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David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman is right that they are critical to progress, but it takes two to tango in this process. We will need many, many steps by both sides. He used the phrase “make or break”, and the frightening thing is that there are many things that could break this process. There are plenty of wreckers
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and plenty of difficult compromises that could wreck the process, so it is right to be cautious. However, there is symmetry to the issue: the Palestinians’ suffering and the Israelis’ insecurity are two sides of the same coin, and both need to be addressed.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a perceptive and balanced statement? I endorse what he said about President Abbas being the president of all Palestine, and that it is up to the Palestinians themselves to lead their own process of reconciliation. Does he agree, however, that the international community has a role in not making matters more difficult—something that I fear that we did after the election of Hamas in 2006 and up to the events of June 2007? Will he clarify the fact that the important freeze on settlements includes the E1 plan, which is of tremendous significance in the west bank?

David Miliband: On the latter point, I am sorry if what I said earlier sowed confusion rather than clarity. I am absolutely clear that the extension of settlements into the E1 area would set back the process of building a viable Palestinian state, and I will check the record to make sure that I have not suggested the opposite. My hon. Friend is right that the international community must not make things worse—I hope that we can aspire to do better than that—but we should probably save for another occasion a longer discussion of the history of how we got here. As for how we move forward, there is a process in place: it is the only game in town, and I suggest that is where we should focus our efforts.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): The Foreign Secretary and other right hon. and hon. Members rightly raised the question of rockets, 1,100 of which have been fired in the past 12 months, resulting in more than 300 injuries and 15 deaths. Whatever we think about the security fence—in many ways, it is odious—it has served to protect many Israelis from suicide bombings, which have not taken place in Israel for many months. The Foreign Secretary alluded to the talks with Egypt on the smuggling of arms into Gaza. Will he amplify precisely what has been agreed, because smuggling is a major cause of destabilisation?

David Miliband: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot provide that amplification, because while we have had discussions, to suggest that they were negotiations would probably go beyond the United Kingdom’s remit. What I do know is that the countries of Egypt and Israel are in intensive discussions about the issue. It is not a new issue—smuggling has gone on for a long time—but I gained the impression that there was a real commitment on both sides to try to address it, because it is not in either side’s interest.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Hospital consultants in Gaza are regularly reduced to tears, because they are losing increasing numbers of patients, including extremely young children, whom they know they can save. There is a lack of equipment, as well as basic medicines, and intensive care cots of children are broken. The doctors accompany very sick patients to checkpoints only to watch them die there. Will my right hon. Friend therefore make a pledge to the House that he will do everything in his power to open safe passages for those sick patients either to the west bank or to Israeli hospitals, so that those lives can be saved?

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David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes the important point that while the words “humanitarian tragedy” can seem antiseptic or clichéd, there is real life-and-death suffering. I am certainly happy to follow up any particular cases that he wishes to raise, but I can assure him that when we talk about humanitarian tragedy, whether with the UN or with any of the other bodies involved, we bring it down to the human scale, and that is what he has done.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any final settlement on a two-state solution can be realised only if Israel’s security is guaranteed? If he does, would he consider a new innovation and extend an invitation to Israel to become a member of NATO so that its future security is guaranteed?

David Miliband: It is shared ground on both sides of the House that the security of the state of Israel is half the bargain—the other half is a viable Palestinian state. When I was in Israel—this may disappoint the hon. Gentleman—I discussed the matter with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, and they were much more interested in joining the European Union than they were in NATO.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Earlier, my right hon. Friend made a distinction between those who vote for Hamas and Hamas itself. Does he accept that Hamas is as much a social movement as it is a political movement, and that in bringing about a reconciliation, while it is important that President Abbas plays a pivotal role, everyone else, including the Arab states, the EU and the UN has a role to play in bringing about reconciliation, otherwise we will end up with a three-state solution by default rather than the two-state solution that we would like?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not sure about the term “social movement”, but it is certainly the case that Hamas provides an infrastructure of support that has been recognised by some of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Hamas has certainly fed off the sentiment that corruption in the Palestinian Authority is a real source of injury to the Palestinian people, and in that sense I very much agree with his comments.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): On the question of settlements, does my right hon. Friend agree that Prime Minister Olmert needs to promise not just an end to the construction of new settlements and expansion outside the boundaries of existing settlements—I understand that that is all that he has promised so far—but a complete end to all construction within existing settlements and the release of areas for future settlements such as the E1 area that my right hon. Friend mentioned, if he wants the talks to succeed? It would not be fair to expect Palestinian politicians to negotiate while construction is still under way.

David Miliband: There are confidence-building measures to do with what happens to the settlements in the short term but, in the end, this is about the borders of a Palestinian state and the borders of Israel. We face the prospect that over the next year those issues can be addressed in detail, and that is the best way to get this sorted out once and for all.

