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matters. For G4S we have done what people would expect us to do and invited the Serious Fraud Office to rule on the matter.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. I confirm that the National Audit Office has been aware of this investigation from the start. It is already investigating contracts within Government, and we are liaising closely with it. He mentioned all other contracts, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General will today set out his plans to take forward work he has already started to address contract management across Government. The review I have announced led by Tim Breedon, our lead non-executive director, will address the issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman about all contracting with major contractors across the Department, including smaller contractors.

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on public safety as I sought to establish that very early in this process. I have seen no evidence whatsoever to suggest that public safety has been compromised. The issue is about people who were recalled to court or to prison but where the charging continued, so I can lay to rest the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns on that point. He also asked about the acceptance of guilt, but, in the legal process, I cannot comment on the position of the companies. They must set that out themselves. I have said that Serco is being constructive and collaborative, and I have set out the process for G4S. I say clearly that there have been failings at the Ministry of Justice that go back over the past decade, possibly longer. Those shortcomings are now being addressed but they should not have happened in the first place and I have indicated that, if necessary, disciplinary proceedings will be undertaken.

These are serious matters. We are entering a legal process and hon. Members across the House will understand that I must be cautious in what I say to avoid compromising legal proceedings. The House should be under no illusion, however, that I am dealing with the issue with the utmost seriousness. We will take all appropriate action and we cannot allow such things to continue unchecked.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I praise the strong, expeditious and decisive action taken by the Lord Chancellor in response to this issue, and the way he has co-ordinated the Government’s response with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, and the Attorney-General? As he indicated in his statement, Whitehall needs to raise its game on contract management. Will he continue to work as closely as possible with our right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General to get this matter resolved at permanent secretary level as soon as possible?

Chris Grayling: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and I give him that assurance. Looking back to when the issue first became visible in the Department, it is clear that existing expertise in contract management was not up to the job. Those failings and shortcomings should never have happened, and I intend to introduce measures to ensure that they never happen again.

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Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): This is a shocking statement and I believe that the Lord Chancellor has acted swiftly and decisively in dealing with the issue. G4S should never have got another Government contract after the shambles of the Olympics. G4S and Serco hold 17 contracts worth £118 million with the Home Office, and although I accept what the Lord Chancellor has done in referring G4S to the Serious Fraud Office and the police, I think he should have done the same to Serco. When its chief executive appeared before the Home Affairs Committee on 25 June, he said that he did not believe that Serco had overcharged. The right hon. Gentleman is right to have acted as he did, but he should not take a different approach to Serco. We need the high-risk register that the Home Affairs Committee recommended after the Olympics. That register should be held by the Cabinet Office, and any company that has failed the taxpayer should be on it and should not get another contract.

Chris Grayling: Let me be clear about the different treatment of G4S and Serco. I have followed the legal advice I received very closely, and the right hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House would expect me to follow such advice in the interests of the taxpayer and the Government. I have done that, and the approach I have chosen follows closely the legal advice I received. I would not expect any Member of this House to expect me to do otherwise.

As for how the Cabinet Office approaches contracting, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who is sitting next to me, will have heard what the right hon. Gentleman said. The Cabinet Office is taking both this issue and the broader issue of contracting very seriously, and my right hon. Friend will be saying more in due course.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): These are very serious matters indeed. Like others, I welcome today’s statement and the measures that the Secretary of State is taking. We have had interesting reactions from the two companies, and I hope that there will now be a robust means of oversight in his Department and in others, as contracts are looked into. The public’s concern is whether this is a security issue, so will he confirm to the House that this is a billing issue and that it had no impact on public safety?

Chris Grayling: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. This was obviously a matter of great concern to us, as we looked at these issues back in May for the first time. I can confirm that the Department has looked closely at the individual cases. The audit carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers so far has gone through cases line by line. We have found no evidence of any issues that would give rise to public safety concerns; this is a financial issue.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): First, I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and also for his courtesy in letting me know that he was going to make it, although I quite understand that, for reasons of commercial sensitivity, he could not inform me of its content. I share the intense anger and shock of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) and, above all, the Secretary of State himself about this issue, not least because it was during my watch in 1999

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that the original contract was let, before I was again responsible for the contracts between 2007 and 2010. It is a matter of deep regret to me that these failings happened at a time when I was the Secretary of State responsible for them. I want to know exactly why the failure happened, and I am glad to hear that steps are being taken to ensure that robust systems are put in place.

When the Secretary of State said in his statement that there was “a routine inspection in 2008”, but that “nothing substantive was done at that time to address the issues,” can he say whether the “nothing substantive” included not telling Ministers? I do not have complete recall of the contents of my 365 boxes in 2008, but I do not recall the matter ever being drawn to my attention. It would helpful to know whether it was. Lastly, I commend the review that the Minister for the Cabinet Office is establishing, because the control of long-term contracts with outside contractors is an issue that has bedevilled successive Governments for many decades.

Chris Grayling: I have seen no evidence to suggest that the issue reached the right hon. Gentleman’s desk. I can reassure him that there is no suggestion that he was briefed about it. There is no evidence that we have so far seen that the Department was aware of the nature of what was happening up until 2008. There have subsequently been a number of interchanges in relation to this matter. In no case do we believe that the Department had full sight of the scale of what was happening, but it is clear to me that things were known at a junior level about what was going on and it should have been addressed. One of the things we are investigating is why it was not, and that might include disciplinary action, as I set out earlier.

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) referred to the Public Accounts Committee. As a member of that Committee, may I say how welcome it is to see the firm, fair and quick way in which the Minister has brought the issue before the House and gripped it in a way that is different from many other areas that come before the Public Accounts Committee?

Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), will my right hon. Friend say explicitly whether the contracts were let before 2010, in which case the over-billing would predate the last general election? Will he also be clear that the reason the issue has come to light is because of the way he is gripping the renegotiation of such contracts?

Chris Grayling: I can confirm that the contracts were originally negotiated in November 2004 and implemented in 2005. The original contracts date back, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said, to 2009.

Mr Straw: To 1999.

Chris Grayling: To 1999—I beg the right hon. Gentleman’s pardon.

As for how the issue has been addressed more recently, let me be clear that none of the team leading the effort in the Ministry of Justice today was in position when the matter first came to the Department’s attention in 2008. The team who are leading the renegotiation have done a first-rate job of putting together a much

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tighter contract management framework, which highlighted this issue. It is to their credit that they found it, and I am very grateful to them that they did.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, which is quite shocking in its content. Does he not think there is a case for advising local government and the national health service, both of which have large contracts with both companies, of what action he is taking and why he has taken it, to see whether they might care to look at their contracts with the two companies and the performance of them? Does he not think for a moment that his almost love affair with contracting out services to the private sector should be tempered by possibly thinking of a public service option for delivering such important government services, rather than taking the first position, which is always to go to a private contractor?

Chris Grayling: I am absolutely certain that my colleagues in the Cabinet Office will make both local government and health service bodies aware of what has happened. That would be right and proper.

On the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, I appreciate that he did not always agree with the leadership of the previous Government—I give him credit for that—but when he talks about a “love affair” with contracting out, I would remind him that the contracts were not let by this Government, but by the last Government.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): May I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on the robustness of his response? The emphasis of his statement is quite right, but will he extend his remarks and say something about the legitimate levels of pricing in such contracts? Earlier this week I visited the Cabinet Office to see how the Government Digital Service is wrestling with some really quite appalling pricing levels, which are the legacy of the last Government. Will he be able to drive down the cost of such contracts in future?

