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6 Mar 2007 : Column 427WH—continued

I cannot, which is why I am here today.

Just before I came into this Chamber, my constituent rang me because she knew that I would be here, raising the issue not only on her behalf, but on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged people in the country, who find that the tax regime is not compatible with the benefits regime and that therefore they are disadvantaged. My constituent rang to tell me that she had just seen figures provided to her by Macmillan Cancer Support on the basis of an Opinion Leader Research programme, showing that one in 17 people suffering from cancer lose their home, that 11 per cent. of those are self-employed, like my constituent—we are talking about people who are right at the bottom of the pile and are penalised for trying to help themselves—and that 28 per cent. of parents who have children under 18 suffering from cancer experience problems with mortgage and rent.

The Minister has 15 minutes to explain to me why the two systems are incompatible and what the Government will now do practically to ensure that the tax system, which seems to me to be eminently sensible in this regard—the Minister may be surprised to hear me say that, but I am prepared to say it on this occasion—is no longer in complete conflict with the benefits system. Perhaps only a very few people are affected, but as a result of the current situation some of the most needy, some of the poorest, some of the most desperate people are denied the very modest benefits that for them would make the difference between survival and going under.

If my constituent loses her home—it is a rented home, by the way—the local authority will have to provide a home for her and for her daughter, who will require, until she dies, a monumental level of care. I do not know how any local authority could be responsible for that.

12.46 pm

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): Having heard the description that the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has given of the case, I apologise to you, Mr. Amess, and to the hon. Gentleman because, frankly, I, too, am surprised that I am here. None the less, I will make a number of points—it will not take me 15 minutes—with regard to the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised this afternoon.

Hearing about the case for the first time, I have tried to follow the complex details and the points about interaction with the tax system—the self-employed side of it—and the benefits system and, in particular, housing benefit. We are specifically focusing on the role of carers, which continues to be an area that the
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Government are working on. Whoever looked at the title of the debate thought that the hon. Gentleman would be raising a slightly different point today. That is why I am here. I shall not pretend that I can answer the detailed points that he has raised. He is right to highlight the fact that, with regard to the tax credits system, the purpose was to remove some of the contradictory rules as between those receiving payment from the Government and those making payment to the Government. That is why the tax credits system is placed within the tax system. As he rightly pointed out, for tax credit purposes, the situation described would not have occurred, because the tax rules are followed.

I shall not ask the hon. Gentleman questions across the Floor of this Chamber. I need to speak to my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, but it seems to me that there are a number of points for further exploration both on the DWP side and on the HMRC side. I am thinking particularly of the interaction involving the self-employed rules. The hon. Gentleman may want to answer this: I wondered why his constituent was not, perhaps, in receipt of the working tax credit. Was it because she was working for less than 16 hours a week in her business? If she was working for 16 hours a week or more, we would need to look at the interaction.

I have never been in this position before, and I must apologise to you, Mr. Amess, and particularly to the hon. Gentleman. I shall not ask him to write to me, because the issue will be set out clearly in Hansard. However, I give him—and, if necessary, you—a personal assurance that I shall take the matter away with me, even though it is not strictly within my remit. I undertake to get back to him as quickly as I can to see what can be done and what proposals have been made to take forward the important points that he identified. The tax and benefits systems should support people and encourage them to make the choices that they want to make, not force them into activities that have consequences for their receipt of benefits or their entitlement to tax relief.

As I said, I cannot apologise enough to the hon. Gentleman: this is a serious and tragic case, and I agree with all the points that he made about his constituent’s endeavours, against all the odds, to do the best for her family, and particularly her child. I shall certainly do my level best during the rather interesting conversations between the two Departments about how we might resolve the issue.

Again, I can only apologise, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and you, Mr. Amess, accept that. I cannot add any more, given that I am not fully aware of the interaction with housing benefit, which seems to be the crucial issue for Thanet district council. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the council is doing its level best, but within rules that do not necessarily facilitate helping this particular individual.

I thank you, Mr. Amess, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his tolerance on this matter.

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): This is very unfortunate, and I feel sorry for the hon. Gentleman, who has waited a year for the debate. However, the problem is certainly no fault of the Paymaster General’s. I suspend the sitting until 1 o’clock.

