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Column 972There will be a great deal of debate later today on democratic accountability and the democratic deficit. One of the biggest democratic deficits nearest the House is the governance of London. Even before there is an elected authority for London under another Government, I hope that combined representatives of the boroughs could get together on a non-statutory basis. Perhaps that group could incorporate some aspects of the Association of London Authorities and the London Boroughs Administration. I hope that the Under-Secretary would agree that that group could, during whatever life remains in the Government, through consensus, come to some conclusions about London. Even the Government have found through their encouragement of London First, London Pride and from all the programmes, as well as organisations concerning London that are multiplying and holding conferences all over the place, that a vacuum needs to be filled. That vacuum must be filled by a proper and proud successor to the LCC and GLC to serve the people of London in the next century. 10.54 am
Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I am not one of those hon. Members who believe that everything that the GLC did was wrong. It did a great deal of good work, but in the latter years of its existence it did a great deal of harm.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) suggested that there was a tremendous force outside the House to recapture a government for London. He mentioned an opinion poll in which 66 per cent. of respondents were in favour of that. I do not know where that opinion came from--possibly from the Evening Standard --but I should not attach too much credence to that opinion poll if the hon. Gentleman pooh-poohs some of the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), which also came from the Evening Standard . What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and we cannot be too selective when quoting from that newspaper.
Although I represent a constituency that is about 250 miles from London, I live here during the week; I have lived in three London boroughs and had six years' experience in local government. I therefore have a good idea of what certain Opposition Members mean by democratic accountability. What I perceive as important and as democratic accountability is not necessarily shared by some Opposition Members.
From time to time, I agree with some of the things that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West says. If what he said about London was correct, I would be fighting to catch your eye this morning, Madam Deputy Speaker. A number of my hon. Friends who represent London constituencies share my concern at what happened in the GLC in its latter years and do not want a London-wide authority, so their absence this morning is understandable. If there is such strength of opinion among Opposition Members about the need for such an authority, I should have thought that far more Opposition Members would be present. Apart from the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), the Front-Bench spokesman and the Opposition Whip, however, we have only the hon. Members for Newham, South, for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and for
Column 973Newham, North-West. The latter two Members are here, of course, and they represent all the things that many of my hon. Friends and I found unacceptable in the GLC.
Mr. Banks: I do not know about that. I used to get the Refreshment Department bills of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, which was an interesting experience, until I finally managed to sort out the Department. I do not know about champagne socialism, but a vast amount of ratepayers' money was wasted in the final years of the GLC. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham asked how much money was wasted. An independent survey--my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may wish to comment on this--has suggested that if the GLC had been allowed to continue, it would have spent £1.5 billion. And for what? I am not convinced that Londoners would have received a better service.
I should like to compare and contrast briefly my experience of so-called democratic accountability because my constituency is in one of the large metropolitan areas of the north-west. I do not wish to be ruled out of order, so I shall be extremely careful to make those comparisons briefly.
Mr. Tony Banks: I must record my appreciation of the hon. Gentleman paying my bills from the Pugin Room from time to time. He just said that the GLC, had it still existed, would have spent £1.5 billion. He asked what that would have been spent on. A quick list includes new towns, seaside and country homes, housing, the London mobility scheme, the south bank arts complex, London Transport, London's waste disposal, the fire brigade--the GLC used to run the ambulance service and there were no complaints then--historic houses such as Kenwood and Marble Hill, the magistrates courts, bridges, tunnels, the Woolwich ferry, the Thames barrier, the national sports centre and strategic parks. I could go on. That is a lot of money, but what a lot of good services.
Mr. Banks: Now that the hon. Gentleman has made his speech, perhaps he will give way to me. I accept that a great deal of money was spent, but many of those services are continuing without the madcap ideas that were evident when the hon. Gentleman was in office. I think that he was a Member of Parliament when he moonlighted from time to time as chairman of the GLC. I do not believe for one moment that there is a great weight of opinion outside the House or, indeed, among Labour Members, for the return of a London-wide authority.
Mr. Booth: My hon. Friend is dealing with the democratic deficit, a matter raised by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). Does he agree that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are in fact calling for a fourth tier of government in London? If their proposals were accepted, we should have the boroughs, central Government with their Minister for London, Members of the European Parliament and a London-wide authority.