Chris Grayling: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In fact, we are about to launch a revolution in tagging generally. The arrival of GPS tagging will enable us not simply to monitor whether an offender has left their home, but to understand whether they are breaking a curfew or, for example, whether a paedophile is going close to a school. That will transform the way in which tagging works and will do so—I can assure him—at a much lower price than we have paid up to now.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): I join others in commending the Justice Secretary for the action he has taken and the statement he has made today. I say that as the Minister for prisons and probation in 2004, when the contracts were awarded. If there has been wrongdoing, he is right to root it out in the way that he has set out.

May I press him a little further on his plans for the probation service? I can only ask him to accept my word that I do so not in a partisan way, but because, like him, I care about the protection of the public. Given that two major players are facing serious questions and are likely to be out of the game, does it not make sense to look at having a more limited competition for certain services in one part of the country, rather than moving so rapidly to a national roll-out?

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Chris Grayling: I would make two points to the right hon. Gentleman. First, we must be careful not to apply the judgments that will inevitably be made after today’s announcement to all private sector contractors that work with Government. That would be a great shame and the wrong thing to do. I should also say that even in the two companies in question, there are large numbers of people—all our constituents—who are at work today, doing their best to operate on behalf of the public sector. We should not allow them individually to be tainted by what has happened.

At the same time, when we look at our plans for probation reform, we see a large number of organisations —public and voluntary organisations, as well as potential mutual organisations from staff—interested in providing a solution to what is a glaring problem, whereby at the moment people who go to prison for less than 12 months get no supervision at all. The longer we wait to introduce the reforms, the longer those people will walk our streets without supervision. When people talk about “leading candidates” for contracts, I am clear that there are no “leading candidates” for contracts in our probation reforms. We have not started a contracting process. We are actively encouraging as wide a range of participation as possible. I have been talking to the social investment sector to bring in social capital. We are working actively with the Cabinet Office to encourage employee mutuals to come forward, either individually or in partnership with potential investors. This is not a world that will simply be handed over to a couple of big companies. I am very much of the belief that there is expertise out there, which I want to capture, and skills that will help to bring down reoffending.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): G4S is headquartered in my constituency and operates a number of contracts there, so these fraud allegations in connection with electronic tagging are deeply troubling. May I seek an assurance from my right hon. Friend that, as the local Member of Parliament, I will be kept up to date with the investigation, particularly as it will be concerning to many of the day-to-day, honest employees who work for the company and who are going about their business?

Chris Grayling: I give my hon. Friend that assurance absolutely. I say again that, as of today, I do not have evidence of dishonesty in either company. What I do have is legal advice that says that, on the back of the audit we have carried out, I have a duty to do further detailed forensic work to establish where there is a possibility of dishonesty. Serco has agreed to co-operate with that work. To my regret, G4S has not. That is what has prompted me to believe that I have no option but to ask the Serious Fraud Office to consider whether a formal investigation should take place.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): First, I put on record that I welcome the firm action the right hon. Gentleman has taken today. I would like to push him a little further on the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Although we have established that no Ministers were told of this, the Secretary of State said:

“contract managers had only a limited idea of the scope and scale…nothing substantive was done”.

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What does he mean by “limited idea” and “substantive”? To use the word “substantive” means that something must have been done. On the “limited idea” of the scale of the problem, why was that then not followed up with further action?

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman raises a good point to which I do not yet know the answer fully. It is clear that, between 2008 and the present, on various occasions information has reached the Department that suggests something was amiss. It is also clear that that information was never followed up in a way that would have presented the true picture of the problem. We are now launching formal proceedings internally, which are likely or may well include—depending on the circumstances of the individuals—disciplinary proceedings to establish precisely what did go wrong. Something clearly did go wrong. Enough knowledge came into the Department to flag this issue some years ago, but it was not acted on.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for the strong and decisive action he has taken. Given that both companies are substantial major companies, we may reasonably expect that all the moneys will be recovered. That will effectively amount to an unanticipated lump sum of income for the Ministry. Will the Lord Chancellor say at this stage what plans he has to use the lump sum? May I suggest that perhaps it be used to improve, modernise and upgrade the tagging system?

Chris Grayling: I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend’s ambitions. The upgrade of the tagging system will happen anyway within the Ministry’s existing budgets. The difference in the next couple of years will be marked. It will provide a much greater and more effective resource to both those monitoring offenders and to the police guarding such places as our town centres, to understand who is where at any particular time. It will also, at times, exclude people from suspicion of an offence, because tag records will show if they were not at the scene of a crime. He can be reassured that that is happening anyway.

I have every intention of getting back every last penny to which we are entitled. Our auditors are working on the exact sum at the moment. That is the right thing to do for the taxpayer.

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Points of Order

12.43 pm

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that during the statement from the Health Secretary, considerable concern was expressed regarding the lack of notice given to Members of Parliament with hospitals and accident and emergency units in their constituencies that would be affected by that statement. Speaking personally, I was informed by my Whips Office just before 9 o’clock this morning that the statement was to be made. I had had no contact at that point from the Secretary of State.

The statement has major implications for Trafford General hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). She found out about the statement when I phoned her. She was on the train to Manchester and had to get off the train and get on to another train going back to London to be here in time. Fortunately, she caught your eye, Mr Speaker, and you allowed her to speak. You ruled earlier that nothing disorderly had happened, but surely something discourteous happens when such important decisions are announced without any notice being given to Members. I wondered whether you could give us any further advice.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, which was put to me in the measured and courteous terms that are his hallmark. As he implies, there is a distinction between disorder and discourtesy. The Secretary of State was not guilty of disorderly conduct in any way. Ultimately, it is for Members of the House to judge whether there was a discourtesy. I did indicate in my response to an earlier point of order that there are ways of handling these matters. It is often the case that a Minister will seek to inform Members in advance at least of an intention to make a statement on a matter, even if the Minister is not in a position to guarantee it or indicate the precise date. These courtesies are important. Members must form their own assessment, but I hope that in the future we can operate, in respect of matters of this kind, in a way that commands general assent across the House. That, I think, would be helpful to all concerned. It is probably best if we leave it there for today.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At last week’s Work and Pensions questions I asked the Secretary of State about the increasing number of people accessing emergency food aid from the Liverpool central food bank in my constituency. I put it to him that one of the chief causes of the increase were delays in receiving social security support. In his reply, the Secretary of State told the House:

“The story that the cause is an increase in waits is not true”.

He also claimed that a director of the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest provider of food banks, had said that the real reason was

“The growth in volunteers and awareness about the fact you can get this help if you need it”.—[Official Report, 1 July 2013; Vol. 565, c. 604.]

