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House of Commons
Monday 6 February 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Child Detention (UK Ports)
The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): We always need to hold some families at the border, either until the next available return flight or until further inquiries are made, or, in the case of unaccompanied children, until alternative accommodation is arranged. Not to do so would weaken border security, and would not meet our duty of care to keep children safe.
Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for his reply and warmly welcome the Government’s efforts to end the detention of children in immigration removal centres such as Dungavel in Scotland. As he has said, some detention of children at ports and airports is necessary, and the average period of detention for children is currently about 10 hours. What is the Home Office doing to minimise the amount of time that children are detained for, and thus minimise the distress caused to the children involved?
Damian Green: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for our general approach of ending the detention of children for immigration purposes. She asked specifically about ports, and we have introduced tighter governance, which means that a greater level of authorisation is now required for the detention of a family in a removal centre or when detaining them for more than 25 hours or overnight. Family cases at ports of entry are specifically prioritised and dealt with as quickly as possible in order to minimise the time that families are held in short-term holding facilities.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Can the Minister confirm that detailed statistics on children at ports of entry are now being kept? Will he tell us what type of accommodation they are required to be detained in, and whether the Government have any specific plans to reduce the number of children being detained in that way?
Damian Green: As I have already explained, we detain children largely for their own protection. In practical terms, if an unaccompanied child arrives at Heathrow in the early hours of the morning, keeping them in the room at Heathrow that is set aside for them is a lot more sensible than allowing them to roam the streets of London. I hope that my right hon. Friend will recognise that the accommodation in which they are kept is being improved, and that they are kept there for the minimum amount of time that we need before moving them on to somewhere where they can be safe.
Human Trafficking (Child Victims)
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The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): The Government’s new missing children and adults strategy provides a core framework for local areas to put in place better arrangements to prevent children and adults from going missing. The strategy highlights examples of good practice that have reduced the number of missing trafficked children, and we are working to spread that good practice.
Mrs Hodgson: Does the Minister agree with ECPAT UK that the provision of an appointed guardian would ensure that child victims of trafficking would receive all the support that they needed, and that that would vastly reduce the number of children who are going missing? If he does agree with that, why are the Government still refusing to legislate on guardianship, despite such legislation having been called for in an EU directive and by many child welfare groups?
Damian Green: I do not think that making statutory provision for adding a guardian is necessary, because every looked-after child is already allocated a social worker and an independent reviewing officer, and is provided with access to an advocate. Those children are therefore already given a considerable amount of support. Also, in factual terms, the number of such children who are going missing, while still too high, is considerably lower than it was a few years ago. Local authorities are therefore getting to grips with that underlying problem as well.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I haven’t the foggiest idea how the Minister can say that, because local authorities do not identify trafficked children. I have the greatest respect for what he is doing in regard to trafficked children, but this is none the less the biggest hole in the Government’s strategy. Child victims of human trafficking are looked after less well than adult victims. That cannot be right, and it has to be changed.
Damian Green: Let me explain to my hon. Friend how I arrived at those figures. They are not my figures; they are figures from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, a body that is specifically involved in the protection of children. It said that, in 2007, 55% of such children went missing from care. That was an appalling figure, but it has most recently come down to 18%. I agree with my hon. Friend that that is still far too high, but he can see that local authorities are making considerable progress. In that respect, I particularly commend Hillingdon council, which is one of the most experienced councils in this regard, as it covers Heathrow. In 2009, 12% of unaccompanied children were going missing from its care; it has now reduced that number to 4%.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Tackling human trafficking undoubtedly requires strong international organisations and, in some cases, an international power of arrest to apprehend these criminals. Will the Minister answer a very simple question? Will he guarantee that he, unlike many of his party’s Back-Bench Members who have called for it, will not withdraw from the European arrest warrant—yes or no?
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Damian Green: I commend the hon. Gentleman’s ingenuity in putting that question. As he will recognise, the vast majority of trafficking comes from outside the European Union, so his question, though ingenious, is not strictly relevant.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): What specific support can be given to local authorities with children’s services responsibilities that have major ports, such as Gatwick airport in West Sussex, within their boundaries, particularly with respect to supporting 16 to 18-year-olds who are so often those who go missing?
Damian Green: My hon. Friend makes a good point in that local authorities that have major ports within them tend, obviously, to face bigger problems with trafficked children but also tend to develop greater expertise as well. That is why bodies like CEOP and the United Kingdom Border Agency do their best to spread best practice around the country so that every local authority can know that it is performing as well as possible in this important area—
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that if we are to prevent children from being trafficked within the UK, local agencies and parents need to be more aware of the early symptoms of sexual grooming, including repeated missing episodes? What more can he do to raise such awareness?
Damian Green: I agree completely, and I know the hon. Lady rightly takes a great interest in this area. As I say, it is a question of spreading best practice around all the agencies—not just local authorities but the police as well. We try hard to ensure that all police forces are much more aware of the specific symptoms of these types of problem so that they can treat anyone affected in the appropriate way.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): A report by Detica and the Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance estimates that cybercrime could cost the UK as much as £27 billion a year. The Government published their cyber-security strategy in November, which sets out how we intend to tackle this threat.
James Morris: Tackling cybercrime requires a co-ordinated response across government, including liaison with the business community. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we get that level of cross-government co-ordination, and what is he doing to ensure that we get business involved in coming up with some of the solutions we need to tackle that growing problem?
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James Brokenshire: I agree with my hon. Friend that this issue touches all sectors, whether it be Government, individuals, charities or the voluntary sector as well as business. We are working closely across government, including with the Office of Cyber-Security and Information Assurance, which co-ordinates the national programme. We said in the cyber-security strategy that we would create a forum, bringing together industry, law enforcement and Government. That is important, as we recognise that this is a broad and wide-ranging challenge. We shall take this forward in tandem with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Jessica Lee: Having recently dealt with an alleged victim of cyber-stalking in my Erewash constituency, I certainly welcome the specialist cybercrime units within the National Crime Agency, but does my hon. Friend agree that we must continue to work with Governments overseas to ensure that we continue to contain this threat?
James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend highlights a powerful and important point about the individual impact of these crimes. Although our legislation covers harassment—whether it happens on or offline—there is an international perspective to this challenge, with internet service providers potentially hosting material from overseas. We have recently been involved with a consultation on stalking, which closed yesterday, that asked for views on how to protect the victims of online stalking more effectively. We are now reviewing the submissions we have received; we will respond and publish the details of our response in due course.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I am sure the Minister will agree that cybercrime is quintessentially a transnational crime. Although his colleague the Minister for Immigration seems to think that the Lithuanian, Slovakian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Polish traffickers in British prisons are not from the European Union, will he inform the House what the Government’s position is on the European arrest warrant? This issue has been widely covered in the press. We brought Hussain Osman back from Rome after 7/7—
Mr Speaker: Order. It is always difficult to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s flow, but I am sure he is asking this question with specific reference to its potential to address the issue of cybercrime.
James Brokenshire: I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we do recognise the international perspective in respect of online criminality. That is why, unlike the previous Government, we ratified the Budapest convention—the Council of Europe convention on precisely this issue—to ensure that there is better co-ordination and greater focus on legislation relating to online crime. We drew attention to that approach at the London conference, and we continue to highlight this message.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Minister makes the point that cybercrime and cyber-attacks will be dealt with by more than one Department. What is the overlap between the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence and how will the costs be shared between them?
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James Brokenshire: As my hon. Friend will be aware, this Government’s approach to cyber-security has included a commitment of £650 million to our cyber-security programme. We in the Home Office are focusing on the criminality aspects, for which £63 million has been identified. We also work with our colleagues across Government, including in the MOD, and the Cabinet Office co-ordinates the overall approach. There is a joined-up approach across Government, therefore, because we recognise that this issue must be addressed in that way.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): Alcohol should no longer be the driver of crime and disorder that it has been over the past decade. That is why we have legislated to give the police and local communities more powers to tackle late-night drinking problems and to crack down on those selling alcohol to children. We will set out further actions in our forthcoming alcohol strategy.
Chris Evans: The Gwent police “Town Safe” scheme has reduced violent alcohol-induced crime by 27% in the past year. Will the Minister meet me and a delegation from Gwent police to discuss how we might roll this scheme out?
James Brokenshire: I congratulate local initiatives and partnerships that make a significant difference in their communities. I remember travelling to Newquay to see a very effective partnership scheme addressing these problems in the south-west. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s community on taking the step he mentions, and I am certainly willing to consider a request to meet representatives of the scheme to hear more about it.
Paul Maynard: I welcome the launch of the public consultation on the regulation of late-night drinking venues. What powers does the Minister intend to place in the hands of my constituents so that they can minimise the disruption and harm caused by so much late-night drinking in town centres such as Blackpool’s?
My hon. Friend highlights a problem that we have identified: we must ensure that local communities have a proper say on licensing matters. That is why we have legislated to strengthen the powers of councils to clamp down on late-night drinking and sales after midnight, if they so choose. That is also why we are introducing the late-night levy to provide some element of cost reimbursement for dealing with the problems associated with late-night drinking. Equally importantly, on an individual basis we must ensure that
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people can make representations on licensing. These matters must not be subject to the over-restrictive requirements adopted by the previous Government.
Andrew Gwynne: Is the Minister aware of the Alcohol Health Alliance research suggesting that the Government’s proposed ban on the sale of alcohol at below the cost of duty plus VAT will increase the price of only one in every 4,000 drinks sold? What reduction in alcohol-related crime does the Minister expect to follow on from that?
James Brokenshire: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman seeks to criticise the fact that the Government have recognised that the availability of cheap alcohol is a significant issue that needs addressing, because the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) certainly suggested that the previous Government did not do that. He said:
“I regret not doing more to tackle the problems caused by binge drinking”.