Column 974GLC, there would be enormous increase in bureaucracy but not necessarily an improvement in the services provided for the people of London.
I have lived in three London boroughs--Wandsworth, Westminster and Lambeth. My colleagues have talked about waste, and I must say that services in Lambeth have certainly improved since Labour lost control there. It was something of a novelty for my wife and me to look out of the bedroom window the other day and see someone sweeping the street.
I shall pick up a number of points made by the hon. Member for Islington, North. He referred to County hall being used for meetings of non-statutory organisations. That conjured up in my mind a picture of senior citizens meeting for various cultural activities. However, he did not mention the fact that the GLC was often used as a platform for political campaigning at the ratepayers' expense and for promoting organisations with which I suspect that most of his constituents would not have agreed had they been asked. However, it was not only at the GLC that such things happened.
The hon. Member for Newham, South mentioned the police. I remember the days of the Greater Manchester police authority, in those days an offshoot of Greater Manchester council. It spent an enormous amount of money--hundreds of thousands of pounds--on a police monitoring unit. Vast sums of council tax payers' money were spent on hindering the police in the apprehension of criminals.
The hon. Member for Islington, North was very unfair to our health services. He may have been describing what is happening in the capital and other urban conurbations, but in financial terms local health services are now far better planned than ever before. We no longer experience the kinds of difficulties at the end of the financial year that he described. Not only in London but in my constituency there have been vast increases in the resources provided to the national health service, and they mean that the concerns expressed all too flippantly by the hon. Gentleman pale into insignificance.
Certainly, my constituents had to wait for the election of the Conservative Government in 1979 to get the brand new hospital that they now enjoy--Lord Healey had cut the hospital building programme so savagely when he was Chancellor because the Labour party got the economy into such a mess, and I have no doubt that if it were ever to be in power again we should find ourselves in the same mess because it wasted money nationally just as it wasted money at the GLC. The hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned the use of County hall. I noticed that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is no longer in the Chamber, did not give the name of the individual whom he was accusing. I think that he has a duty to do so. It is generally understood in the House that the National Audit Office is examining some of the issues to which he referred. The NAO is respected and I have no doubt that, as and when it reports, we shall listen carefully to what it has to say and take appropriate action if necessary.
The fact that it is necessary to use today's business to raise matters relating to London does not worry me in the slightest. We do not need a talking shop costing millions and millions of pounds just across the river. Hon. Members have the opportunity to raise issues relating to their constituencies and regions, as they are doing now.
Column 975The hon. Members for Islington, North and for Newham, South also mentioned transport. The hon. Member for Islington, North is perhaps not aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has recently made a number of important announcements on air pollution following a report by those who take an interest in pollution, not least the Select Committee on Transport. I greatly welcome the opportunity to tighten the MOT test in respect of exhaust emissions.
It is the buses and lorries in London that create much of the pollution, and diesel-powered vehicles are the greatest polluters. It is those vehicles that we should be examining. If Labour Members are concerned about reducing congestion in London, they might like to suggest that a London borough such as Newham could institute a pilot scheme with the help of the Department of Transport to introduce road pricing so that we could see how it works and how it might benefit London. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newham, South laughs--he is a great cyclist, but I do not recall the GLC doing a great deal for cyclists when it was in a position to do so.
Unitary authorities--the London boroughs--now have the opportunity to make sensitive decisions affecting their areas. They are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to be unitary authorities and I look forward to the day, in the lifetime of this Parliament, when my constituency will get back to the position in which it was before 1974 and does not have to do as it is told by members of the Labour party who have a majority on the Merseyside passenger transport authority, who could not give two hoots about spending money in my constituency and who abuse their position. I look forward to the day when my constituency has the same system of unitary government as London.
Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East): We have heard a remarkable amount of old rubbish from the Conservatives. It is striking that they cannot find a London Member to defend the effects of the abolition of the Greater London council but have to drag in an hon. Member from Southport to drone on about matters on which he is ill informed. The GLC established a cycle unit and introduced cycle routes across much of London, but since abolition the programme has not been developed.