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The executive chairman of the Trussell Trust has since written to me to say that this is not correct. Further, figures released today by the Trussell Trust confirm that more people proportionately are being referred to food banks with benefit-related problems since the Government’s welfare reforms came into effect in April. Mr Speaker, can you please kindly outline by which means the record can now be corrected?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Lady, who is as perspicacious as any Member of the House, has identified the required method and she has deployed it. In that respect, she has found her own salvation. The concerns of the people in her constituency have been placed on the record. If a Minister judges that the content of an answer requires clarification, or indeed correction, it is incumbent on the Minister to provide it. Meanwhile, the hon. Lady has discharged her obligations. We will leave it there.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I realise you are in a difficult situation when Ministers wish to make statements to the House, but could you advise that, where possible, Ministers should always inform Members whose constituency or constituencies will be affected by a Government statement so that they can at least be sure to be in the House and represent their constituents on those matters?

Mr Speaker: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes, I think that that would be helpful. Obviously, where Ministers are making statements of national application it is not reasonable to expect anything of the sort, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that. Where a statement affects a particular area of the country, and perhaps even a relatively small number of constituencies, or something a little greater than that but which has, if you like, a local or regional character to it, I should have thought that it would be regarded widely in the House as courteous to try to offer, if it is at all practicable, some indication in advance of the likelihood of the statement, because presumably the Minister would wish to be questioned on it.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will have noticed the intransigence of the Leader of the House over withdrawing the motion on Monday relating to the opt-out. As there is such anger across the House and in Select Committees, which have not been consulted, how

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late will he accept amendments to Monday’s motion? Many people want to resolve this situation by joint action to ensure that we are consulted properly on all 136 items to which we have to opt in or opt out.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am conscious of the displeasure that has been voiced in different parts of the House on both sides of the House, and by Select Committee Chairs from opposite sides of the House on this matter. The answer to the hon. Gentleman on the question of how late amendments can be tabled is that they should be tabled by tomorrow. It is, however, open to me to select—I offer no guarantee that I shall do so—a manuscript amendment as late as Monday. The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member of the House and he knows that the scheduling has now been made. That is absolutely not a matter for the Chair. The Government are absolutely within their rights so to have scheduled, but it will be possible for amendments to be considered, if necessary, even as late as Monday. I hope that is helpful both to the hon. Gentleman and to others in the House.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), Mr Speaker, it will not have escaped your notice that this is the second week running that we have had a problem with individual Members not being given notice of statements that affect their constituencies. Last week, you made a number of comments about the statement on the reserve forces. A Territorial Army centre in my constituency will close as a result of the measures announced in that statement, but I was given no notice of it taking place. For how long do you feel that this discourtesy can continue?

Mr Speaker: I think I have made my attitude to recent matters clear, and I have tried to be helpful to the House. It is my responsibility to help Members to help themselves, and indeed to help each other. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that most hon. Members will be looking forward to an agreeable summer holiday and a bit of rest and recuperation, and to the prospect of returning in the autumn and operating in a way that safeguards their own interests and shows due respect to the interests of others. The hon. Gentleman is normally a cheery soul, and of an upbeat disposition, and he must hope that matters will improve in September.

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Backbench Business

Arms to Syria

[Relevant document: Tenth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Further amendments to EU restrictive measures against the Syrian regime, HC 83-x.]

12.51 pm

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of Parliament.

I should like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to support the motion and to thank other colleagues across the House for supporting it. Matters of war and peace are extremely serious, whether we are talking about direct intervention, the provision of lethal support or, in this case, the narrower matter of arming the Syrian rebels. They therefore involve serious decisions for the Prime Minister—or for any Prime Minister. Lives are at risk, and while we accept that no decisions have been made on this matter to date, it is appropriate that such decisions should have the support of Parliament.

In many ways, the debate on this matter has already been a success. When we first discovered that the Government were seeking to lift the EU arms embargo, there was no statement from the Government; we discovered it for ourselves. Initially, there was some confusion. There was certainly no clarity as to whether Parliament should vote to authorise any arming of the rebels. At first, there was talk of consulting, and there were hints and indications. These were confirmed in media exchanges only three or four weeks ago, when colleagues on both sides of the House who support arming the rebels advocated that Parliament would not be bound by any such vote and that no such vote was required before a policy to arm the rebels was decided upon and executed.

Through the efforts of parliamentarians on both sides, and through the general debate on the matter, we have achieved greater clarity. The Government have firmed up on their promises over the past couple of weeks, culminating in the Foreign Secretary’s unambiguous statement to the House yesterday that any such decision would be subject to a vote in this place before such a policy was executed. That is definitely a positive move, and we now have greater clarity than when we first started this journey. That is very welcome.

I want to make a further point about parliamentary oversight. Having opposed the interventions in Iraq and Libya, and observed the morphing of the mission in Afghanistan into a nation-building programme, I sympathise to a large extent with the view that Parliament sometimes comes late to these decisions. We debated and voted on the question of Iraq as the troops were on the start line. When the mission in Afghanistan morphed into one of nation building, it was suggested—although not promised—that we would be in and out without firing a shot, but 440 lives later we are still counting the cost. The vote on Libya took place almost as the jets were leaving the airfields, so there are lessons that need to be learned on the parliamentary scrutiny of these important decisions.

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Many Members believe that this debate is of paramount importance, because we fear the consequences of arming the rebels. There are no easy answers in regard to the bitter and bloody civil war in Syria—atrocities are being committed by both sides—but I and others would caution against the UK getting more closely involved from a military point of view. If humanitarian concerns are uppermost in people’s minds, which I do not doubt for a moment, it beggars belief that anyone could suggest that pouring more arms into the conflict would not add to the violence and suffering. The United Nations Secretary-General was absolutely right to say that there could be no military solution to the conflict. That is why putting more arms into the conflict would not be helpful.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Could we be sure, if we were to arm the rebels against Assad and Hezbollah, that we would not be supporting al-Qaeda or creating a Shi’a-Sunni cross-border conflict, and that we would not be supporting a proxy war between Russia and the west? Is it worth the risk?

Mr Baron: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. One of the problems with this conflict is that there are extremists on both sides. On the rebel side, for example, we know that al-Nusra has close links with jihadist and extremist groups including al-Qaeda. The Government have not been able to answer the question about how they would track and trace weapons to ensure that they did not fall into the wrong hands. We need to remember that in that part of the world weapons are tradable assets. Very little escapes the bazaar. Given that the situation on the ground is fast moving and fluid, it would be nigh-on impossible to ensure that such arms did not fall into the wrong hands.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that things have moved on a great deal since we voted for or against the intervention in Iraq? That was a mess, and many people are now sorry that they voted as they did. It is important that we should be able to work out what is happening and make the decision ourselves. This should not be a decision for the Government.

Mr Baron: I take on board what my hon. Friend has said, and I agree with him in large part. There is a deficit of trust on these issues, partly courtesy of the Iraq decision but also because of Afghanistan. That is why it is even more important for Parliament to express its view. We should not be bounced into a decision simply because we are heading into a recess.

We need to learn from our mistakes in other respects as well. For example, we armed the mujaheddin in the 1980s, and we armed Saddam Hussein when he attacked Iran. Some of those weapons were eventually pointed against us. Many of the weapons supplied to Libya have ended up in Syria and northern Mali. We have made mistakes on this front, and we must learn from them.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Will my hon. Friend at least acknowledge that doing nothing also has a cost, and that if we do nothing, two things will happen? The Assad regime will continue to try to slaughter its own people into submission. Where 12 months ago there were hardly any Jabhat al-Nusra on the ground,

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there are today perhaps 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000, and if we continue to do nothing, we create the space to allow more and more jihadis to come into the ground. If we support the moderate opposition, that will stop the flaking off from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra.