James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend highlights the very relevant issue of the connection between alcohol and domestic violence and abuse in the home. Studies have drawn attention to that, which is why we are seeking to take the action that we have been taking, through controls on licensing and addressing the issue of pricing. We will be providing further details on the Government’s alcohol strategy shortly.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): As the Minister knows, alcohol-related crime costs £7.3 billion a year. Four years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended that a minimum price for alcohol be introduced. The Scottish Government have accepted that, but neither the previous Government nor this one have done so. Is it not time that we told the big supermarkets that the level of cheap alcohol in supermarkets is actually fuelling this crime?
James Brokenshire: I certainly recognise the problems linked to alcohol-fuelled crime; there were about 900,000 violent crimes linked to alcohol in 2010-11. I also know that this issue has been flagged up before by the right hon. Gentleman in debate and by the work of his Committee. The Government are committed to tackling the harms of alcohol, and we recognise that the availability of cheap alcohol is a significant issue that needs addressing. He will recognise that some complex issues are involved in terms of regulation and other aspects. We are continuing to examine this matter carefully and closely, recognising that price is a relevant and important factor in dealing with this problem.
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD):
In an earlier answer the Minister referred to the success of the Newquay partnership in tackling alcohol-related disorder. That partnership would be hugely more successful
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if there were a specific offence of urinating in the street. Will the Government consider the introduction of that offence?
James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend has highlighted an issue of wanton antisocial behaviour, and I was struck by how the police are having to deal with some antisocial problems in his community. There are offences on the statute book that could be used to deal with the problem that he has identified, but if he is willing to write to me, I will certainly look into this matter in further detail.
Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I bring the Minister back to the issue of minimum pricing for alcohol? In Merseyside, the city region’s poverty and life chances commission has advocated a minimum price per unit of alcohol. Is that strategy, which is to cover six boroughs, one that he supports?
James Brokenshire: The Government believe that alcohol pricing and taxation are matters best handled at a national level, but where there are suitable local solutions we will welcome them. A number of challenges are involved in delivering local pricing policies, and we will work with local authorities and the trade to consider the legal and practical implications of this issue.
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): After a thorough review of drugs policy, the coalition Government launched their new drug strategy in December 2010. The Misuse of Drugs Act provides a strong legislative framework, but we have further strengthened it through the introduction of temporary orders to allow us quickly to ban so-called “legal highs” as soon as they are developed and become dangerous. We continually consider evidence and advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on the control of emerging drugs.
Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the Home Secretary’s personal interest in this issue. Many people outside Parliament, and from all parts of Parliament, still believe that our drugs laws are not working nearly as well as they should. Will she consider the view taken by my party’s conference last year, which was that an independent panel should be tasked with reviewing the Misuse of Drugs Act and reporting back to her, and there should be a subsequent debate in Parliament?
Mrs May: I thank my right hon. colleague for his interest in this issue. As he knows, we have already, as a coalition Government, put a considerable amount of work into our new drug strategy, and I suggest to him that we need to see how that strategy, once it is fully rolled out, is having an impact. Other measures that the Government are taking will also have an impact, such as the introduction of the National Crime Agency, which will strengthen our ability to deal with the organised criminal gangs that bring in the drugs that end up causing so much damage to people on our streets.
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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The Home Office has undertaken a study into the use of khat, and into whether to make it illegal or to retain its current status. Will the Secretary of State say what progress has been made on the consultations within the community, and if and when there are to be any proposals from her Department?
Mrs May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. The question of khat has caused concern to a number of people for some considerable time. I have asked the ACMD to consider the use of khat. It will conduct a study and expects to be able to report back to me and the Home Office later this year.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): Crime remains too high. That is why we are reforming the police, so that they are free from paperwork and free to fight crime. We have also set up the national crime mapping website, police.uk, which now provides the public with street-level information about crime and antisocial behaviour on a monthly basis, allowing them to access crime and policing information in a way that is helpful to them.
Mrs May: There is no simple link between the number of police officers and the level of crime. We can see that evidenced in the UK and elsewhere, with both police officer numbers and crime falling in a number of areas. I suggest to the hon. Lady that she might talk to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, her right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who last year said exactly this:
“We accept that there is no simple relationship between numbers of police officers and levels of crime.”
Simon Danczuk: Crime in Rochdale is now higher than the national average on nearly every indicator. Will the Home Secretary explain to my constituents how cutting 16,000 police officers will help to reduce that difference?
Mrs May: I have just responded to the point about the relationship between numbers of police officers and levels of crime. I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency comes under the Greater Manchester police force, and that force has made some transformations in how it copes with the budget cuts it has to deal with, with the result that 348 police officers have been released from support areas so that those individuals can be out in front-line roles. That is what it is about. It is about the deployment of officers, not the numbers.
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Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In the town of Kettering, from 2010 to 2011 overall crime has fallen by 4%, robbery by 11%, theft from motor vehicles by 20% and residential burglaries by 40%. Will the Home Secretary join me in welcoming those figures?
Mrs May: I do indeed welcome those figures, and I thank my hon. Friend for bringing them to the attention of the House. I also commend the local police and other local agencies that have been involved in ensuring that such a fall in crime can take place in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State aware that in Harlow crime has also fallen since 2010, with 87 fewer burglaries and 63 fewer cases of criminal damage, among many other figures? Does that not show that community-led policing with limited resources makes a difference? Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to Essex police?
Mrs May: I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Essex police, and to their work in his constituency and others covered by that force. We do indeed see the value of community-led policing, and that is why chief constables up and down the country are making every effort to ensure that they can get police officers out from back-office posts and on to the front line, where people want to see them.
Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The latest crime figures show that personal crimes of robbery, burglary and theft have gone up by 11% in the past year—the largest increase in more than a decade. Contrary to what the Home Secretary has just said, the independent inspectorate of policing has said that a 10% cut in police numbers will lead to a 3% increase in property crime. Quite frankly, the Home Secretary should be cutting crime, not police officers. Will she urgently revisit plans to cut 16,000 police from our streets?
Mr Speaker: Order. May I just explain that the deal for an Opposition Front Bencher of the hon. Gentleman’s important but middling rank is one question a month—not one question and multiple heckles? I know he is trying to reinvent the deal but the deal is as I have just described it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was going to say to the shadow Immigration Minister that he does, indeed, get excited very often about things that he need not get excited about. There is no simple and direct link between the number of officers and the level of crime. We see
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that in the UK and across the world. What Opposition Front Benchers need to focus on is the deployment of officers. They need to ask themselves why under the previous Labour Government so many officers were stuck in back-office posts in areas such as human resources instead of being out on the front line fighting crime.
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The police do one of the most important jobs in this country with great courage and commitment. As the service faces challenges, we will do all we can to reduce bureaucracy, promote professionalism and make it easier for officers to do their job.
“Put more police on the streets and they’ll catch more criminals. It’s not rocket science is it?”
So said the Minister’s party’s 2005 manifesto. We have morale at rock bottom, police numbers are to be cut by 16,000 and personal crime is up 11%. When exactly did his party become so weak on law and order?
Nick Herbert: What hon. Members still do not seem to understand is the importance of deployment and what officers are doing. According to the latest figures from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, the proportion of the policing work force who are on the front line is increasing.
“I can never recall a time when officers were so angry. We have been betrayed by a morally redundant Government.”
Given that that quote comes from 2008, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Police Federation has long been worried about police morale and that the best way of improving police morale is to cut the paperwork and bureaucracy and get them out on the streets doing something that they actually joined the police force to do?
Nick Herbert: I strongly agree. Those of us who have experienced Police Federation conferences over the years know that they are always lively and robust events. The Labour party knows that too. I note that the chairman of the Police Federation, Paul McKeever, said last year:
“Reading some of their press materials one would be forgiven for thinking that if Labour were in power they would in fact be increasing the police budget”,
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op):
As we are listening to our chief constables, let us hear what they have been saying this year about the cuts. The chief constable of Dyfed Powys says that cuts to police budgets mean they will no longer be able to conduct cold case reviews such as the one that caught serial
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killer John William Cooper, and Gloucestershire’s chief constable says his force is on a cliff edge. What effect does the Minister think that will have on police morale?
Nick Herbert: The Opposition need to be plain with police officers and staff about the importance of dealing with the deficit and the fact that they too are committed to reducing police spending. They have admitted that they wish to reduce spending by more than £1 billion, and now we know that they wish to freeze pay as well. They cannot complain about these cuts and remain committed to the cuts themselves.
Police Funding Settlement
Owen Smith: I thank the Minister for that concise and to-the-point answer. He will know that the net effect of the spending cuts in Wales is a reduction of 750 in the number of officers on the front line. What guarantees can he offer the people of Wales that that reduction will not be attended by a corresponding increase in crime in Wales?
Nick Herbert: I know from talking with chief constables in Wales that they are absolutely committed to continuing to reduce crime. The important point is that, according to the latest figures, recorded crime in Wales continued to fall. It is very important that police forces focus on ensuring that the available resource is deployed effectively and that they prioritise the front line and drive out cost in those back-office functions. Forces up and down the country are showing that that can be done.
Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Does the Minister not think that it is time to review the damping mechanism in the settlement, which deprives forces such as the Derbyshire constabulary of large amounts of funding each year?
Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise that issue in the police funding debate on Wednesday. I know that that is a constant concern of forces that lose out from damping and that they want to move towards the formula. We are committed to doing that and will look at these issues carefully for the next years of the spending settlement. However, an equal number of forces feel that they would lose out as a result, so it is a very difficult issue.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):
The Government have now admitted that they got police funding for London wrong with their U-turn on Metropolitan police funding and a £90 million bung for Boris’s re-election campaign, yet the Met is not the only force facing pressures from the Olympics and other issues. Will the Minister now reverse the cuts to other forces, such as West Midlands, Greater Manchester,
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Humberside and Merseyside police, all of which are cutting the number of officers? Cut crime, not the police.