We still see the achievements of the old London county council and the GLC. There is hardly a road, a public housing scheme or a hospital--hospitals were once run by County hall--that those two forms of local government did not help to create. They created London as we know it, certainly to a greater extent than any other force or organisation. It is a record of which we are proud--a dramatic and tremendous achievement in rebuilding London after the war, but it is now being lost. Everyone in London today feels that it is less worth living in this city than it was a decade ago. Opinion polls conducted by the Evening Standard chart that progress year by year. I have heard the Under-Secretary of State ask what the GLC did about the docklands. We created the infrastructure that the London Docklands development corporation inherited. It then stepped in and the legislation involved wasted the best part of 18 months as it went through Parliament.
We have been asked about transport. I remember Sir Horace Cutler, under the Tory administration between 1977 and 1981, proposing that we should build the Jubilee
Column 976extension into docklands. It was blocked by the Treasury. When I became leader of the GLC in 1981, we proposed that the Jubilee line should be extended to docklands. It was blocked by the Treasury. If County hall had been allowed to get its way, the Jubilee line would have opened and would have been running for the past seven years, and because we never borrowed money to build such projects--we paid for them out of the rates--we would not have incurred the debts created now that the Government have finally got round to the project 15 years later. We were planning to go on to build the Chelsea to Hackney link, which would probably have been operating by now as well.
County hall thought in London's interest, which meant inevitable conflicts. Whenever there was a Conservative Government and a progressive administration in County hall, there was conflict. In 1896, Lord Salisbury complained that the then Liberal administration at the London county council was practising socialistic and revolutionary schemes and proposed that the LCC should be abolished. When Herbert Morrison was creating what I think was a marvellous record of municipal enterprise and achievement in the 1930s, Conservative Members of Parliament were demanding that the LCC be wound up. We saw the same thing in the late 1950s, when boundaries were extended in the hope of creating permanent Tory control. Finally, when Mrs. Thatcher was in power she had a big enough majority to push through the lunacy which had been defeated on previous occasions and London has lost out.
We heard allusions from Southport that the GLC did barmy and dreadful things. I will tell the House what I am proud of. I am proud that the GLC took up the issue of racism in London. I am proud that we took up the issue of women's interests being neglected in London and tried to make local government respond more to their needs. I am proud that the women's committee funded dozens of child care schemes across London. I am proud that we took up the rights of lesbians and gays in London. I am not ashamed of those things. We moved those issues to the centre of the political agenda as those groups were not achieving their full potential because they were suffering from discrimination. It is a legitimate right for those elected to represent London to represent all Londoners, whether they are women or black and irrespective of their sexual orientation. I shall not go on any longer as I know that we have to fit in two more speeches. 11.12 am
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on initiating this important debate, which has, although it has been short, provided an excellent opportunity to highlight many very important issues. It is somewhat surprising that, from the Conservative Benches, we have heard only from the hon. Members for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) and for Southport (Mr. Banks). No Conservative Member who represents London, other than the Under- Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), who will respond, has spoken. That is perhaps indicative of the way in which the Government--
Column 977Mr. Booth rose --
There is so much in London about which we can be proud. The city boasts a whole range of attributes and qualities, which make it a vibrant and exciting place to live in, to work in and to visit. London's rich legacy of history and fine buildings, magnificent parks and outstanding cultural attractions, its impressive, if somewhat neglected, river, its cosmopolitan and multi-cultural atmosphere, and many more attributes, make it a unique and great city.
I am sad to say that there is another side to London, too much in evidence in recent years, which tarnishes the bright spots and raises real fears for the city's future. London now suffers from a higher level of unemployment than almost anywhere in Britain--second only to the north in the proportion of people out of work, it having lost 470,000 jobs in the past seven years alone.
That of course relates to London as a whole, but when one looks at the specific problems in the most deprived areas of London, as the Evening Standard did in its important and disturbing survey of life in east London, entitled "The Betrayed", the characteristics highlighted are more representative of what one might see in the third world than in the capital of one of Europe's leading countries. It is made all the worse by its proximity to the gleaming office blocks of Canary wharf and the affluence of the City.
The devastating loss of manufacturing industry has left London's economy seriously unbalanced, and over-dependent on services. In the week in which we have seen the collapse of Barings, we should not be complacent about a city which is over-dependent on financial services for its economy.