Mr Baron: I take on board what my hon. Friend says, but I think it does him no service to try to create the impression that those of us who suggest that we should not arm the rebels are insisting that we do nothing. It is actually quite the opposite. I think there is an awful lot that we could be doing—on the humanitarian front and on the diplomatic front. I will return to the issue in a minute or two, if my hon. Friend will bear with me. I will allow him in again, if he wishes to come back to me.

If I had another concern, it would be that, as has been hinted at already, the civil war in Syria is in many respects a proxy war being fought out at different levels—whether it be Sunni versus Shi’a Muslim; the old Persian gulf rivalry of Iran versus Saudi Arabia; or indeed the west versus Russia and China. The risk of pouring more weapons into this conflict and of pouring more fuel on to the fire is that we not only increase the violence within Syria but extend the conflict beyond Syria’s borders in very large measure. That would be a mistake of historic proportions.

Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) about doing nothing, I would suggest that there is a lot more that we can do, particularly on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con) rose

Mr Newmark rose

Mr Baron: I give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin).

Mr Jenkin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am listening carefully to what he is saying. Has he considered the risk of how this debate and his motion will be interpreted? The arms are pouring into Syria from the Sunni factions in Qatar and Saudi, and the Russians are pouring weapons into Syria, yet we seem to be sending the message that we will do nothing for the other side—the forces of democracy and freedom. Is that the message that my hon. Friend wants to send, because it may inadvertently be the message that the Russians will understand from this debate?

Mr Baron: I think my hon. Friend does himself a disservice by misunderstanding the stated intention of this debate. It is not that we should do nothing; it is that we as a Parliament should have a say and that our explicit authorisation should be given before any arming of the rebels. We are not making a decision today about whether we should or should not arm the rebels. The motion is very clear that no decision should be made about arming, or, rather, that no policy should be implemented about arming

“without the explicit prior consent of Parliament”.

That is an important distinction. Let me move on, because the issue has been raised before.

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The argument is often made that we are to do nothing. Well, there is an awful lot more we can do. On the humanitarian front, for example, why are many refugee camps desperately short of basic amenities? Britain has done more than its fair share—I do not deny that for one moment—but the bottom line is that there are still desperate shortages, so we could do even more there. On the diplomatic front, most people would accept that there can be no military solution to this problem in the longer term; there has to be a diplomatic solution. Why, then, as is presently the case, is the west trying to exclude Iran, a key player in the region and within the country, from the forthcoming peace talks being arranged by the Russians? Time will tell when those talks take place, but there is no doubt that there is an intention at the moment to exclude the Iranians, which is nonsensical.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for introducing this debate. Is he aware that the UK’s humanitarian assistance to the Syrian crisis currently runs at £348 million, and is already the single largest funding commitment ever made by the UK in response to a humanitarian disaster?

Mr Baron: I am aware that we are leading the field when it comes to humanitarian relief. My response was really aimed at those who suggest that because someone does not believe in throwing more weapons into the conflict, they are advocating doing nothing. There is a lot more that can be done, even taking into account the assistance we are already giving. It cannot be denied that a number of these refugee camps are desperately short of basic amenities. As I say, more can be done on that front, despite the aid we are already putting in.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I am conscious that there is a categorical difference between humanitarian aid and arming rebels against a Government. Irrespective of whether we support the rebels in their aims, the reality is, according to the Commons Library brief, that doing so might be an act of aggression under article 2(4) of the UN convention, so it might be illegal for us to do it anyway.

Mr Baron: I take on board my hon. Friend’s points. With law—international law in particular—one can find lawyers to substantiate both sides of an argument. I therefore tend not to focus too much on international law, although I have a sneaking feeling that we will return to the subject later on.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): Quite right too!

Mr Baron: I hear what my right hon. and learned Friend says. That is why I think it is important that we focus on the practical and moral implications of such a policy.

In answer to colleagues’ points about doing nothing, I think that history provides a guide to what we should do. The last decade would suggest that trying to promote democracy and human rights, which is the Government’s stated objective, by force of arms can often be counter-productive. If we look at north Africa and parts of the middle east, we see the seeds of democracy stuttering into life where we have committed relatively few resources.

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If we look at Iraq and Afghanistan, however, it is not such a rosy picture, despite the huge cost in lives and treasure.

If we wanted to go back further, we could look at our interventions since the second world war. They have had a tendency to have an embedding effect—to reinforce the existing regimes. It is no coincidence, I put it to the House, that communism has survived longest in those countries where the west actually intervened—Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, even China. We have to be careful about our interventions.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman mentioned North Korea. Could we for the record confirm as a matter of fact that it was not the west that intervened in North Korea? It was actually the United Nations that was involved in defending the Koreans against aggression from the north and from China.

Mr Baron: To a certain extent, but the hon. Gentleman well knows that both sides put in forces up to the 38th parallel. Yes, the northern forces attacked, but the bottom line is that both sides—including the UN—put in forces initially. Putting that to one side, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not detract from the point that interventions have tended to have an embedding effect, particularly in the other examples I provided. We have to be very careful about intervention.

As an aside, I certainly believe that we need to make greater use of soft power—the ability to coerce and persuade by non-violent means—which can often be more effective and cost-effective than conventional hard power. It saddens me to say this, although I will do so while the Minister is in his place, that we are making cuts to our soft power capability, including the BBC World Service, the British Council and, indeed, the Foreign Office itself. We need to ensure that our military are up to the mark—one is not saying anything else—but the emphasis in the past was too much on hard power. We should better nuance our approach to foreign policy, particularly in this information age.

In conclusion, I am conscious that the debate has been over-subscribed and I look forward to hearing the contributions from hon. Members. It is terribly important that we put a marker in the sand, saying that Parliament must be consulted and that no lethal interventions can take place

“without the explicit prior consent of Parliament”.

That is not to prejudge the decision itself, but the principle is there. I welcome the fact that the Government have in recent months been on a little bit of a journey on this, particularly given the indications they gave at the start, which contained no conclusive confirmation that a vote would take place before any arming of the rebels. I welcome the development and I welcome the efforts of colleagues of all parties—and indeed this debate—in helping to crystallise that fact. I very much look forward to hearing the debate that follows.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. In view of the number of hon. and right hon. Members seeking to contribute to the debate, I have imposed a seven-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, with immediate effect.

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1.9 pm

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) spoke eloquently for the majority view in the House, as does the motion. May I apologise in advance for having to leave the Chamber if the debate runs past 3.15, as I have a long-standing speaking commitment?

I am not a pacifist. I was a Cabinet Minister when the decision was taken to invade Iraq. I was Africa Minister when we sent troops to save Sierra Leone from savagery. But as a former Foreign Office Minister responsible for middle east policy, including Syria, I vehemently oppose British military intervention of any kind in Syria.

We all share the Prime Minister’s genuine anger at the humanitarian disaster. We all agree that Bashar al-Assad has become a callous butcher who, instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab spring reached Syria in March 2011, drove his people into carnage and chaos. Russia and Iran have been culpable in the unfolding horror, and so have the Saudis and Qataris. But Britain, too, is culpable. We should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. Instead we began by demanding Assad’s unconditional surrender and departure. However, calling for regime change meant chasing an unattainable goal at the cost of yet more bloodshed and destruction, and so did supporting a rebel military victory.