Nick Herbert: It is hardly likely that the coalition Government would be acting in the way the hon. Lady suggests. Of course, in London we have recognised the special position of the Olympics and the royal jubilee through a one-off additional payment, which we can discuss further on Wednesday. I note that once again Opposition Front Benchers are pretending that they want to increase spending on police forces, but they have in fact admitted that they would cut police spending by over £1 billion a year and introduce additional cuts that would match our own.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): The Government take the growing problem of metal theft very seriously. Last week I announced legislative measures to the House that will significantly raise the penalties for rogue dealers and ban cash payments for scrap metal. These measures are part of a coherent package to tackle metal theft. We are strengthening the law, cracking down on rogue dealers and targeting the criminals who supply them, including through the funding of a £5 million national metal theft taskforce.
Jason McCartney: Last month I visited Schofield scrap metal merchants in Linthwaite in my constituency and heard that it, too, has been the victim of metal theft. What can my right hon. Friend say to reassure reputable scrap metal merchants that it will be the criminals who are punished, not the hard-working family businesses that play a key role in our economy?
Mrs May: Indeed, reputable scrap metal dealers play a role in our economy, and everything we are doing is intended to bear down on the rogue scrap metal dealers who receive stolen goods rather than on reputable dealers. We are working with the British Metals Recycling Association and other industry representatives to ensure that the interests of the law-abiding businesses are reflected in the work we are doing.
Mrs May: We are looking at the whole issue of strengthening police enforcement, and one of the things we are doing is undertaking a number of exercises—an example has been seen in the north-east in recent weeks—where the police have strengthened their enforcement and gone into scrap metal dealers where they believe rogue dealing is taking place.
Administrative Burdens (Police)
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Mr Baron: Published reports confirm that under the previous Government only 11% of police officers were visible and/or available to the public at any one time. May I therefore urge my right hon. Friend to continue hacking away at the swathes of bureaucratic paperwork and release more officers for the front line?
Nick Herbert: We will do so, and I agree with my hon. Friend. We know from the inspectorate’s report that the level of availability and visibility of officers in the poorest performing forces was half that of the best. So there is room for improvement, even as resources decline, if the front line is prioritised, and the reductions in bureaucracy that we have announced will save 1,500 hours of officer time, showing how important the agenda is.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Minister would get support for proper cutbacks in unnecessary bureaucracy, but does he accept that some things that are described as bureaucracy are necessary protections for the public and, importantly, for serving police officers?
We cannot defend the existing system on the basis that bureaucracy is important. Over recent years, there has been a huge growth in unnecessary red tape and box ticking as a consequence of the top-down direction of policing under the previous Government. We need accountable policing, but we need also to ensure that police officers are free to do the job and are trusted as professionals to exercise their judgment. That is the agenda we are pursuing.
The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): Police forces deal with trafficking as part of core business. Every one of the UK’s 55 police forces has had an investigator trained in running human trafficking operations, and human trafficking is now part of mandatory training for all new police officers.
Fiona Mactaggart: Does the Minister accept that targeted police operations such as Golf and Pentameter led to some 1,000 arrests under the previous Government? His human trafficking strategy has no targets for police operations, apart from reporting that the National Crime Agency will lead to better co-ordination. Does that mean we will have to wait until 2013 and after the Olympics for effective police action against trafficking?
No. Moving on from only targeted operations to making anti-trafficking measures part of core police business was absolutely right and something I imagine the hon. Lady’s party would have wanted to do if it had stayed in office. She will be aware, I am sure,
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of the importance of the “Blue Blindfold” awareness-raising campaign, which has now been spread to all police forces, and “Stop the Traffik” cards have been issued to 10,000 front-line neighbourhood police officers. That kind of practical action will make anti-trafficking measures by the police much more effective and widespread.
Non-emergency Telephone Number
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The 101 non-emergency police number is now available in every force area in England and Wales, making it far easier for the public to contact their local police.
Karl McCartney: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and of course we all welcome this reform and the opportunity for front-line officers to prioritise and concentrate on emergencies, rather than on less important incidents. Does he agree that other reforms, such as the democratisation of our police forces with police and crime commissioners, may need to go further to limit the policy-driven Association of Chief Police Officers, which is unelected, undemocratic and, in some cases, does not provide the leadership needed by officers on the front line?
Nick Herbert: We are committed to setting up a professional body for policing and to ensuring proper accountability in policing. The non-emergency number is just part of our reforms to ensure that the public have better access to the police and can hold them to account, and the link between the police and the public will be strengthened.
Mark Menzies: Last year Lancashire police announced the closure of Lytham police station in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that the 101 number will not only make it easier for my constituents to get hold of the police, but free up police resources in order to get them on the front line serving my constituents?
Nick Herbert: Yes, I agree. It is important that we make available through new technology and better systems different ways of getting hold of the police. Another example is our street-level crime mapping service, to which the Home Secretary referred. It has received more than 450 million hits, or about 45 million visits, since it was launched, and it gives the public information about their local policing teams and how to contact them.
Serious and Organised Crime
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): We are establishing the National Crime Agency to spearhead our response to serious, complex and organised crime. The director general of the NCA, Keith Bristow, is driving that work. Recent progress includes the establishment of a new organised crime co-ordination centre. We have also published the first genuinely cross-governmental strategy to tackle organised crime.
Mr Wilson: I congratulate Superintendent Stuart Greenfield and his team in Reading on their recent drugs bust in Orts road, which resulted in a drugs gang with a yearly turnover of £4 million being jailed for a total of 34 years. Will my hon. Friend join me in those congratulations? Does he agree that with focus, determination and resources directed at the front line, it is possible to tackle serious and organised crime and to clear up the fear in our local communities?
James Brokenshire: I am happy to congratulate the police on that work in Reading. My hon. Friend has highlighted the fact that serious and organised crime touches communities directly. The Government have recognised that in the organised crime strategy. Our focus on ensuring that organised crime is given a much higher priority has a significant effect on the crime that we see on our streets. Our work through the National Crime Agency will make an important difference and strengthen the response further.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): Does the Minister expect the switch from the Serious Organised Crime Agency to the National Crime Agency to result in an increase in the level of reclaimed criminal assets? What proportion of those proceeds of crime will he demand is returned to the communities that are most directly affected by crime?
James Brokenshire: The right hon. Gentleman highlights an important point on the proceeds of crime, about which I feel strongly as a Minister. We are already driving changes to ensure that there is a focus on this matter in policing. The Serious Organised Crime Agency already has responsibility for it. I am pleased to tell him that since we got rid of the previous Government’s target-driven approach, the performance has improved.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): Today marks the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen’s accession to the throne. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in sending Her Majesty our best wishes and congratulations. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] The diamond jubilee celebrations in June will be part of what promises to be an exciting year. They will be followed closely by the Olympic and Paralympic games. With less than six months to go until the Olympics, the Government remain committed to delivering a safe and secure games so that the whole country can celebrate and enjoy all these events.
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Kevin Brennan: As the son of someone who would have regarded himself as an Irish republican, may I associate myself with the Home Secretary’s remarks about Her Majesty the Queen’s remarkable achievements and long reign?
Earlier, the Home Secretary spoke about metal theft and the action that the Government are taking. All Members across the House have had examples of such theft in their constituencies. Why will she not support an amendment tonight in the House of Lords that would give police the authority to search and investigate all premises owned and operated by scrap metal dealers suspected of dealing in stolen property, as well as the power to close them down when criminally obtained metals are discovered?
Mrs May: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have announced a number of measures that we will take that will have a significant impact on metal theft. We are looking at further measures that might be needed. The most immediate impact will come not only from the increased fines, but from the removal of the ability to make cash payments for scrap metal.
The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that £350 million a year will be saved through the freeze on police pay. I am also happy to confirm that the shadow Home Secretary endorsed that policy 10 days ago. The Opposition are therefore effectively committed to the same savings programme as the Government.
Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): May I join the Home Secretary not only in congratulating, but in paying our tributes and respects to, Her Majesty the Queen on the 60th anniversary of her accession? The Home Secretary has talked a lot today about the deployment of police and about increasing the number of police officers on the front line. Will she tell the House what has happened to the number of police officers in front-line jobs since the general election?
Mrs May: The shadow Home Secretary will know full well that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is making it clear that the proportion of officers on the front line has increased and will continue to increase. The question that she has to ask herself, given that she and her colleagues are now supporting the spending cuts that the Government have been putting through, is why they will not be clear to police officers and members of the public about the impact it will have.
Yvette Cooper: The Home Secretary has ducked the question. I do not know whether she knows the answer. She will know that we are clear that there should be a 12% reduction in the policing budget, which would protect the number of police officers, not her 20% cut, which will mean 16,000 police officers being lost.
The Home Secretary needs to answer the question about the front line. I asked her about the number, not the proportion. The same HMIC report that she has been given includes data showing that the number of police officers in front-line jobs was cut by 4,000 in one
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year alone, following the general election. So will she now admit that her claims that she is protecting the front line are rubbish, and will she give the public a straight answer about protecting the police?
Mrs May: The right hon. Lady said that the Opposition supported a 12% cut in police budgets. They also support the pay freeze and the savings available through the outcome of the police arbitration tribunal. They said that we should accept the recommendations on those matters. The shadow policing Minister has also indicated that a significant sum of money should be taken out of overtime and shift patterns. That all adds up to a commitment by Her Majesty’s Opposition to a 20% cut in police funding—the same position as the Government. Now let us get on with talking about things like deployment rather than about the right hon. Lady’s failure to be clear with people about her position on supporting police cuts.
T6.  Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): The Minister for Immigration will be pleased to know that UK Border Agency enforcement officers were active in my constituency shortly before Christmas, removing an illegal worker from one of our city centre restaurants and sending a clear message to business owners across Hampshire. I warmly welcome the Minister’s speech last week, especially his continued determination to raise the tone of the immigration debate. What new enforcement measures is the UKBA taking to stop illegal working?