Not only are there serious questions to be asked about London's economy, but the city is facing an acute transport crisis, as a result of years of under-investment--points well made by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)--coupled with an abject failure to recognise the damage being caused by ever-worsening traffic congestion. That means that people cannot move quickly and cheaply around the city and far too many of our children are suffering from the appalling incidence of asthma, of which traffic-generated air pollution is unquestionably one of the major contributory causes.
While I mention health, what can one say about a city whose once proud hospitals are facing closure as a consequence of the crude political vandalism of the Department of Health? Hard-working and dedicated doctors and nurses are demoralised and angered by ill-considered cuts. Patients, London's long-suffering public, are infuriated by the incompetent decision making and administrative bungling of the Secretary of State for Health and her army of highly paid accountants, administrators and assorted quangocrats. Before we leave the subject of health, I cannot fail to mention the London ambulance service, which is staggering from one crisis to the next, bedevilled by malfunctioning computers--the telephone system went down yesterday. Despite all the Secretary of State's
Column 978promises of improvement, it is turning in far and away the worst performance figures of any ambulance service in Britain.
Behind all the statistics and all the evidence of London not coping as well as it should, there lies one inescapable and fundamental theme, to which everyone who has looked seriously at the issue returns without exception. London is seriously disadvantaged by the lack of its own city-wide government. Unique among European capitals, unique, indeed, among capital cities in the developed world, London has no single voice speaking up for the city and representing the views and aspirations of its citizens. Instead, London suffers from fragmentation, from divided and unclear responsibilities and from the malign consequences of the excessive centralisation of decision making, which has become such a hallmark of the Government, who, ironically, when they came to power, pledged to devolve power rather than to centralise it.
It is not just the accumulation of power by Ministers that is causing concern; the proliferation of quangos and other undemocratic institutions is too. They have been established in breach of Tory promises. Let us look back to the Second Reading debate on the Bill which abolished the GLC. The then Secretary of State for the Environment, Lord Jenkin, could not have put it more clearly. He argued that the fears expressed--not only by the Labour party but by several Conservative Members--about centralisation of power and proliferation of quangos were ill founded. He said:
"They say that, after abolition, Whitehall will take over. Wrong again. Only 5 per cent. of service spending in London, and virtually none outside London, will go outside local government. They say that the abolition councils will be replaced by quangos. Wrong again. Only two permanent new appointed bodies will be created".--[ Official Report , 3 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 36.]
With huge swathes of spending on London Transport, health, urban regeneration, employment and training all taken out of the hands of democratically elected local bodies and vested in the hands of Ministers, and a whole swathe of quangos administering services all over London, the judgment of Lord Jenkin is about as spectacularly inaccurate as the failure of Mr. Nick Leeson to judge the movement of the Tokyo stock market. The consequences for London have been about as disastrous as the consequences for Barings.
Instead of a democratically elected London-wide authority speaking up for London in the national and international arena, we have a whole series of fragmented initiatives. As the Evening Standard rightly and aptly reminded us yesterday, by printing Tony Travers's excellent article entitled, "Why Paris is pulling ahead of London", we are losing out in the international arena because others are doing things better. Jacques Chirac, the right- wing mayor of Paris, has no illusions about the important role of the city government that he leads.
"Paris' ambition is to lay claim to the title of European capital by the year 2000"
is his unequivocal objective. His publicity machine has little difficulty in putting the knife into London. Paris, he boasts, with justification,
"has a high performance transportation infrastructure." The contrast with London could not be more striking.
London has suffered disastrously in the nine years since the abolition of the GLC, and Londoners are crying out for the restoration of a democratic city-wide authority to
Column 979fight for their interests and to oversee the future planning and development of their city. London needs a strategic authority that can promote London's interests in Europe and throughout the world, that can attract vital new inward investment, which is so critical to our capital city's future, and that can begin the long hard process of rebuilding industry, jobs and hope in London's devastated areas--most notably in east London.
London needs a strategic authority that can plan the new transport policies that are vital to unblock the congested arteries of our city, to ensure a substantial shift from the use of private vehicles to public transport and, in doing so, to clean up the city's polluted atmosphere that is so damaging to the health of our children and to the attractiveness of our city to visitors.