That was fatal. Britain should have offered a practical strategy to end a deepening civil war, because this was never simply a conflict between a brutal regime and the Syrian people. Assad and the ruling Shi’a-aligned Alawite minority form a 10th of the population and were never going to give up power if it meant, as they fear, being oppressed by the Sunni majority. Christians and other minorities are similarly nervous about change. Together those behind Assad amount to nearly a third of the Syrian people; add the Kurds and the total reaches about 40 per cent. Few of them like Assad or his Ba’athist rule, but they fear even more the alternative—becoming victims of genocide, jihadism or sharia extremism.

This is not some simplistic battle between evil and good. Nor is it simply a battle between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people. It is a civil war, and a highly complex one into which Britain treads at its peril. It involves Sunni versus Shi’a, Saudi Arabia versus Iran and, a cold war hangover, the US versus Russia.

Mr Jenkin: I do not necessarily demur from a single word of the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the complexity of the conflict, but what effect does it have on the efforts to bring those parties to the negotiating table when the International Criminal Court makes it virtually impossible to manage any kind of orderly transition, let alone continuity in the existing regime? He seems to be suggesting that that might be one of the options.

Mr Hain: I will address that point in a minute.

Regime change in Damascus could be the outcome of a negotiated solution, but if, as the UK and the US are effectively doing, getting rid of Assad is set as the precondition for talks, the carnage will continue. Surely we should by now have understood from Britain’s long and bitter experience in Northern Ireland that setting preconditions will prevent attempts at negotiation from even getting off the ground.

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The Prime Minister’s “good guys versus bad guys” prism is hardly made credible by the presence of al-Qaeda fighters among the west’s favoured rebels, nor is it by the barbarous murders of innocent Syrian citizens by some rebels. Other parties have started to intervene, such as Hezbollah, in turn dragging in Israel, another lethal development. The collateral impact of 1 million Syrian refugees in Jordan is especially dangerous. Iran will not back off because of its key interests.

If the regime were somehow toppled without a settlement in place, the country could descend into even greater chaos. Russia fears that anarchy because, like the US and the UK, it has key strategic military, economic and intelligence interests in the area; for example, Syria provides Russia’s only Mediterranean port in a region where the US is well placed militarily. The only way forward is to broker a settlement, with Russia using its leverage to ensure Assad negotiates seriously. Like it or not, Russia is critical, as is engagement with Iran: otherwise, a Syrian settlement will not happen.

The guidelines for a political transition approved by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council at the Geneva conference a year ago on 30 June 2012 still provide the best road map for a Geneva II, but the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and their allies must drop their present stance and help to implement that. Preventing Iran and also Assad from attending a peace conference means that it will not even get off the ground. Transitional arrangements that reach the end point of democratisation are crucial, but their pace must be negotiated, not imposed. However unpalatable, Assad and his henchmen may have to be granted immunity to get them to sign up: hardly worse than the continuing barbarity and devastation of ancient heritage. All state employees, including the ranks of the armed forces, must be allowed to keep their posts, to avoid a repeat of the chaos caused by America’s de-Ba’athification in Iraq. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call on 9 October 2012 for both a ceasefire and an embargo on more arms going to the opposition as well as Government forces, should now be heeded. A Yemen-type process may even figure. There a hated president did not actually resign but equally did not stand for re-election.

This will all be incredibly, tortuously difficult, and I understand that Foreign Office Ministers are seeking to grapple with this on our behalf, but what is certain is that UK policy was always going to fail. The Prime Minister began with a demand for regime change, which did not work. Then he supplied “communications equipment” and other resources, which failed too. Then he tried to supply British arms and got the EU arms embargo lifted, until cross-party opposition in Parliament made that very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Unless there is a radical change, all the hand wringing and condemnation as atrocity follows atrocity is empty. Two years after the Syrian uprising, it is high time for Britain, France and the United States to change course. They, as well as their allies, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, need to recognise that neither side is going to win the civil war now destroying Syria. Instead a political solution has to be the top priority.

Britain needs to work with its friends in the Syrian opposition and persuade them to go to Geneva with a credible plan for a compromise: local ceasefires, access to humanitarian relief, and the names of prospective members of a new Government of national unity, which

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will include Ministers from the current Syrian Government. Together they can initiate a process of constitutional reform for new parliamentary and presidential elections with UN observers. Only through mutual concessions by both the regime and the opposition can the people of Syria be saved from the current nightmare. All this is going to be incredibly difficult, as I said, but it is the only way forward, I strongly submit. The present policy and past policies have got us into this awful mess.

1.17 pm

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): I must begin by apologising to the House, and indeed to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), for not being present at the outset of the debate. I was attending a meeting of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which was held outside this building.

I agree almost completely with what my hon. Friend said and, not for the first time in the House, I am able to say that I agree in similar terms with the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). This debate is not strictly about the supply of arms; it is about whether the House should have a role in determining whether that supply should take place.

In considering the question at the centre of the motion, we must pay some regard to the consequences and to the questions that would necessarily arise. The first question is one I have repeated elsewhere: to whom would we supply arms? If we did supply them, in whose hands would they ultimately rest? What would we give? The sort of things that are being discussed are highly sophisticated—it is not like loosing off several hundred rounds from a Kalashnikov. Therefore, how would we ensure that any arms that we gave were properly used? We could only do that by sending either military or civilian technicians. That might not constitute boots on the ground in the traditional sense, but it would certainly constitute intervention.

The third question to which I believe we are entitled to seek an answer is this: what impact would the supply of arms have on the relationship between Russia and Syria? As we have already seen in the supply of shore-to-ship missiles over the last few weeks, anything that the so-called west attempts to do would be bound to be met by a similar incremental approach by Russia.

Andrew Bridgen: Does my right hon. and learned Friend also agree that the supply to anyone of technically advanced weaponry would probably require training, which would also be boots on the ground?

Sir Menzies Campbell: I thought I made that point a moment ago.

We have in this House in recent years established not a precedent in any formal sense, or, indeed, a convention in any constitutional sense, but on the occasion of military action against Iraq the House was given the opportunity to vote, and more recently on the occasion of possible involvement with France, supported by the United States, in relation to Libya again the House was given the opportunity to vote. It might be argued that the supply of arms does not fall neatly into that category, but my argument would be that it constitutes a major change in the foreign policy of this Government, with

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unknown political, military and perhaps even constitutional significance. That being the case, I would argue as strongly as possible that the House is entitled to pass judgment on this policy before it is implemented. Indeed, I go further than that: were the Government to implement a policy of this kind without allowing the House an opportunity to pass judgment, it would be an abuse of process, and would most certainly be regarded as such outside this House.

Mr Newmark: The devil is always in the detail. I hear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says about not giving arms directly to the opposition, but does he then believe that if we are selling arms to a third party such as Saudi Arabia and those arms then go on to Syria, we should again seek the approval of the House before selling any further arms to a third-party country such as Saudi?

Sir Menzies Campbell: My hon. Friend will be well aware that there is an agreement called the al-Yamamah agreement which regulates the sale of arms from the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia, and if he is suggesting we should violate that agreement I think he had better consult Ministers in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence and perhaps also the chief executive officer of BAE.