The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for revealing how effective UKBA enforcement is in his constituency and elsewhere. Along with measures to bring down immigration and ensure that those who come to this country can contribute to it, enforcement against those here illegally continues to be important. I am happy to say that over the past year, the UKBA has conducted nearly 6,500 illegal working enforcement visits, making more than 4,000 arrests and serving more than 1,700 penalty notices to employers of illegal labour. Such tough action will send out the message that Britain is no longer a soft touch for illegal immigration.
T2.  Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): The Secretary of State has already explained what an exciting summer this is going to be for Britain. Can she reassure us that, given the cuts in the staffing of the UKBA, we will not see a repeat of the problems that took place last summer?
Damian Green: I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that, as we said at the time, the initial look at the pilot measures taken over the summer actually showed that the enforcement that was going on was more effective for being more targeted. As she knows, there were clearly difficulties, which are being looked at by the chief inspector. When his report comes in, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will report back to the House on what he has found.
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Nick Herbert: I can tell my hon. Friend that the Police Federation urged us to accept the recommendations of the police arbitration tribunal, and we did so. The official Opposition also urged us to do so. Once again, it is clear that although the Labour party campaigns against cuts, it supported another reduction in police spending without admitting it to police officers.
Nick Herbert: That is set out in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. Police and crime commissioners will replace police authorities. They will be there to hold chief constables to account. Control and direction will remain with chief constables. It is notable that a number of Labour party figures, including some who remain Members of the House, have expressed interest in standing as police and crime commissioners despite the principled opposition to them by the Labour party.
T8.  Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The internet can be a great tool for broadening horizons, but as the campaign led by the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) shows, it can also pose great dangers, especially for children. Tomorrow is safer internet day. What are the Government doing to ensure that children are kept safe online?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): My hon. Friend rightly highlights safer internet day, which is an important opportunity to show what steps can be taken to prevent harm online. This year’s safer internet day is on the theme of connecting generations and highlighting the role of parents. It is also an opportunity for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre to launch new resources for parents. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety is also launching new standardised and simple online safety guidance for use by all internet service providers.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Last year, the Police Federation surveyed all four police authorities in Wales on the state of morale and found that 99% of its members were suffering from low morale. Is the Minister or the Secretary of State as shocked as I am that 1% were not suffering low morale under this Government’s policies?
Nick Herbert: We have already established that the Police Federation has expressed concern about policy and morale in previous years. It often does so. Police officers and staff know that difficult decisions must be taken to reduce the deficit. They are also increasingly aware that the Labour party would take exactly the same position on pay and funding.
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Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Is the Home Secretary aware that organisations using SmartWater have seen a huge reduction in the amount of metal theft? Does she agree that that kind of British forensic technology is essential not only to reduce the amount of metal theft, but to provide the police with the evidence they need to bring criminals to justice?
Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution—he makes an extremely important and valid point. We are working with industry and others to see whether we can find other ways in which technology can help us to reduce metal theft by identifying metal and making it harder for the criminals.
Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): Today’s report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs on the roots of violent radicalisation highlights the twin threats from Islamist fundamentalism and the far right. Much of the most successful work has been done by the Hope Not Hate campaign, which empowers communities —the moderate majority—to isolate those extremists. Such community action is vital. Does the Home Secretary therefore share my concern at the delay in the publication of the integration strategy, for which we have been waiting for 11 months?
James Brokenshire: The right hon. Lady rightly highlights that communities play an essential role. The Government have recognised that extreme right-wing threats as well as Islamist-related threats need to be balanced equally within the Prevent strategy, which was why we took the decision on the change of emphasis. She mentions work on broader integration. Colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government will produce their strategy in that regard shortly.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): The police nationally have instructed local inspectors not to comply with routine requests from local authorities for checks on prospective tenants, which are an important tool in the battle against antisocial behaviour. Will my hon. Friend meet the Information Commissioner to see whether a solution to that problem can be found?
James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend highlights responsible tenancies. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government is doing further work on that to ensure that those who commit antisocial behaviour are not the beneficiaries of social housing in inappropriate circumstances. I note my hon. Friend’s comments and will draw them to the attention of my right hon. Friend.
Mrs May: As we have made absolutely clear, there is no simple relationship between police numbers and the level of crime. The hon. Gentleman only has to look not only at UK examples, but across the world to see examples in which police numbers have gone up and crime has gone up, or police numbers have gone down and crime has gone down. There is no simple relationship.
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Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): My constituent, Eleyda Rodrigues Torres, who is from Cuba and has been married for several years to an Englishman, has indefinite leave to remain in the UK. She made an application for a residence card last July, but catastrophic failures at the Border and Immigration Agency mean that 13 of her primary documents have been lost, including her passport, NHS letters, bank statements, with all the implications for fraud—
Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): Today is international day of zero tolerance against female genital mutilation. What assessment has the Home Secretary made of progress against this violent and dreadful crime?
Mrs May: Sadly, we see too many examples of this terrible crime continuing to take place. Most people would be shocked to know how many young girls in the UK are subjected to female genital mutilation. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that we educate young girls about the prospect of being taken abroad and having this done to them, but we also need to ensure that we educate others so that they do not wish to do this terrible act.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The Government are making good progress in reforming the immigration system. Perhaps that is evidenced by the fact that today the Opposition spokesperson on immigration has had something to say on absolutely everything except immigration. Will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary keep under review the case for reforming intra-company transfers, given the level of graduate and youth unemployment?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the attitude that is being taken by the Opposition. It is difficult to hear the shadow Minister say anything about immigration. My hon. Friend will also know that we are looking at all aspects of our immigration policy and
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keep them under review as we continue to move towards our commitment to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands.
Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): Last week, North Yorkshire police announced a future Harrogate town centre co-location with Harrogate borough council to save costs. Is the Minister pleased to see such partnership initiatives and such cross-party support for saving money?
Nick Herbert: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that example. It is a good one that shows that police forces can collaborate not just with each other, as they are doing increasingly, but also with other services to provide a better service and to save money.
Mrs May: I am happy to give an update. We are, of course, completely changing the way in which the Criminal Records Bureau, and the previous Independent Safeguarding Agency, operate. We are creating a new bureau that will ensure that those who need to be checked will be checked and, unlike under the previous Government, many people who are volunteers helping in their community will not have their records checked.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am delighted that the Government, the police and the Opposition have all accepted the police arbitration panel’s recommendations on the first Winsor report. My right hon. Friend knows how important it is for the morale of police in forces such as the Gloucester constabulary to see agreement reached on the second Winsor report. Does she see this as an encouraging precedent?
Mrs May: We have yet to receive Tom Winsor’s second report on police pay, terms and conditions, but I would say that the process that we followed on the first report, which showed the importance of giving all parties the opportunity to make their contribution on the decision that was finally made, is one that we would expect to follow in future.
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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Syria. The whole House will be appalled by the bloodshed and repression in Syria, which continues at this very moment. Over the last 11 months, more than 6,000 people have been killed. The Syrian regime has deployed snipers, tanks, artillery and mortars against civilian protestors and population centres, particularly in the cities of Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa. Thousands of Syrians have endured imprisonment, torture and sexual violence, including instances of the alleged rape of children, and the humanitarian position is deteriorating. It is an utterly unacceptable situation that demands a united international response.
Last Tuesday I attended the UN Security Council debate in New York, along with Secretary Clinton, the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and other Ministers. We all spoke in strong support of a draft UN Security Council resolution proposed by the Kingdom of Morocco on behalf of the Arab League. The resolution called for the implementation of the Arab League plan to stop all violence in Syria from all sides and to begin a political transition.
There was nothing in this draft resolution that could not be supported by any country seeking a peaceful end to the tragedy unfolding in Syria. It demanded an end to all violence, called for a Syrian-led political process to allow the Syrians to determine their future, and set out a path to a national unity Government and internationally supervised elections. It did not call for military intervention, and could not have been used to authorise any such action under any circumstances. It did not impose sanctions. It proposed putting the weight and authority of the United Nations Security Council behind a plan to achieve a lasting and sustainable peace in Syria.
As I said at the Security Council, it was the Arab League’s plan, not one imposed by western nations. It was co-sponsored by nations including Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Oman. Their leadership, and their strong understanding of their region, deserve our support. I pay particular tribute to the secretary-general of the Arab League and to the Prime Minister of Qatar, who travelled to New York to brief the Council and played a vital role in the extensive negotiations that followed.
On Saturday the resolution was put to the vote. Thirteen of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council voted in favour. Two did not: Russia and China both exercised their veto, despite extensive efforts to amend the draft resolution to address Russia’s specific concerns, and in the face of repeated appeals from Arab nations. Instead they chose to side with the Syrian regime and, implicitly, to leave the door open to further abuses. They did so while President Assad’s tanks were encircling Homs and shells were pounding the homes of Syrian civilians, killing up to 200 people, and on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama.
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vetoed reasonable and necessary action by the United Nations Security Council. Such vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people. In deploying them, China and Russia have let down the Arab League, increased the likelihood of what they wish to avoid in Syria—civil war—and placed themselves on the wrong side of Arab and international opinion.
By contrast, I thank the other members of the Security Council for the principled stand that they took, particularly the non-permanent members: Morocco, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Germany, Guatemala, India, Pakistan, Portugal, South Africa and Togo, all of which voted in favour of the resolution. Pakistan’s representative to the council spoke for all of us when he said:
“This resolution should not die; by being active and engaged, we should give hope to those who are expecting it from us”.
The Syrian regime might have drawn comfort from events at the UN Security Council, but we will do everything we can to make sure that that comfort is short-lived. It is a doomed regime as well as a murdering one. There is no way for it to recover its credibility, internationally or with its own people.