12.52 pm

Sitting suspended.

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International Committee of the Red Cross

1 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate on parliamentary oversight of matters raised by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which brings together matters that are dear to my heart: Parliament—essentially, the democratic accountability of the Government and of the Executive generally to Parliament, and human rights and justice, especially matters involving public health and decent standards for detainees.

As I think the role of Parliament is important, I had sought to raise the matter with the Leader of the House. However, I appreciate the fact that a Foreign Office Minister is responding to the debate. I know from the answers that the Minister gives to my parliamentary questions that he is invariably informative and generous with information. However, I shall shortly refer to two parliamentary questions on which he was not particularly forthcoming. I understand that there was a reason for that, which I shall go into. That goes to the central reason for initiating my debate on parliamentary oversight—there isn’t any.

Despite the fact that the ICRC submits reports, there is no process by which Parliament can be told about them—what is in them, important matters of principle that they raise, or major abuses of human rights or decent standards on the British watch in Iraq, say, or Afghanistan. In fact, there is a block on such information from the ICRC reaching Parliament.

I tabled one of the two questions that I want to discuss following a meeting on 26 April last year of the all-party parliamentary group on global security and non-proliferation. The subject was “Iraq: supporting civil society”. Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, who was at that time UK spokesperson for the ICRC, spoke at the meeting. He pointed out that the ICRC has an official role as custodian of the Geneva convention and that it reports breaches of the convention to relevant Governments. That would apply, if appropriate, to our Government and our allies in relation to Iraq. He added during the discussion that although the ICRC submits its reports to the Government confidentially—the ICRC itself would not disclose publicly what was in them—that does not preclude the Government from responding when such matters are raised in Parliament. However, I have found that the Government say that their arrangement with the ICRC is totally confidential. Thus, they keep the matters involved secret from Parliament.

In my question following the meeting, I asked the Foreign Secretary

The Minister replied on 3 May:

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In February this year, I asked

The Minister replied, referring to the earlier reply, and said that the Government

Of course that is an important relationship, and I pay tribute to the ICRC for visiting, I am told, 600,000 people in 2,400 places of detention worldwide, but I am talking about people who have been detained by UK and US authorities. We are mature democracies, not totalitarian states. Our Parliaments can and should be told where there are exceptions to normally accepted standards. The ICRC and the totalitarian Governments whose prisoners it visits can keep their confidentiality, if openness is thought to put visiting at risk, but that surely cannot apply to our mature democracies. The Minister talked of the

and “unrestricted access”. Surely those would not be jeopardised in our countries if our Parliaments were told about the issues of concern arising from visits.

By the way, Mr. Huguenin-Benjamin is not the only ICRC representative to have said, or at least implied, at meetings I have attended that the Government could, if they wished, disclose relevant information to Parliament. Although Mr. Simon Brooks, the ICRC’s new senior delegate in London, who has been in post one week, told me yesterday that the committee would prefer its reports not to be made public so as to facilitate access to prisons globally, he still acknowledged that aspects of such matters were between the Government and Parliament.

I state clearly—this is why I sought the debate—that such total secrecy towards Parliament is wrong. In our democracy, there are three parties involved—not just the ICRC and the Government, but Parliament. Parliament has the right to know, especially when a Government have been dragging their feet on proper standards, or where major issues are involved or the Government do not properly respect the Geneva convention or other important treaties. I do not say that that is happening, but we just do not know.

The ICRC would not disclose the matters that were raised, but I contend that the Government could disclose them to parliamentarians if they wished. We are talking
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about major issues of principle. Mostly, the ICRC raises matters that are of concern to it and calls on the Government to address them. If they do not, the ICRC may raise such matters again in another report, and then, perhaps, in yet another. Matters that are repeatedly not addressed, or that are not addressed in a way that is satisfactory to the ICRC so that it must raise them repeatedly, should, I believe, come before Parliament. The Government may have a reason for that not happening that they want to stick to, but they should be accountable and should justify themselves to Parliament.