The point I want to make is that this is a decision of such significance and with such important potential consequences that the House should have the opportunity to pass judgment. There are those who say, “All right, we are doing nothing then.” That is true, in that we may not be doing quite as much as some of us would like, but I do not think it is an issue for regret that we are the highest single donor of humanitarian aid. I think we should be immensely proud of that, and having taken that decision, we should be encouraging others to do the same.

Let me give an illustration of that. Jordan is a country with which we are closely allied, and it is a neighbouring country in the region which has received very large numbers of refugees. The refugee camps are characterised by forced marriage, rape and violence, and the impact on the fragile economy—and, indeed, the fragile Government—of Jordan of an influx of refugees on the scale now being experienced must inevitably have an effect on that country. If we were preparing our humanitarian effort for its own intrinsic merit, we would also be creating a pragmatic outcome in helping to protect from possible instability a country that is of great importance to us and of great importance in the middle east, not least because it, along with Egypt, signed a peace agreement with Israel.

Another point the right hon. Member for Neath made very eloquently is that no solution is possible without Russia. That may be thoroughly distasteful to us, but it is a fact, and therefore establishing some agreement with Moscow and joining together—as John Kerry, the US Secretary of State suggested—could be a very powerful factor in providing the political solution that everyone agrees is necessary.

The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has twice said from a sedentary position that no one was barring Iran from

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any conference in Geneva, and I am delighted to hear that. He would give me even more comfort if he were to say positively that Iran would be invited, however, because this issue is of very considerable regional significance, and Ahmadinejad has been replaced by someone who is alleged to be of a less combative nature, and we now have an opportunity to test that out, and to see whether there is genuinely a change in Iran’s attitude on issues of this kind.

One further thing we can do, which I do not think has been mentioned yet, is to counsel Israel against intervention. The Golan heights, occupied by Israel, remain an issue of great political significance in Syria, particularly for the current President, whose father was the Minister of Defence when the Golan heights were lost. Israel has an interest in that regard, but I do not believe its interests would be properly served by becoming engaged militarily. I hope the British Government are putting that argument in the strongest possible terms to the Government of Israel.

Let me conclude by reiterating that this is a very significant foreign policy proposal. The Government have said that they have not yet decided whether to implement it, but if they want to have the discretion to take a decision of this kind, it can only be because they have considered that decision among a range of options. We need only look at who has signed this motion to see that they come from across the entire political spectrum. The motion is therefore the determination of those from all parts of this House, and that is why I believe the proper course of action is for it to be passed.

1.27 pm

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on initiating this debate. I am opposed to arms being sent to the rebels in Syria, but let me make this absolutely clear: if I had a different viewpoint, I would still be of the opinion that it is Parliament that should decide whether or not such a decision should be taken. A great deal is said about reforms and changes for Parliament, but one of the most important aspects of the House of Commons is that major decisions such as whether arms should be sent in such circumstances should not be taken without the express and direct consent of the House of Commons.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman but, in furtherance of his argument, would he also accept that even if it were not generally the case that Parliament should have its say before such a step is taken, when it is widely known that there is very substantial opposition to what is proposed, and that it is very likely that there would be a heavy majority of opposition in Parliament, it would be particularly unwise for the Government to go ahead without letting Parliament have its say and have a vote first?

Mr Winnick: I could not have put that better myself. It is very rare for the hon. Gentleman and I to agree. I hope that does not mean that we are in the wrong on this issue. My concern is that we are going into two long recesses and the Government could make a decision arguing that, given all the circumstances, it was necessary to arm the rebels in Syria, and although the House would almost certainly be recalled, the decision would

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have already been taken. The Government would be asking for support from their own Members on a three-line Whip. That is why is there is a good deal of anxiety—all the more so as we start our recess next week.

During the statement yesterday the Foreign Secretary said that it is “possible to anticipate” the supply of arms and that therefore there is no reason why it should not be debated “in advance”. Let me say to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) that those words have been carefully noted and the Foreign Secretary will be held to account on them by all of us if any other decision is taken when the House is not sitting.

During that statement the Foreign Secretary also spoke about the amount of support already going to the Syrian rebels—those we support. We are talking about armoured vehicles, body armour and communications equipment. Moreover, as was stated, another £20 million of supplies will be sent in the coming months. Might not the argument then be, “With all these supplies already sent, why not lethal weapons?” These things escalate, although I am not altogether certain that what has been sent has been justified.

Let us be clear about the background to this debate. Nearly 100,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict started. So many of the people who have been killed have been civilians going about their normal lives—or trying to do so; these are the men, women and children who have been killed, on both sides. The bloodshed and the suffering continues now. The argument for the supply of arms is that the stronger the rebels—at least those rebels the British Government support—the more likely it is that the Assad regime will be brought to the negotiating table. That is the basic argument, and no doubt we will hear further arguments along those lines from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the former Foreign Secretary.

I would not dismiss that view out of hand; it is possible that there is some logic in that argument. Is it not, however, much more likely that arms supplies from the west, including from this country, would simply lead, as other hon. Members have said, to even more arms for the regime from its current backers? We would have an escalating arms race. Why do we believe that if the west started to supply arms to the rebels, the countries supporting Assad’s brutal, murderous regime—Russia, foremost, but also Iran—which, without question, has no legitimacy, would not increase the arms supply likewise? As I say, an escalating arms race can lead only to further death and destruction. As has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), neither should we overlook the sectarian aspect to the conflict, with support being given to both sides in accordance with a religious divide between Sunni and Shi’a. Again, we should not intervene in that.

I want to make it clear that there are circumstances where armed intervention from this country is justified. Nobody could have been more in favour of the support given in Bosnia and Kosovo than me. I believed that we had a duty in those places to provide support, and I was pleased to be among those who did so when Muslims were facing outright massacre. In the mid-1990s, at the time of the Bosnian conflict, I said that such support should be given—unfortunately, it was often not to be given until too late—but in Bosnia and Kosovo we were

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not faced with extremist elements; we were not faced with elements such as those in Syria, who obviously want to bring about a form of state run along more or less the same lines as the Taliban. Syria is a different situation altogether and that should be very much borne in mind.

What should we do in the circumstances? I could not agree more with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that we should, first and foremost, maximise humanitarian relief in every possible way, bearing in mind the suffering that has already occurred. More relief should be given. Every help should be given to innocent people who have been caught up in the conflict.

Finally, we must redouble our efforts to try to bring the conflict to an end, not by sending arms, but by trying to persuade Russia and other such countries to come to the negotiating table to end the suffering, to end the war and to bring about a situation where people in Syria can once again go about their everyday lives, however much there was a dictatorship there. That is a far better way of trying to deal with this terrifying problem than sending arms to those in Syria whom we believe are on the right side. Of course, we have no guarantee that if we were to do so, those arms would go to the people we believe should be supported.

1.36 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and echo the apology of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) for missing the opening comments of his speech because of the Intelligence and Security Committee meeting. The right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) began his comments by saying that he had supported the Iraq war but believed that intervention of the kind being considered in Syria would be inappropriate, but I come at this from exactly the other way around. I opposed the Iraq war but I have, over the past year, come to the view that intervention of the kind we are discussing would be not only ethically justified, but politically desirable.