The UN Security Council’s failure to agree a resolution does not signal the end of our efforts to end the violence in Syria. I will set out how we will now proceed. First, we will continue our strong support for the Arab League. Earlier this afternoon I spoke to the secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil El Araby, as well as the Foreign Minister of Jordan. I welcomed and encouraged the proposal to appoint a special envoy of the Arab League, and I commended the Arab League’s leadership and action so far.
Arab Foreign Ministers will meet this weekend to consider their options. The secretary-general was clear about the urgency of the situation, the Arab world’s continued determination to act, and the need to step up their efforts. I told him that the Arab League would have our complete support.
Secondly, we will seek to widen the international coalition of nations seeking a peaceful and lasting resolution in Syria. We welcome the concept of a new Arab-led group of Friends of Syria, which I discussed with the Prime Minister of Qatar last Tuesday in New York. The aim of such a group will be to demonstrate the strength of international support for the people of Syria and their legitimate demands, to co-ordinate intensified diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime, and to engage with Syrian opposition groups committed to a democratic future for the country. Britain will be a highly active member in setting up such a group with the broadest possible international support.
Thirdly, we will intensify our contact with members of the Syrian opposition. The House will recall that in November I appointed Frances Guy as an ambassador-level envoy to lead our discussions with them. We will continue to urge the Syrian opposition to come together and to agree a common statement of commitment to democracy, human rights and the protection of all Syria’s minorities.
Fourthly, we will maintain our strong focus at the United Nations, undeterred by Saturday’s vote, and we will continue to raise the situation in Syria at the UN Security Council. We will consider with other nations a resolution of the UN General Assembly, and, despite our disagreement with Russia and China, we will continue to discuss with them any possibility of an agreed but meaningful way forward.
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Fifthly, we will increase pressure through the European Union, following the discussions that I had in New York with Ministers from France, Portugal and Germany. We have already agreed 11 rounds of EU sanctions, and will hope to agree further measures at the Foreign Affairs Council on 27 February.
Sixthly, we will work with others to ensure that those responsible for crimes in Syria are held to account. At the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March we will work to ensure the strongest possible mandate to scrutinise human rights violations in Syria, so that those responsible know that there will be a day of reckoning and that they will be held to account.
Seventhly, we will use our remaining channels to the Syrian regime to make clear our abhorrence of violence that is utterly unacceptable to the civilised world. The Syrian ambassador to London was today summoned to the Foreign Office to receive this message. Despite our deteriorating relations with the Syrian Government, we remain committed to ensuring the safety of its embassy and staff in London, and we expect the Syrian authorities to provide the same protection to our embassy in Damascus.
In parallel, I have today recalled to London our ambassador from Damascus for consultations. He and his team work in extremely difficult conditions to ensure that we have an accurate picture of what is happening in Syria. I hope that the House will join me in paying full tribute to them and their families. Their safety and security is always prominent in our considerations.
The human suffering in Syria is already unimaginable, and is in grave danger of escalating further. The position taken by Russia and China has, regrettably, made this more likely, but the Government, the House, our country and our allies will not forget the people of Syria. We will redouble our efforts to put pressure on this appalling regime and to stop this indefensible violence.
Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): I welcome this opportunity for the House to discuss the situation in Syria, and I am grateful that the Foreign Secretary agreed to make a statement this afternoon. It was made in the dark shadow of the brutal slaughter continuing even today, with news of scores more people murdered in Homs in the last 24 hours alone.
Let us all be clear that responsibility for the deaths of these innocent people lies at the door of President Assad and his murderous regime. There is clear agreement across the House and much of the international community that the regime has no future, and that Assad must go. The tragedy is that, notwithstanding that fact, the slaughter continues. For the international community, condemnation is not enough; comprehensive diplomatic efforts are required, which is why the recent failure to reach agreement in the Security Council, of which the Foreign Secretary has just spoken, is such a stain on the conscience of the world. I therefore welcome the points that he made setting out the next steps that the British Government will take to seek to resolve this grave crisis.
I have not, in recent days, made any criticism of the Government over their actions to date, and I will not do so in this response. Rather, in a spirit of shared abhorrence and determination, I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a few questions. I share his disappointment at the stance
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taken by Russia and China. Will he set out more fully to the House what steps are now being taken to convince them of the need for international consensus? In particular, will he tell the House what conversations he has had with Sergei Lavrov since the Security Council vote? In advance of the Russian Foreign Minister’s meeting in Damascus tomorrow with President Assad, has the Foreign Secretary sought or received any assurances that in that meeting the Russian Foreign Minister will at least reflect the wider will of the international community that Assad must go?
I welcome the emphasis that the Foreign Secretary has placed on the work of the Arab League in this crisis, and the prospect of a special envoy being appointed, and indeed a Friends of Syria Group being established. Will he now press for a joint Arab League-European Union summit to be held in the weeks ahead, in order to co-ordinate best the vital steps that now need to be taken? Can the Foreign Secretary give any more information about the level of ambition he is aiming for at the meeting on 27 February, where possible further sanctions will be discussed? Separately, will he inform the House how recently he has spoken to his Turkish counterpart about the steps that Turkey could—and we hope would—be taking to increase further peaceful pressure on Assad?
In his statement, the Foreign Secretary mentioned the human suffering now being endured in Syria. There are reports of even more people fleeing across the borders of Syria into neighbouring countries, and refugee camps set up along the borders are struggling to meet the increasing demands. Can the Foreign Secretary say what conversations he has held with the Secretary of State for International Development on this matter, and confirm to the House who in Government is leading on the humanitarian response to the crisis? Have the Government requested a meeting of the Council of EU Development Ministers to ensure a co-ordinated response to the growing threat of a full-blown humanitarian crisis?
I wrote to the Foreign Secretary at the weekend about the attack on the Syrian embassy in London. While we share an undoubted revulsion at the present actions of the Assad regime, I am sure that the Government would agree that the protection of foreign embassies on our soil is a basic principle of international law that must be upheld. Let me take this opportunity to praise the bravery of the officers on duty outside the Syrian embassy this weekend. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the officers who were hospitalised. We wish them a speedy recovery. Will the Foreign Secretary outline what discussions took place between him, the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan police ahead of 3 February about protecting the Syrian embassy, in the light of reports of expected protests and attack? Were any specific measures taken or contingency plans put in place, in the light of the reports of Syrian opposition forces calling on Syrians living abroad to protest outside their embassies?
Shortly before today’s statement, word reached us that the US had closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrawn all diplomatic staff from Syria. The Foreign Secretary made it clear in his statement that our ambassador in Damascus had been recalled for talks. Will he outline to the House what the British Government’s assessment is of the utility of the existing diplomatic channels, in the light of the continuing violence?
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We welcome the steps that the Government have already taken to try to increase the pressure on, and deepen the isolation of, President Assad and the Syrian authorities. However, I fear that this weekend’s Security Council veto has been taken as a green light for sustained slaughter by the Assad regime. That is why efforts must now be redoubled to end the violence and bring a peaceful resolution to the past 11 months of bloodshed.
Mr Hague: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has referred, rightly, to the bloodshed over the last 24 hours and the agreement that exists across the House—and, indeed, across so much of the international community—that the regime in Syria has no future. He has spoken, as I have, of the need for comprehensive diplomatic efforts. He has no criticism of what the Government have done so far, and obviously I am grateful for that.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there should be an EU-Arab League summit. That is indeed one of the possibilities for bringing together a wider group of nations to address the crisis, but I think it would be preferable to have a meeting that went beyond the European Union and the Arab League, as there are also African nations that have been supportive at the Security Council, as well as Latin American nations. It is therefore probably best to have as inclusive an international gathering and group as possible, going beyond Europe and the Arab world. That would be my preference, and we are in discussion with the Arab League and others about that.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the level of ambition for the EU meeting on 27 February. Most of the measures that we can take in relation to Syria we have now taken. We have had 11 rounds of sanctions, including a complete oil embargo, which we introduced some months ago. We have placed sanctions on well over 100 individuals and entities. There will be further tightening up of the sanctions that we can introduce, but I stress that most of the sanctions that we can introduce we already have introduced. I do not want to exaggerate what we will be able to do on 27 February,
The right hon. Gentleman asked about contact with some of the other Foreign Ministers whom I did not mention in my statement. I have very regular consultations with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, about this matter. Last Tuesday I spoke to him from New York while I was there; that was my most recent consultation with him. Turkey was a co-sponsor of the resolution, and I expect it to be a very active participant in the new informal international grouping that we expect to be formed.
As for the steps to be taken with Russia and China, we have daily conversations with them at the Security Council, and I have had many discussions with my Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, about the situation in Syria. Although I will not have spoken to him between the Security Council vote and his visit tomorrow, I shall want to speak to him after his visit. He has been speaking to the secretary-general of the Arab League, so I am well in touch with what he has in mind for his visit, but clearly the Russians are on a different track here from the rest of us, so it has been difficult to work with them on such contacts with Syria. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary gives
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regular attention to the matter, and Britain has contributed funds to the International Committee of the Red Cross to help people who have been displaced. My right hon. Friend is, of course, ready to work with other countries on any further developments in that regard.
The right hon. Gentleman correctly praised the Metropolitan police, who have been involved in protecting the Syrian embassy. There are regular meetings, including a monthly review meeting between the Home Office and the Foreign Office, on the protection of all embassies. There are well-laid contingency plans in the case of the Syrian embassy, which were put into operation this weekend. There were about 150 protesters there on Saturday, three of whom, by climbing up scaffolding, managed to enter a first-floor window of the embassy. The police presence was further reinforced, and has continued. It will be reviewed today, but I think that the police did a very good job in protecting the embassy, and the normal channels between the Foreign Office and the Home Office are working well.
The right hon. Gentleman asked for an assessment of the utility of our diplomatic channels. I was discussing that with our ambassador in Damascus on the phone just before I came into the Chamber. He has heard—as the House will have heard—the announcement that the American embassy has been closed. We have been aware for some days that it would close today. That was done primarily on security grounds. Our embassy premises are in a different situation, and their security is slightly easier to maintain. We will review all options. As I have said, we have recalled our ambassador, and clearly we are doing that so that we can review all options.