Economic development, transport planning, land-use planning, oversight of London's environment and all the strategic functions that cannot be carried out by individual London boroughs should and will be given back to a democratically elected city-wide authority by the next Labour Government. We will consult widely in due course about the city-wide responsibilities that the new authority may assume, including, possibly, the role of the police authority and the oversight of health policy. As we have already made clear, that authority will be a streamlined and lean body, not involved in day-to-day service delivery, which is best handled at a local level. It will focus on the big issues, the issues that need to be planned and co-ordinated across the whole of London, the issues which are fundamental to the success and vitality of our capital city in the 21st century. The Labour party will give back to Londoners their rightful say on the government of their city and, in doing so, will give London back its pride, its self-esteem and control over its destiny.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): Of course, the Opposition's proposals would give London a huge bill and more bureaucracy. That is what we should concentrate on. The two most important points about the government of London are the quantity of government--we already have quite enough--and the quality of government. There is a strong link between the two. The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) talked about a "streamlined" authority. That is the word that the Opposition used when they set up the GLC and the LCC. What did we get? Bloated bureaucracy. [Hon. Members:-- "The Government set it up."] They were wrong--absolutely wrong. -- [Interruption.] That is right, and it was wrong.
As the quantity of government grows, so the quality of government drops. Many of the calls that we now hear for a new strategic authority for London are totally misconceived. There would be an extra layer of government, and that would solve nothing. We do not want more bureaucrats, bigger bills or slower decisions on even minor matters. I, too, was a child postman. We want less but higher-quality government. We want local government to work with the private sector and to adopt the standards of efficiency and customer service that we expect and receive predominantly from the private sector.
Column 980Opposition Members have quoted the Evening Standard . I should like to quote The Economist which, in August, after detailed consideration of the government of London, concluded:
"a big central authority for London was likely to damage, not enhance London's long-term economic interests."
The city, The Economist said,
"can continue to adapt and grow flexibly without central planning".
Sir Paul Beresford: I am not referring to the City of London; I am talking about London. Opposition Members have not defined the city of London. Interestingly, they have very carefully not stated any borders. The article also said that
"London's fragmentation was a source of strength rather than weakness. The lesson for rising megacities is that a central strategic authority is not essential for prosperous growth. Self-governing neighbourhoods work better than a single city hall and are a safer base for an urban economy".
Reference was made to ILEA and to the fact that it had good services for adults. I accept that, but it needed to do so. ILEA tested the IQ of London children aged five and found that it was average, but, after 11 years of ILEA education, the IQ test showed that the standard had dropped. That is why London needed adult education.
It is against the background of less but better government that we look to the principles of promoting the role and responsibility of the individual and freedom from unnecessary regulation and over-government. The Government have a key role. We seek to empower the individual and reduce bureaucracy, particularly when the latter serves no purpose. The lesson of London during the 1980s was too much government, gerrymandering government, and too much waste. [Hon. Members:-- "Westminster."] The housing of London is where the gerrymandering was done. The GLC gerrymandered housing throughout London. One needs only to see the mess--
Sir Paul Beresford: No. We will not refer to Westminster. We may refer to Roehampton, which I happen to know even better than Opposition Members do. That was a GLC gerrymander if ever I saw one. As I have said, the lesson of London during the 1980s was too much government, too much waste and too much bureaucracy. People have forgotten that, although the GLC was responsible for a mere 11 per cent. of local services in the capital, it had a budget of almost £1 billion--excluding ILEA--92 councillors and 20,000 staff. In the five years until its abolition, it increased its spending by 170 per cent., when prices generally rose by just 29 per cent.
I remember a former leader of the GLC on an elephant in Battersea park. That explains the emphasis of the GLC.
Everybody agrees that London is a major world city. But, when we look closely at London, we see not one city but a series of small towns and villages, each with its own identity. To use a dental phrase that has been thrown at me, we see an amalgam of villages. That variety is its strength as well as the cause of some of its problems.
Column 981It also makes London hard to define. For example, no Opposition Member has dared to define its boundary. Is its boundary the 33 boroughs, the area within the M25, or is it further away? London's influence is substantial. As The Economist pointed out, London dominates Britain far out of proportion to its population. In terms of public transport and commuting, London dominates the south-east. Should a strategic authority for London include key parts of the south-east?