The fact that I have come to that view is not that important. What is particularly significant is that President Obama, who has been hugely reluctant to be involved, in any way, militarily in Syria, has nevertheless been persuaded, with all the advice available to him and with all the analysis that has been made, that the time has come to change position and give military support. The British and French Governments, who have supported the European embargo, have been forced to change their view towards a different position. Governments are often accused of pandering to public opinion—going for votes—but here it is the other way around; public opinion is against supplying weapons in Syria. No votes are to be won by doing this, so it is worth asking why three of the major Governments in the world have gradually come to the view that, far from being an irresponsible act, it may not be a good solution but it is less bad than the alternatives. That is the judgment we are being asked to make.

When we use the terms “rebels” and “Government”, we must remind ourselves that more than 100 members of the United Nations—more than half the UN—have broken ranks with Syria and have recognised the Syrian

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opposition as the legitimate spokesmen of the Syrian people. The Arab League has expelled the Assad regime and invited the Syrian opposition to take its place. So the term “rebels” is not necessarily as significant as it often is.

Mr Newmark: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must not conflate wishing to support, and supporting, the moderate majority and the Free Syrian Army, with condemning Jabhat al-Nusra and others, who also may condemn the regime?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, because it has been part of Assad’s tactics from the very beginning to try to force his own people and the wider international community to believe that there is a stark choice between the Assad regime and jihadi extremists such as Jabhat al-Nusra and to ignore the fact that the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian secular forces and moderate Islamic forces, represent between them the overwhelming majority of the Syrian public, and to suggest that they are somehow irrelevant to this debate.

Let me share with the House why I changed my view over the past year. I did so for two reasons, the first of which is the humanitarian situation. More than 100,000 people have died so far. We are not talking about soldiers, militia or rebels; the vast majority of them were innocent men, women and children. All the analysis by human rights organisations—by Amnesty International and others—says not that every one of them was killed by the Assad regime, but that the vast majority were killed and slaughtered because of indiscriminate bombing by the Assad regime throughout Syria, particularly in the urban areas, where the opposition was active.

Mike Gapes: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that it would be much more effective and better to provide a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor to help the humanitarian situation than to give weaponry to people who might pass it on to other elements of the opposition that we might not wish to have it?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I do not think that a no-fly zone is practical. It could not be legitimised by the Security Council and would involve massive attacks on Syrian air defences, which would essentially mean Britain, America and other countries going to war. That would not be appropriate or justified.

On a humanitarian basis, quite apart from any other argument, the Syrian opposition deserve weapons to protect their own communities. This time next year, 200,000 men, women and children will have been slaughtered in Homs, Aleppo and the various other centres that the Assad regime is trying to recontrol. From that point of view, such an approach is a consideration.

My second point goes straight to the comments made by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). I hope that we are all agreed that a political solution will ultimately end the conflict, but to have a political solution requires getting people to Geneva who are willing to make the compromises required. On what possible basis should Assad contemplate such an approach when he

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has refused all along to contemplate not just his own demise but any transitional Government or any new Government involving the Syrian opposition? He has ruled that out entirely. At this moment, he is even less likely to be interested in that argument.

The hon. Gentleman talked about escalating new arms supplies from Russia or Iran, but the one thing the Syrian Government and Assad regime do not need is more arms. They are satiated with arms and they have been supplied with them for the past two years. Assad knows that supply from Russia and Iran will continue for as long as he needs them, but on top of that he has Hezbollah militia fighting with his forces. That is foreign intervention and, incidentally, it shows the weakness of the Assad regime that it could not recapture the small town of Qusair by itself a few weeks ago but had to get several thousand Lebanese Hezbollah militia—

Mr Baron: Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I have given way twice already, I am afraid—[Interruption.] But as it is my hon. Friend, I will give way.

Mr Baron: I appreciate the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend is being so accommodating and I shall keep my question short. Can he answer the practical question that the Government have so far been unable to answer? How does one track and trace the weapons going to the rebel cause to stop them falling into the wrong hands? Up to this moment, that answer has not been supplied.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Let me go straight to that point. It is perfectly fair, but I do not think it is as convincing as my hon. Friend clearly believes. First, if we provide the weapons that the Syrian moderate secular opposition want and of which they are desperately short—they are the only people who do not have such weapons as the jihadi nationalist extremists and the Assad regime already have them—on what common- sense grounds should we anticipate that to any significant degree, the Free Syrian Army, for the first time given proper means of defending themselves and advancing their cause, should wish to hand them over to the jihadi nationalists who already have them and are their sworn enemies? Jabhat al-Nusra is not even part of the Syrian National Coalition. Of course, we cannot exclude the possibility that the odd weapon might go in that direction, but to rule out providing them on those grounds alone seems unwise and unreasonable.

The broader point is that if Assad knows that he not only has Hezbollah forces fighting for him, which he needs to advance on Homs and Aleppo, but has been promised Iranian revolutionary guards and if he has the weapons, what possible reason would he have to be prepared to reach a compromise that involves his sharing power, never mind giving it up? When hon. Members who take a different point of view say that we must have a diplomatic solution, I agree. When they say that lots of things can be done on humanitarian grounds and through diplomatic initiatives, I utterly agree. They know as well as I do, however, that in the middle of a civil war, diplomacy by itself will not deliver the results required. Why should it? That happens only when both sides to a civil war realise that they cannot get military victory by themselves and therefore must compromise.

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At this moment in the conflict, the Assad regime has no reason to come to such a view. It is not short of weapons and it is not short of fighters from other countries—Lebanon and Iran—so such an approach will not succeed. By all means, let us say that this is not our war and that it is all terribly tragic. By all means, let us accept that events will go on as they have been, but hon. Members must not kid themselves that anything that relies on diplomatic initiatives alone, without the real pressure that strengthening the secular opposition would provide, has even the remotest prospect of bringing peace and preventing the continuing slaughter of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women and children over the months and years to come.

1.45 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Democracy was born in Greece some 2,000 years ago and has come to these islands in stages. In most sophisticated democratic states, they would regard it as astonishing that we are discussing whether the elected Parliament has the right to declare war. That is taken as obvious in most states. We have begun to debate whether we should go to war rather than who should take the decision, but that is what we should be talking about today.

Dr Julian Lewis: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that even those people who believe that we should arm the rebels ought to vote aye for this motion, given what the Foreign Secretary and others have said from the Government Front Bench?

Paul Flynn: I absolutely agree. The assumption is being made that Governments decide whether we go to war, but even that is not true. The decision to go to war rests with the monarch under the royal prerogative. That is a key point, particularly as we might well have a change of monarch in the foreseeable future—although it is a long way off, we all hope. The change of monarch would not strengthen the case for continuing the status quo when we know that the future likely monarch has written letters that we are not allowed to see because it might endanger his status and his future prospects as the Head of State. A decision was taken by the Government, after a freedom of information inquiry and a decision by a High Court judge that anyone who lobbies Parliament should have the contents of their lobbying letters published, to censor that correspondence. That person will be in a key position on any decision about going to war. We might say that that does not matter, but it does.