I should prefer us to act in concert with a wide number of other nations if we make a further change to our diplomatic relations with Syria, so we will stay close to our partners in the Arab world and the European Union. I am not ruling anything out, but the House will understand that there are advantages in maintaining an embassy for as long as we can, such as being able to understand the situation on the ground, being able to discuss the situation with a variety of people in Syria, and being able to impress on some members of the regime the gravity of the situation that they have got themselves into. I am not, at the moment, announcing any closure of our embassy, but we will keep the position under close review.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I am certain that the Foreign Secretary needs no point of information from me, but may I nevertheless urge him to bear these facts in mind? Inside Syria—which, as he knows very well, contains an immensely complex ethnic and religious group of people—there has lived for many generations a large Christian community, now estimated to number over 350,000. Its archbishop has publicly said that if the present regime is overthrown and replaced —as it almost certainly would be—by a regime of a different denomination, that community might suffer catastrophe, as the Christian community in Iraq did after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
I cannot imagine ever not needing a point of information from my right hon. Friend. He has a deep knowledge of the region, and he is right to point out that there remains a thriving Christian presence in Syria. We have to consider the fact that the regime there
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is now doomed, one way or the other. It is a question not of whether, but of how and when, it will fall. That highlights the importance of our work with the Syrian opposition. I have met two opposition groups, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has had many meetings with them. We have impressed on them that if they are to form a future Government in Syria, they must recognise the importance of the protection of minorities, including Christians. We need to look to a future Government to give that protection, as this regime has no future.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): During the course of the Foreign Secretary’s conversations in New York, was the subject of the International Criminal Court raised? I understand that it is still necessary to give the present regime an exit strategy, but its crimes now warrant that level of legal sanction.
Mr Hague: They are very serious crimes, and that is a wholly legitimate question. The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that when a country is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court—as Syria is not—the United Nations Security Council must put forward a reference to the prosecutor of the ICC. Given the difficulties of passing the moderate and sensible plan put forward by the Arab League, it will be even more difficult—indeed, currently impossible—to pass a resolution seeking a reference to the court. That is why I explained in my statement that we will make strong representations at the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, where we will press for the appointment of a special rapporteur and the establishment of special investigations into the human rights situation in Syria, as an alternative track.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary consider speaking to the Russian Foreign Minister before Mr Lavrov goes to Damascus tomorrow, and reminding him of the serious damage that Russia is doing to its own long-term interests in the middle east? If he does speak to him, will he draw to his attention the statement that has been put out by the opposition Syrian National Council today, in which it accuses Russia and China of being
“responsible for the escalating acts of killing”?
“tantamount to a licence to kill with impunity”.
I think that that is true; I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. This is why I have used strong language of my own, at the weekend and in my statement today. I believe that the vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people: they make Russia and China increasingly responsible for the situation in Syria and for some of the slaughter that is taking place there. They must consider—on the basis of their own national interest, apart from anything else—whether it is a sensible policy to carry on in this way. They are turning their backs on the Arab world, which will reduce their influence in the middle east. It is my belief that they are backing a regime that is, as I have said, doomed in any case. As I
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said to the shadow Foreign Secretary, the Russians were left in no doubt of our well-expressed views after I had spoken to Mr Lavrov. They will also be conscious of the views being expressed in the House this afternoon.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): With journalists being murdered with impunity and elections being rigged, is not Russia rapidly turning itself into a pariah state, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) just said? Would this not be a good opportunity for the Conservative party, which sits in the same grouping as Mr Putin’s party in the European Council, to part company with that grouping?
Mr Hague: I do not think that I shall get into party matters during this Government statement. We emphatically disagree with Russia, and we are appalled at the veto in the Security Council. None the less, Russia is a member of the Security Council and it has a veto. We will therefore continue to discuss the way forward with Russia, just as we will with all other nations.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): Is it not clear that the exercise of the veto by any permanent member of the Security Council always comes at a cost? The shameful events of last Saturday will be no exception to this principle. In this case, is not the immediate cost being paid in the broken bodies of children wrapped in burial sheets and the anguish of their parents? My right hon. Friend clearly needs no urging about the urgency with which he should fulfil the objectives he has properly set out, but may I say that he is most well placed when he takes the view that there should be the widest possible coalition of the willing throughout the world—as, indeed, the vote in the Security Council emphasised—so that what the United Nations was unable to do might be achieved on a much broader basis through the maintenance of pressure on Syria?
Mr Hague: I absolutely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, as he could gather from my earlier replies. This is why the international coalition should include nations well beyond Europe and the Arab world. I discussed the matter this morning, for instance, with the Foreign Minister of Australia, which is keen to be a participant. Across the Commonwealth as well as across the Arab and European communities, there will be a demand to be involved in that wide coalition. We will pursue that very energetically in the hours and days ahead.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): One country singularly absent from the Foreign Secretary’s statement was Iran. Will he say a little more about the extent to which he thinks the Assad regime feels supported and receives succour from the Iranians?
The Assad regime certainly feels that. As we have discussed before, Iran has certainly given active support to the Syrian regime in the form of equipment as well as advice on how to deal with civil disorder and rebellion. There may be many other ways, of which we are unaware, in which the Iranian regime supports the Syrian regime. This is a classic piece of hypocrisy. The Iranians have supported revolution elsewhere in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia; they supported disorder in those countries, but they are against
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it in Syria. I think that the whole Arab world sees through that, which further widens the current widening separation between Iran and its Arab neighbours.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I share the Foreign Secretary’s approach and urge him to maintain the political, economic and diplomatic pressure that he has set out. The third step that he announced was that he would intensify contact with members of the Syrian opposition. Will he elaborate a little on that: is it on a multilateral or bilateral basis, and is there any limit to the level of resources that he is able to commit to helping that opposition in Syria?
Mr Hague: That is bilateral and multilateral. I have already mentioned some of the bilateral contact we have had and the fact that we have an ambassador-level representative dealing with the opposition. I also believe that one of the roles for the wider international coalition would be to meet the various groups of the Syrian opposition, which I think would be a catalyst for the opposition to propose their plans, to make clear commitments to a democratic future for their country and to set out their commitment to human rights and, indeed, the protection of minorities. It is also important for them to try to come together, since one of the challenges for the opposition is to develop a single platform and a single agreed body for taking forward their concerns. There is no limit on what resources we can provide. We have already provided training in the documentation of human rights abuses, in strategic communications and so forth. We may be able to do more in the future.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary cannot be faulted in the handling of this crisis and, if I may say so, his Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), was very impressive on the BBC yesterday. However, before we go down the road of arming the opposition, should we not recall what happened when the west armed the mujaheddin and they turned into the Taliban and al-Qaeda? More broadly, this is the fourth major intervention in a majority Muslim country—and Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are not happy examples to follow. Do we not need a broader strategic approach to this region of crisis?
Mr Hague: Well, I think that is what we have. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that he could not fault my colleague and me, although there was then a “but.” Let me reassure him further, therefore: we are not contemplating arming anybody. Indeed, one of the things we stressed in our meetings with the Syrian opposition was that they should remain peaceful. We have not been in contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is engaged in a different kind of struggle with the Syrian authorities. I would not classify this as an intervention, therefore. We are supporting the work of the Arab League, we are assembling the widest possible international coalition, and we are not calling for military action or intervention, so I think the right hon. Gentleman can be reassured and continue to be as effusively supportive as he was in the first part of his question.
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Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I applaud the Foreign Secretary for the vigorous and energetic way in which he and his colleagues are attempting to deal with this matter, and I join in his tribute to the staunchness of our diplomatic staff in Damascus. What does he think animates the Chinese Government to support these butchers?
Mr Hague: That is an interesting question. As far as we could see at the Security Council negotiations last Friday, China had no easily identifiable objection to the draft resolution. Indeed, when it came to the vote the Chinese permanent representative was surrounded by Arab representatives urging him therefore to vote for the resolution. As it turned out however, his instructions were evidently to vote to veto the resolution along with Russia. It seemed that the desire to act with Russia on the Security Council outweighed any other consideration. I think that is a mistake on the part of China. We have a regular and full strategic dialogue with China, and I will certainly want to pursue the question of this decision vigorously in our next strategic dialogue, because I do not think it is in the interests of China; nor do I think it is living up to the full responsibilities of permanent membership of the Security Council.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary has talked about the importance of Turkey. In his discussion with the Foreign Secretary of Turkey, was there any talk about setting up safe havens near the Turkish border, which I believe the Syrian opposition have asked for?
Mr Hague: This idea has been floated, although I think more in the media than by any of the Governments concerned. It can, of course, be an appealing idea when people are in such distress and suffering so much, but one then has to consider how safe havens would be created and how they would subsequently be policed. We know from experience in the Balkans in the 1990s that safe havens that prove not really to be safe are one of the worst things we can create. The creation of true safe havens inside Syrian territory would, in effect, require military intervention in Syria. That is not authorised by the UN Security Council and would require a massive military operation. The Turkish Foreign Minister was not proposing that, and that was not part of our discussion last week.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): While Assad’s actions are evil and those of the Russians and Chinese are woeful—my right hon. Friend is entirely correct on that—some of us warned during the Libyan intervention that we were in danger of playing into their hands and providing them with an alibi because we did not stick strictly to humanitarian action, such as when we were pursuing Gaddafi in the last hours of his life before he was executed by our allies. We are where we are, however, so where do we go from here? The fact is that the Chinese are impervious to grandstanding. The Foreign Secretary has been rather brief on the quiet diplomacy he is now going to engage in with them to get them to sign up to a resolution that, in terms, prohibits any repetition of the kind of action that took place in Libya.