Three examples illustrate my case. First, we know that there was routine hooding of prisoners in Iraq. It was initially justified by the armed forces and the Government. The ICRC may have reported its concern, which would have been kept secret. It was only through the work of others such as diligent MPs—me included, by the way—that the practice was put into the public domain and challenged. Only when the Government realised that routine hooding breached accepted standards, including an earlier assurance by the Heath Government that it would not be deemed acceptable in Northern Ireland, was the policy towards Iraqi prisoners changed. If the matter had been subject to totally secret communication between the ICRC and the Government, nothing would have changed.

My second example concerns the case of Abdul-Razzaq Ali al-Jedda, the 49-year-old dual Iraqi-British national who has been held by our armed forces in Iraq without charge or trial since 10 October 2004. The Government say that they are justified in doing that under United Nations resolutions. Only after Amnesty International put that case in the public domain was I able to ask a parliamentary question to establish the Government’s position on it.

That case has huge implications for the process of law, but had it been raised only in the ICRC’s confidential report to the Government, it would have remained a secret. I hope that there will be an occasion on which the Minister or a Law Officer has to respond to questioning from Jeremy Paxman, Jon Snow or Jon Craig on the implications of that case, but that can happen only if such cases are known about. That is how an open democracy properly functions.

My third point is about Abu Ghraib prison. The spectacular abuses there were brought to light by a leak in the US, using warders’ trophy photographs. If it had been left to the cosy ICRC-Government relationship, knowledge of those abuses would not have made it to the public domain. Indeed, I do not think that the ICRC even told the UK Government what was going on in Abu Ghraib, despite the operation in Iraq being a coalition operation overall.

I have here the Foreign Office’s 2006 annual human rights report. The pages on Afghanistan have these words highlighted in red at the top:

The first paragraph adds that

But it seems that the FCO will not respond in the same way to the ICRC’s criticisms, because they are not mentioned.

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Some human rights abuses are mentioned in the report, including domestic violence and the lack of respect for women’s rights, the high rate of illiteracy and child mortality, and the persecution of an Afghan who converted to Christianity, but the ICRC must have raised its concerns about Afghanistan. I bet that more concerns are not in the report than are in it. Even if they are not attributed to the ICRC, why are they not in the report? Mr. Brooks told me that the ICRC visited 14,000 detainees in Afghanistan. Any comment on that reported to the Government does not get a mention.

There is much on Iraq in the “Security and law and order” section of the report, which is at pains to say that white phosphorous is not a chemical weapon, although most people think it is. That section discusses military operations in Falluja and other operations affecting citizens; allegations of abuses by authorities, including the military; refugees and internally displaced people; the infringement of women’s and minority rights; and, of course, detentions. It is likely that the ICRC has raised those issues in its reports to the Government, but other than explaining their political position on those matters, have the Government addressed the ICRC’s detailed concerns? There is no sign of that in the report.

I suspect that if the ICRC were doing its job properly, it would have reported on Iraqi prisons such as the one at site 4 in east Baghdad; US prisons—not just Abu Ghraib, but secret ones; torture and degrading treatment or the risk of such treatment in certain circumstances, such as when people are being detained for long periods; and whether relatives are being allowed access. It would also report on executions; deaths in custody; people being held without any proper legal process, not in accordance with international humanitarian law; and lack of access to legal counsel or any form of representation.

The ICRC would also report cases in which detainees are not allowed to know the charges against them, or the allegations against them in the many cases in which no charges are ever brought. It would also report on the impact of psychological or other undue pressure upon prisoners, perhaps to confess falsely.

In the wider context, the ICRC would report on the operation of death squads, including those that are officially sponsored and trained; the consequences for citizens of military operations such as the current US surge; the insufficiency of measures to help refugees and internally displaced people; the crisis in public health, especially for children; and the adequacy of public provision such as schools and hospitals. I find it hard to believe that the ICRC has not expressed its concern to the Government on those issues.

It might be worth bringing some of the ICRC’s more specific concerns to Parliament’s attention, as well as the general ones. The Government’s detailed response to those concerns should be available to parliamentarians. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons writes regular, often critical, reports on UK prisons, which are placed in the public domain and come before MPs. It is strange that there is not the same accountability to Parliament regarding prisons that the UK runs abroad.

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