The same issue came up in a little-known practical example published by the former MP for Cambridge, Robert Rhodes James, who wrote of the fear in the Conservative party, when it decided to get rid of Mrs Thatcher, that she might call a general election. At that time, she was much more popular in the country than she was in her own party and she could well have come back. No one could have stopped her in Government, in the Cabinet or in Parliament, but one person could have stopped her calling a general election if that person had said that Mrs Thatcher was a Prime Minister who was acting in her own interests and not in the country’s. I think we all know that the present Queen had the strength of character to ensure that Mrs Thatcher did not act in her own interests.

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Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman was diverted —or allowed himself to be diverted—by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), but I know that he will now return specifically to the subject of a parliamentary vote on Syria.

Paul Flynn: The reason we need Parliament to be supreme, and not the Government acting under royal prerogative, is the bitter experience we have had. In 2003, this House was bribed, bullied and bamboozled into voting for the war in Iraq.

Mike Gapes: I am very sorry, but some of us voted the way we did because we believed that it was right to protect the Kurds in Iraq and for the Iraqi people to be liberated from fascism. I do not feel that I was bamboozled or bribed and I hope that my hon. Friend is not impugning my integrity.

Paul Flynn: My hon. Friend is referring to Parliament and the majority here: 139 Labour Members voted against. Nearly 50 Labour Members who had already signed motions against the war and who were already opposed, were pressurised into changing their minds and abstaining or voting for the war. That is the truth of what happened then. It was on the basis of what was probably a lie or a misunderstanding. It was certainly untrue. We went there to defend our country against non-existent weapons of mass destruction allegedly held by Saddam Hussein. We proceeded to the second greatest error that we have made in recent times. That was in 2006 when we went into Helmand province, as has been said. The hope was that not a shot would be fired and we would be out in three years, having cleared up the drug trade. We now know what happened. At that time only two British soldiers had been killed in combat. The number is now 444. What were they doing in Helmand province? Defending the country against a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat to this country.

Around 52 terrorists have been convicted for actions within the United Kingdom. Not one of them is from Afghanistan. They are mostly people who were born and brought up in this country. So we have had two wars on which we embarked on a false premise, and it is right that we should ensure that the decisions are taken by the House on the best information that is available. While people are rehearsing what the argument should be in the future, we have to escape from the influences on this House. There are many influences, including the influences on politicians.

We know what happens to those in Government of all parties when the prospect of war is heard—with the drumbeats banging away, they adopt a Napoleonic posture, dig out the Churchillian language and try to write their page in history. We know the pressure from people in the arms industry. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan were at the side of General Petraeus in Afghanistan. They were at every secret meeting. They wrote part of his report to the Secretary of State in America and they constantly put pressure on to keep the war going and to discourage any peace initiatives. The Kagans were not employed by Petraeus. They were not employed by the American Government or the military. They were employed by the arms contractors in America.

There is a pressure for perpetual war. We know that millions were made in Iraq by the firms there after the Iraq war. We know that they will have contracts

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in the Syrian conflict. After those two great errors, pressure is on us now to prepare ourselves for war in Iran to protect ourselves from non-existent long-range Iranian missiles carrying non-existent Iranian nuclear bombs. We have to look to all these pressures, which have sent 623 of our brave soldiers to their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those decisions are made here. We take them, we should be responsible, and there certainly should not be any Government pressure that settles those decisions. We should do it in future in free debate.

There should be alterations to our constitution. We have conventions now—the one going back to 2003. That should be our model for the way we face every armed conflict in which our troops might be employed.

1.53 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): Given that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House have given firm pledges about having a vote before arming any rebels, the motion is somewhat academic. With everything that is going on in the middle east at present, I mean no disrespect to the Minister when I say that I regret that we are not having a wider debate on the middle east, possibly with the Foreign Secretary replying.

The concern arose when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary said yesterday said that there was possibility that they would have to act without having time for the House to express an opinion. I think that that is not an unreasonable position, and I for one trust the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to make the right decision if they find themselves in those circumstances.

Mr Baron: May I respectfully suggest that my hon. Friend could not be further from the truth when he says that this is an academic debate? Quite the opposite. There is a clear showing that the Government have moved some way since we first discovered that they were lobbying for the arms embargo to be lifted. No assurance was given in the early days, as illustrated by the fact that there were media exchanges where proponents of arming the rebels were clearly making the point on the Governments behalf that they were not confined by a vote in this place. This debate, plus the efforts of parliamentarians on both sides, have been useful in getting clarity from those on the Front Bench.

Richard Ottaway: I have no wish to quarrel with my hon. Friend. What I was saying was that the motion was academic. The debate is very important. On his second point, the words that the Foreign Secretary used yesterday were almost identical to the original words used by the Prime Minister.

A number of criteria must be met before we intervene in these situations. We must be clear that the situation has been properly thought through. The first criterion should be that we should not intervene unless it makes a difference to the lives, prosperity and security of the Syrian people. When we examine that closely, it is a hard ask. It is increasingly unlikely that we will move to a situation where President Assad is forced out. He has the support of Iran and Hezbollah and Russia, who are

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using as a justification for their support for Assad their concern over the interpretation of the Libya resolution. They argue that there was a generous interpretation of that resolution and the bombing campaign went too far. I see that as a diplomatic excuse on their part. The Russians are concerned for two primary reasons. One is that, with an eye to Chechnya and the Muslims at their back door, they do not wish to offend their Muslim community and they do not want to lose their port on the Mediterranean.

The second criterion that must be met is that we ask ourselves whether we have exhausted all diplomatic solutions. Hopes must rest on the Geneva conference but optimism is fading. The earliest that the conference will take place is in September. I agree with others when I say that I believe Iran should be present at such a conference. I wish the Secretary of State for the United States and Mr Lavrov on behalf of the Russians well in trying to set an agenda. The most likely outcome is a rehash of the Annan plan and that President Assad will stay in office. That may turn out to be the least bad option.

On this point, I detect that the Government have changed their position. At the outset it was a precondition that President Assad should go. Of late, speeches by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister in the House of Lords have dropped that requirement. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm when he winds up whether it is a pre-condition that Assad should go as part of any negotiated settlement, or whether he accepts that we may yet have to work with him.

Thirdly, we have to ask ourselves whether there are military operations that we can sensibly undertake that will make a difference. The region is in turmoil. It is no longer the regime versus the rebels. The rebels are split into good rebels and bad rebels. Chemical weapons have clearly been used, although it is not clear by whom. The concern now, and it may well be the reason why the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary set out the option to take action without consulting the House, is that those chemicals stocks may fall to the rebels. I would be grateful if the Minister, in his winding-up speech, could confirm his assessment of the risk set out by the Intelligence and Security Committee the other day and what steps he will be taking if there is a threat that they may fall into the wrong hands.

On the military side, where do we go from here? I for one do not think that throwing a few cases of rifles into the rebels’ hands will make a difference. As many have pointed out, the Saudis and Qataris are already supplying a large number of weapons. If we supply more sophisticated weapons, that will produce a response from Russia, which has pledged to match like for like. However—this is important—it might be the only way we can bring Assad to the negotiating table, so to that extent I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).

Andrew Bridgen: My hon. Friend is making his points with great passion. I recently saw an interview with a very reasonable gentleman who lives with his family in Damascus. He made the point that although he was no fan of Assad, if the rebels win, his wife will probably have to take the veil and his daughters will not longer be able to go to school. He felt that his country would go back 100 years. What is my hon. Friend’s view of that?