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Mr Hague: I disagree with my hon. Friend, in that I do not think that what happened in Libya provides an alibi; after all, there were countries on the Security Council, such as India, which did not vote for resolution 1973 on Libya, and South Africa, which did vote for it but was then very critical of its implementation, that were perfectly happy to vote on Saturday for this resolution because it is entirely different from what we contemplated and wanted in Libya. We are not calling for military intervention—these are different circumstances—so I do not think that that is an adequate defence for Russia and China.
My hon. Friend said that I was quiet on quiet diplomacy, but it is in the nature of quiet diplomacy that it is not pursued noisily. Of course, as I said in my statement, we will continue to discuss with Russia and China the way forward. We will do so in a rather vigorous way, but we will do so continuing to seek agreement at the UN Security Council. We will be very busy with that over the coming days and weeks.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Tunisia, the first Arab country to be liberated from a despot in the Arab spring, is expelling its Syrian ambassador and de-recognising the murderous and criminal Assad regime. The Syrian National Council has called on other countries to follow suit, so will the British Government be considering that?
Mr Hague: As I mentioned, I do not rule that out. If we were to do that, I would like us to act in concert with other nations. Therefore, what other nations do is a factor, and we will keep in close consultation with our European and Arab partners on this. But there are considerations to set against that and reasons to maintain an embassy, if possible, which I also mentioned earlier. So this is about a balance between those considerations.
Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): A very dear friend of mine and his five-year-old son were butchered by the Assad regime in the days when it controlled Lebanon, so may I both commend everything that my right hon. Friend is doing and urge him to take a particular interest in what is going on in that country, which the Assad regime continues to try to destabilise, both through its own proxies and through Iranian ones, such as Hezbollah and Amal?
Mr Hague: Absolutely; we always take a close interest in what is happening in Lebanon, and Syria has indeed been, a great deal of the time, a malign influence in events there. In addition, events in Lebanon and what may happen in the future there are an important consideration in how we handle this crisis in Syria—this is one reason why it is quite different from the Libyan crisis, for instance. So my hon. Friend is right to point out the horrors of what has happened before and I am very conscious of the point that he makes.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op):
I welcome and endorse the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about taking action through the European Union, through the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council and with the Friends of Syria group, but one organisation that he did not mention was NATO. Is it not time to have a discussion in the North Atlantic Council—
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including Turkey—about having some kind of no-fly zone, comparable with what was put in place to save the Kurds 11 years ago, over the northern part of Syria?
Mr Hague: I do not think that it is. I say so, first, because if NATO began planning for different eventualities in Syria, that would weaken rather than unite the international coalition. A no-fly zone would also require authorisation from the UN Security Council, and clearly that would not be obtained at the moment. In addition, although there are reports of Syrian aircraft being involved in the latest events, this is not the prime means of repression, so although a no-fly zone is an easy thing to call for, there is a danger that it would give the illusion of security when the prime means of repression of the civilian population is by tanks and troops on the ground.
Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s warm words about the countries of the Arab League. With the eyes of the world on Syria, will he give me his personal assurance that he will not close his eyes to what is happening next door in Israel, where United Nations resolutions and international law are being breached against the Palestinian people?
Mr Hague: My hon. Friend knows—again, we have discussed this in the House many times—the position on this. We may be getting a little wide of the statement, but of course we have condemned violence in the occupied territories and indeed the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories, which are illegal and on occupied land.
Mr Speaker: We are grateful to the Foreign Secretary for dealing with that point. Perhaps we can now keep the statement exchanges to the subject matter. I know that the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) is now a Knight, but we must stick to what is right and that is the content of the statement.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the prospects of Russia agreeing to impose an arms embargo on Syria, given that Russia remains one of Syria’s principal arms suppliers?
Mr Hague: There is not much prospect at the moment of Russia agreeing to an arms embargo—that is the straight answer. Russia continues to sell arms to the regime. Russia has many close interests allied to those of the Assad regime and has a naval base there. Syria has been an important customer for Russian arms, and that is no doubt one of the factors behind Russia’s defence of the Assad regime and its veto at the UN Security Council. So, the prospect of Russia agreeing at the moment is very small.
Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Given the cynicism of Russia’s veto of the draft resolution at the weekend, and the bloodshed since, will my right hon. Friend consider calling in the Russian ambassador and gently suggesting to him that Russia’s failure to support human rights in Syria might be construed by some as incompatible with Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe?
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Mr Hague: I will give consideration to all the points that are being raised about Russia—that is, I think, the best thing for me to say—and I will ensure that the force of the views in the House of Commons about Russia’s veto is well understood by the Russian embassy. It will be understood there, anyway. My first preference in how we now conduct our discussions with Russia is for me to do so directly with the Russian Foreign Minister, as well as via any contact we may have with the ambassador.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Although the action of Russia and China is completely inexcusable, and no one in this House has tried to defend or justify it in any way, may I take the Foreign Secretary back to a point made earlier? Is he aware that the resolution on Libya, which was brought forward to stop slaughter, was so extended to bring about regime change that it has inevitably played right into the hands of Russia and China, who have done what they have done and vetoed the UN Security Council resolution? Both countries have, of course, a pretty poor record when it comes to their own human rights.
Mr Hague: Yes, he did. So, we are united in agreeing with that resolution. I do not think that it provides an excuse for Russia and China, for the reasons I gave earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). Many other nations on the Security Council disapproved of what we did in Libya but voted for this resolution on Syria.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Notwithstanding the Foreign Secretary’s earlier comments on the International Criminal Court, if there is a subsequent UN resolution on referring President Assad and his regime to the UN and the ICC, does he agree that the timing of that will be very important? We know that many dictators, if they feel they have nothing to lose and nowhere to run, are likely to dig in, with more atrocities than there perhaps would have been. The timing is critical.
Mr Hague: Yes. My hon. Friend makes a valid and legitimate point. In any case, it is not possible at the moment to refer this to the prosecutor of the ICC. However, I think that the longer this goes on and the greater the atrocities committed, the more determined the world will be to find a way to bring to account and to justice those responsible. That should weigh heavily on those who are now participating in the atrocities of this regime.
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some weeks ago, when we reduced the staff of our embassy to the minimum level possible to maintain it, we made it clear that we were below the level at which we could conduct an evacuation of any remaining British nationals. We have made the position abundantly clear, and there should not now be British nationals in Syria. Some people who are dual nationals or are married to people in Syria will of course have remained, and whenever they are in difficult circumstances we will do our best to assist them, but we have made the position starkly clear.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Having sat in the middle of a so-called protected area that was totally unprotected, may I re-emphasise to the House something the Foreign Secretary has said? Any protected area requires the presence of people on the ground with the ability to keep it protected, and if this talk of a protected area continues, we will have to think about how that can be done. At the moment, it certainly cannot be done by the British.
Mr Hague: My hon. Friend speaks with deep experience of these matters. Certainly, any future discussion about safe havens or humanitarian corridors must be accompanied by the will, authority and full means to make sure that they truly would be safe and humanitarian, rather than leaving people in a very difficult situation.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): On Friday, I attended a fundraiser in Newcastle at which over £30,000 was raised to provide humanitarian assistance to those terrorised by the regime. Many there expressed real fear about returning to Syria, especially now that they have shown their support for democracy and freedom. Can the Secretary of State assure me that he is working with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that no Syrians are forced to return to Syria from the UK at the moment?
Mr Hague: I congratulate the hon. Lady and her constituents on the funds they have been raising, and I shall draw her point to the attention of my colleague the Home Secretary. We have rigorous rules on these matters in terms of giving asylum to people and not returning them to countries that are in a state of great disorder. I will check on the point she raises.
Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con): I wish the Foreign Secretary well in his ongoing discussions with China, for if the use of the veto in these circumstances is a foretaste of things to come, it does not bode well for the future effectiveness of the Security Council. Returning to the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit tomorrow, regardless of the position that Russia is taking, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Russian Foreign Minister is properly to convey the mood of the UN, the international community and the Arab League, he will tell President Assad that his days are numbered and that the only question is how much more blood will be spilled before he goes?
I would love it if that were the message conveyed by Sergei Lavrov when he goes tomorrow, and my hon. Friend is quite right that that is what should be conveyed. However, I think Russia’s approach remains different from that, as we saw with its veto. It is still
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acting to protect the regime and standing by a long-standing ally despite everything that has happened. As I have said, we will underline to Russia’s representatives, including the Foreign Minister, the depth and strength of opinion in this country, as indeed they will hear from the Arab League and many other nations around the world.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of reports over the weekend that Abu Musab al-Suri, who until his capture in 2005 was a dangerously active terrorist, has been freed by the Assad regime in an apparent warning to the United States and the United Kingdom? If that is true, will it not be yet further evidence of the murderous activity of the Syrian Government?
Mr Hague: Yes, it would. I am awaiting reliable information about that. Clearly, the announcement was not designed to be helpful in any way and it is further evidence of what the right hon. Gentleman refers to, but if the Syrian regime honestly thinks that we, at the United Nations or anywhere else, are going to change our approach because of such announcements or the release of any reprehensible criminal, it is seriously mistaken.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Russia is inflicting a double blow on the Syrian people through its UN veto and by continuing the $1.5 billion of arms sales to Assad’s regime, which enables the killing and maiming to continue. If the moral and humanitarian argument cannot get through, will the Foreign Secretary emphasise to his Russian counterpart that it is not in Russia’s strategic and economic interests, with its key trading partners in the middle east such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to act as a roadblock to the protection of the Syrian people?