I notice that Opposition Members have produced several proposals, which have been leaked to The Independent , the Evening Standard and so on, for various forms of authority, but they have not come to a real decision. They talk about the M25 and an ill-defined central area. They shift and churn in various directions--U-turns and S-turns. I warn Londoners of the cost to London--the direct bill on the doorstep--of delay, particularly to business. People in business in London have made it clear to me and to others that the key is that London is not as heavily regulated as other European cities.
The only other European city of a size or status anywhere near equal to London is probably Paris. We have heard much about Paris, with its mayor, as an example of how a great capital city should be run. Although Paris has one titular major, the city is in fact run by eight unitary authorities, with small parishes below them. It does not support the case for a single authority or a single mayor for London.
We touched briefly on public transport. Much is made of the GLC's so-called "Fares Fair" policy, but we should be clear that that was no panacea for road congestion. During its operation road journeys were reduced by a mere 2 per cent. In economic terms, it was not a great success for London Transport. The policy was based on the premise that the taxpayer should always foot the bill.
I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that although I would like to add more I have completely run out of time. We need to reflect on the impact of our efforts to reduce the quantity and increase the quality of government in London. London is far from the problem city that many critics would have us believe. It is the favoured location for European business men, who are encouraged by low tax and low regulation, and by the high quality and flexibility of the work force. London is rich in arts and culture, drawing visitors from the rest of Britain and the rest of the world. Overseas visitors find London clean and safe, and even the education standards--
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I am delighted to have secured the opportunity of a debate on the middle east peace process, which besides being a matter of wide interest is of particular interest to many of my constituents.
I am delighted to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office here, because he has played an especially important role in co-ordinating Britain's policy on the peace process. I pay tribute especially to the important job that he did in updating the 1975 trade agreement between Israel and the European Union.
A week ago, the House heard important news about the latest developments in the Northern Ireland peace process. From that process, we know how much the lifting of the threat of terrorism, the enjoyment of peace and the presence of hope contribute, how much those have meant since the peace process began and how they are changing the atmosphere in the Province.
In their efforts for peace, the people of Israel seek and deserve no less-- the opportunity to enjoy security, to build an atmosphere of peace and to move forward in the peace process towards, I hope, a permanent solution. I seek to put at the forefront of today's debate and to draw to the attention of the House the issue of security, which is so vital for the people of Israel.
The Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, won the 1992 Israeli election on a platform promising peace with security. He realised that the one could not be achieved without the other. We all know that since 1948 Israel has faced a constant and often painful struggle to achieve security. She has fought wars and suffered terribly at the hands of terrorists, who have shown ruthlessness and who have stopped at nothing to inflict damage on Israel, her people and the Jewish citizens of other countries. It is not surprising, therefore, that security is of paramount concern for Israel. Unless the peace process can guarantee security it cannot guarantee peace. Many people in Israel and throughout the world hoped that the declaration of principles and the Oslo accords would bring about a peace process that encompassed and met Israel's natural and legitimate security concerns. Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat deserve the high praise and recognition that they received for their part in commencing that process.
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath): I think that everyone agrees that Israel has every right to live free from terrorism, but does my hon. Friend not concede that the building of the settlements around Jerusalem-- an entirely illegal act--is fuelling Hamas and the very forces that are trying to destroy both Mr. Arafat and the peace accord?
Mr. Clappison: I shall deal with that aspect in a minute. I recognise that there are issues between the parties, but the vital point that I want to make is that security must be an overriding consideration. As we know from our own experience in Northern Ireland, once there is security there are good prospects for establishing an atmosphere of peace and all that that means in terms of an eventual solution to the outstanding problems.
Column 983In recent months the peace process in which we invest so much hope has been overshadowed by a terrorist menace that has struck at the heart of Israel. We have seen the escalation of the terrorist activities of Islamic terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have perpetrated serious acts of terror and exploited their own young people by sending them on suicide missions. Last October the bus bombing in Tel Aviv was carried out by Hamas; 22 people were killed and 42 injured. In January this year at Beit Lid, in perhaps the most callous attack to date, one suicide bomber detonated himself in a crowd while another waited for rescuers to gather to aid the wounded and dying and then detonated his explosives, killing 19 more people.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we think about terrible events such as those we must look at both sides of the equation, not just one? Is it not true that since the Gaza and Jericho agreement was signed more than twice as many Palestinians as Israelis have been killed?