Mr Hague: Yes, I absolutely agree. This is an important consideration for the Russian authorities and it is not in Russia’s national interests to take the position it has taken. There will be a future Government in Syria who will remember what Russia has done. Its actions are causing outrage in the Arab world, which is deeply frustrated with Russia’s position, as the secretary-general of the Arab League said to me earlier this afternoon, so we will certainly employ the arguments cited by my hon. Friend.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The killings, murders and disorder in Syria are obviously dreadful and must be condemned. Notwithstanding the Foreign Secretary’s understandable anger with Russia at present, does he not think that it would be appropriate to have further negotiations with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Government of Iran, who are a near neighbour and in whose interests it cannot be for further disorder to spread to their country? Also, is he confident of the democratic and inclusive credentials of all the Syrian opposition? Surely we can learn from the example, given by many colleagues, of what happened in Libya, where in some quarters the abuse of human rights unfortunately continues, despite assurances given by the opposition there before the intervention.
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Mr Hague: We shall certainly continue to have discussions with Russia, as I have mentioned many times, but I do not think that discussions with Iran on this subject would be productive at the moment. The views of members of the Syrian opposition vary greatly and, indeed, at least three different organisations could be classified as the Syrian opposition. That is why I stress the need for them to come to international gatherings with a clear statement of democratic and inclusive principles, including the protection of minorities in Syria. I think that they will have greater support in the world if they can articulate those things clearly and set out a clear vision for the future of their country.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): It is always the innocent who suffer in these situations, and anyone who has seen or heard of the collateral damage being inflicted on the innocent women and children in Homs cannot fail to think that this Sino-Russian veto is disgraceful and disgusting. Is there any way that we can use our remaining infrastructure and resources in Syria, or those of our allies, to provide humanitarian or medical assistance to these helpless victims?
Mr Hague: We are down to the smallest level of representation we can have that is consistent with diplomatic relations. Our staff are therefore able to maintain an embassy, but it is not easy for them to travel around the country, let alone deliver practical assistance to people, so we cannot do that with the remaining diplomatic staff. We support the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the region,as I have said, so we will have to deliver any assistance that way.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): While the immediate priority must obviously be to maximise pressure to put an end to the slaughter, what longer-term assessments have been made about the likely complexion of any successor regime to the dictatorship?
Mr Hague: As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), there are many shades of opinion among the Syrian opposition. When I met members of the Syrian National Council, they were very clear about their commitment to an open and democratic society and to the protection of minorities. I have no reason to doubt them on that, but there will be many influences at work, so it is very difficult to make a prediction or give an accurate answer to my hon. Friend’s question. All I can say is that we will continue to urge the various opposition groups to adopt the open and democratic principles in which we, too, believe.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): May I press the Foreign Secretary on the issue of UK nationals and those holding dual nationality? What assessment has he made of the number of people falling into those categories, and what discussions has he had with those of our allies who, like us, are maintaining a diplomatic presence with regard to mutual aid for one another’s citizens should the situation deteriorate?
Well, it is in any case the arrangement within the European Union that countries will provide assistance to each others’ citizens if one is unable to do so, but of course the embassies of other nations are also being slimmed down, so it would be wrong for people to
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rely on that. I think that they should take our advice very seriously. For months we have said, “Do not stay in Syria. Do not go to Syria.” I cannot make it clearer than that. Rather than expect practical assistance, they should leave, and leave now.
Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): I have had the privilege of visiting Syria twice in my life: once in 1998 with a backpack on my back, and last year on a delegation ably led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). I was struck by the stark difference in access to news media within the country between the two visits. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that our foreign policy, and indeed that of all our partners abroad, should reflect that changed media environment and that the sooner the Russian and Chinese Governments understand and respect that, the better?
Mr Hague: Yes, I very much agree. People have access to media reports, particularly those carried by Arab satellite television channels, and what we say on our televisions and, indeed, in this House is heard and understood by many people in Syria. That is one reason why it is not possible to say to people in Syria, “There is no problem,” and that the Syrian Government are doing everything they can. The people can see that the Syrian Government are not acting in the interests of a peaceful transition in Syria, so we will continue to communicate, in many ways directly, with the people of Syria and the rest of the Arab world. There is a lesson in that for Russia and China, as my hon. Friend says.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The actions of this despotic regime are merely the culmination of 30 years of human rights abuses under both Assad regimes, as we know. To return to the question put to the Foreign Secretary by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), we welcome the appointment of a special envoy to the Syrian opposition, but will it necessarily lead to the establishment of a contact group with the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army and other individuals in lieu of the establishment of a free, democratic Government?
Mr Hague: We will have to see how the opposition groups develop. We are urging them to come together, but I stress that our contact has been with those advocating peaceful action. We have not had contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is in a different position and advocates a different course, but we want those groups to come together, and we will want them to be involved and to bring their ideas and future plans to the international grouping—of whatever kind—that is formed among Arab, European and other nations. That will be the forum for the opposition to present their ideas and to seek the support of the rest of the world.
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): My right hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of securing a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly as a way of tackling the issue. What assessment has been made of the possibility of that, and on what timeline does he expect to operate?
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Mr Hague: We are still making an assessment of that. Clearly, it was only on Saturday that the resolution was vetoed in the Security Council. A General Assembly resolution does not have the same weight as a Security Council resolution, but it can illustrate the strength of numbers behind a particular proposition, so we are discussing that now—whether it is a feasible way forward—with the Arab League and with our other partners on the Security Council. I therefore cannot give the hon. Gentleman a timeline yet, but it is a possibility.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): We all wish the Foreign Secretary well in his endeavours, but may I press him by suggesting that the regrettable decision to veto was at least in part caused by Russia and China believing that western powers had exceeded their mandate under UN resolution 1973, when pursuing regime change in Libya, as they made clear at the time?
Mr Hague: This is not an excuse for Russia and China, and as I pointed out earlier other nations that were very critical of our actions in Libya voted for the resolution, appreciating that it was put forward on behalf of the Arab League, and that it put forward an entirely different proposition from how we proceeded in Libya, because the situation is entirely different. This should not be advanced as an excuse for what is in my view an indefensible veto.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I welcome what my right hon. Friend has done thus far, but, just as we were right to intervene in Libya and to support with weapons and logistics those opposition movements that faced massacre, can he do more to work with other countries to give logistics, weapons and humanitarian aid to the opposition groups in Syria? Further, when will the stage be reached at which we need to expel the Syrian ambassador from the United Kingdom?
Mr Hague: I hope that I have covered those points. We are not engaged, and are not planning to engage, in arming the opposition forces in Syria, although we will help with advice and some logistics and practical support in order to ensure their ability to operate. It would not be in their interests in any case to be seen as an arm of western Governments, so there is a limit to what we can do in that regard.
On the question of the embassy, we will work with our partners throughout the world on that, but there are advantages in keeping an embassy, as well as in making the strong diplomatic statement of withdrawing an embassy. It improves our understanding of the situation on the ground to have an embassy there.
Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): Is the Foreign Secretary aware of reports of chemical weapons and other weaponry being moved by Hezbollah out of Syria? If so, is he concerned about the consequence that that could have for Israel and Jordan, and for the general stability of the region outside Syria?
We keep a very close eye on any reports of the presence of chemical or biological weapons. I have not seen reports of such weapons being moved by Hezbollah, although the Syrian regime’s close connections with Hezbollah may give rise to concerns about what
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might happen in Lebanon if the situation continues in Syria. My hon. Friend can be assured that we are alert to this issue.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): The impending elections in Russia and a weakened Mr Putin keen to bolster his domestic opinion polls through a show of strength have been put forward as a possible explanation for the use of the Russian veto. Does the Secretary of State agree with that explanation?
Mr Hague: The upcoming elections may be a factor in the Russian veto. I think that a stronger factor is that the Russians have had a long alliance with the Assad regime. As I mentioned, they have a naval base in Syria and have sold large quantities of arms there. They feel committed to supporting the Assad regime. That is something that they should change their mind about, in my view, given that the circumstances have changed. We will continue to work on them, before and after their election on 4 March.
Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): It is clearly welcome news that India came off the fence and supported the resolution, marking an end to three decades of that country’s ties with the Assad family. To what extent did New Delhi seek to dilute the final text so that it made no mention of automatic measures in the event of non-compliance?
Mr Hague: Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that India voted for the resolution. It is true that several countries on the Security Council wanted a resolution that did not go beyond the draft resolution as it was put to the vote on Saturday. Certainly, India is one country that would not have wanted a stronger resolution with the authorisation of sanctions or other measures. I stress that the prime negotiations in the Security Council were always with Russia. The objections raised and amendments put forward came from Russia primarily, rather than from India, South Africa or Pakistan.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con):
I welcome the statement by the Foreign Secretary. He will know that there are more than 30 opposition parties in Syria, including the National Council, the National Co-ordination Committee, the Justice party and the
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Kurdish party. The work to unite them has been going on for a long time. How close are we to uniting them? Unless the opposition are united, the future for Syria looks bleak.
Mr Hague: The answer is that many of those groups have come together under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council. It is in their own interests for all the major groupings to come together under that umbrella. This is a national emergency. As I have put it to them, in this country, which is a thriving democracy, when we face an existential threat, all the parties come together, as with the coalition during the second world war. Syria faces one of the direst emergencies in its history, so they should all be able to come together for this period. We will continue to give that advice, but they have not all managed it yet.
Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): May I press the Foreign Secretary on another aspect of dual nationality? Many of the most energetic supporters and members of the barbaric Syrian regime have dual Syrian and British nationality, including members of President Assad’s immediate family. Will the Foreign Secretary make a commitment to consider how we might usefully frustrate this blatant abuse of British nationality and its use as a flag of convenience?
Mr Hague: Many people may share my hon. Friend’s view about the views expressed by dual nationals in this country. However, views expressed are no grounds to deprive anyone of their nationality. If I took that suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I am sure that she would be very clear about that. I therefore cannot hold out any hope to my hon. Friend that we will be able to act in the way that he would like us to.
Mr Hague: Jordan is playing a strong and constructive role. I discussed the situation a couple of hours ago with Nasser Judeh, the Foreign Minister of Jordan. It supports and is an energetic sponsor of the work of the Arab League, and it co-sponsored the resolution that was put to the UN Security Council. We welcome its active participation.