Mr. Clappison: I shall acknowledge later in my speech the importance of stability among the Palestinian people, and especially of stability for the Palestine National Authority. But the hon. Gentleman should join me in recognising the serious terrorist threat directed against Israel while Israel and her people are playing their part and entering into negotiations in the peace process. The people of Israel are being asked, not for the first time, to make a substantial sacrifice in the cause of peace by enduring those attacks while still searching for peace. To be realistic about the prospects for peace we must recognise the strain that that puts on the Israeli people and therefore on the peace process as a whole.
The campaign of terror organised by those groups from outside Israel has not been confined to the territory of Israel. A most serious aspect of their activities consists of attacks directed against Jewish communities throughout the world. In 1992 I had the pleasure of visiting Argentina with the Inter-Parliamentary Council Against Anti-Semitism with Members from both sides of the House. We visited the Jewish communal offices in Buenos Aires, where we enjoyed warm hospitality in a happy, friendly family atmosphere.
Last year I and other Members who had been on the visit watched television pictures of the appalling atrocity that took place in those offices, where more than 100 people were murdered by a terrorist bomb. There have been similar acts of terrorism against Jewish communities in this country. It is a matter of good fortune, but no thanks to the behaviour of the bombers and extremists, that the two bombs at the Israeli embassy and at Balfour house, the headquarters of the Joint Israel Appeal, did not cause fatalities, although planting them was a ruthless, reckless and wicked act that caused several injuries.
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), plainly there are issues to resolve between the various parties, but I urge the House and the Minister to agree that surely the need for security overrides those considerations. We have our experience of Northern Ireland, and our Government have rightly been conscious of the need for a cessation of terrorist violence and for the decommissioning of arms as part and parcel of getting the peace process under way. The same must apply to Israel. That country has an entirely natural and
Column 984legitimate concern that violence should end and that the peace process and the resolution of the outstanding issues should take place in an atmosphere of peace.
Prime Minister Rabin deserves great credit for continuing negotiations with the Palestinians against the background of those acts of terror both in Israel and abroad.
Israel has been placed in a terrible dilemma. Its experience has shown that the incidence of terrorism can be reduced by the closure of the territories. At the same time, part of Israel's dilemma is that closure means a deterioration in the economy of Gaza, which in turn undermines the Palestine National Authority. I must say to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) that I recognise that the stability of that authority is very important.
Given the severity of the terrorist threat that I have described, it is not hard to see why Israel recently took the decision to close the Gaza strip and prevent Palestinian workers from entering Israel. Given the need for the authority to be stable, it is not hard to see why Mr. Rabin showed that he was conscious of the issue by deciding to ease the closure of the territory after meeting the PLO chairman last month.
Mr. Rabin was frank about his position, and said that he had probably acted against Israel's security interests to prevent tension among the Palestinians. The House would do well to recognise the statesmanship and courage that Mr. Rabin has shown in pursuing peace in the circumstances. I am sure that that courage extends to the people of Israel too.
Israel is also faced with a dilemma regarding the deployment of troops on the west bank, which--understandably--has been judged to be necessary for security reasons. Pressure exists for the troops to be redeployed from the west bank to allow arrangements for autonomy and elections to proceed. I hope that we can recognise that dilemma, and sympathise with the people and Government of Israel.
In extending our sympathy and support to Israel, it is right to support the position of the new Palestine National Authority and to give it stability. We must give it every encouragement, as it could be very important in dealing with terrorism and disorder. I make no bones about paying tribute to Chairman Arafat for the course on which he is proceeding in the face of considerable personal and political risks.
I welcome the fact that the British Government have played a constructive role in seeking to bring stability to the new Palestine National Authority, not least by granting it £75 million in aid. I turn from the question of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians to wider issues of the peace process. Syria is an important element of the process and, at present, there is a great deal of uncertainty about its intentions and position. In many respects, the Syrian track of the peace process--an important one--is at an impasse. President Assad put forward a formula of, in his words,
"Total peace for total withdrawal".
But that has not been sufficiently explained in tangible terms. I suggest that Israel has shown flexibility towards Syria, and that, in my judgment, calls for a response from Syria. Israel is bound to be cautious, in view of the strategic importance to Israel of the Golan heights.