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Point of Order

1.18 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, the Minister for the Cabinet Office is responsible for information assurance across government. In July, he received a report, relevant to our forthcoming debate, that was critical of the Government’s preparedness. I tabled a parliamentary question last Thursday, scheduled for reply yesterday, asking when he read that report and what action he had taken. Last night, I was given a holding answer. Can you advise me, Mr. Speaker, why it should take five days for a Minister to search his memory to discover when he read a report and which actions had been taken, and how best I can get him to apply his own Cabinet Office guidelines that named day questions should be answered on the day named in the question?

Mr. Speaker: I am responsible only for my own memory, not for Ministers’ memories, and it is very good indeed.


Education and Skills

Secretary Ed Balls, supported by The Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Des Browne, Mr. Secretary Hutton, Mr. Secretary Hain, Mr. Secretary Woodward, Mr. Secretary Denham, Jim Knight, Caroline Flint, Malcolm Wicks and Mr. David Lammy, presented a Bill to make provision about education and training; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 12].

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Opposition Day

[2nd Allotted Day]

HM Revenue and Customs

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the debate on the first Opposition motion. I inform the House that in both debates I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.20 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): I beg to move,

Eight days ago the Chancellor had to come to the House and tell us that the Government had failed in their first duty to protect the public. He had to tell us of the incompetence in his Department that had led to the personal details of every child in the country being lost and the bank account numbers of every family in the country going missing. He said at the very end of his statement that he would

In the eight days since then, the Chancellor’s version of events has been contradicted by the internal e-mails published by the National Audit Office. We have discovered that, contrary to what he said, senior officials in HM Revenue and Customs were involved in the key decisions. Further evidence has emerged of systemic failure in the Chancellor’s Department, and still there is no sign of the missing data. Yet, instead of keeping the House updated on these developments, the Chancellor has on two occasions since then avoided coming to the Chamber to make a statement. That is why this debate is necessary. It allows us to hold one of the most senior members of the Government accountable for one of the most catastrophic mistakes made by the Government.

The first thing that we should be told today is whether the Chancellor is any closer to finding out where those missing discs are. He has ordered that a letter be sent out to about 7 million people, telling them that their family details and bank account numbers are

How on earth does he know that? We all hope that it is true, but I am not aware of any positive evidence to support the statement that was sent to 7 million people. Perhaps the Chancellor can provide it today. I am willing to listen to that evidence. He can intervene on me at any point, or wait until his own speech. At the moment, we have evidence that the Government are searching the premises of external businesses such as
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TNT, so I would like to know how he can tell people that the discs are likely to still be on Government property.

We have also discovered that in trying to reassure people, the Treasury appears to have compounded its mistake by sending to some members of the public letters that include the personal details and national insurance numbers of other people. Those are the apology letters. The Financial Secretary shakes her head. She is obviously not aware of what is going on in the country. Let me read a couple of examples that have been brought to my attention. First, a member of the public states:

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) brought to my attention another case involving a constituent of his who has just been sent a letter of apology that includes the names and national insurance numbers of someone other than them. The error is being compounded as we speak by the release of such letters. Perhaps the Chancellor could tell us a little more about that when he replies.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Osborne: Of course. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has received such a complaint from a constituent of his.

Dr. Palmer: I am interested that the hon. Gentleman has moved from 500,000 records to single records. If he feels that the issue is important, as he seems to, is he not concerned that 90 per cent. of Conservative Back Benchers are not present, and that those who are present are mostly talking to each other rather than listening to him?

Mr. Osborne: I am talking about 25 million people whose information has been lost. I suppose we have the worst 10 per cent. of the Labour party on the Government Benches.

Perhaps the Chancellor can explain what he has been doing in the past eight days to keep us up to date with the search for the missing discs. The second thing that he must do today is account to the House for not telling the British public the whole truth about how their personal details came to be lost.

When the Chancellor spoke to us last week, he wanted us to believe that it was all the fault of what he said in his statement was

He repeated that when he referred to someone “at a junior level”. In reply to the hon. Member for Coventry,
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North-West (Mr. Robinson)—the paymaster general to the Brownites in more ways than one—the Chancellor said:

Let me put this in terms which I think are acceptable to you, Mr. Speaker. We now know that what the Chancellor told the House was not close to an accurate statement of what actually happened. We now know that it was not left to someone at a junior level in the organisation to make that decision. Thanks to the e-mails released two days later—they were released not by the Treasury, by the way, but by the National Audit Office; we still have not heard anything from the Treasury—we have discovered that senior officials at HMRC were involved in the decision.

Everyone has seen those e-mails. It was a senior business manager who replied to the first request from the NAO for the information on 13 March. It was that senior business manager who rejected the NAO’s request that the address and bank account details be removed, on the grounds that it would cost too much money—not something that the Chancellor has ever told us. The child benefit process manager, the senior official in charge of the entire child benefit system, as I understand it, was copied into those e-mails and was aware of the discussion about whether to send the information.

Those are not junior officials or lowly clerks—96 per cent. of the staff of the Revenue and Customs are on more junior grades than the most junior civil servants involved in this decision. Why did not the Chancellor tell the whole truth? The political editor of the BBC reported:

That is what the political editor of the BBC said, reporting the conversations that he had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I guess, or with the Chancellor’s special advisers or whoever he talks to in the Department.

Is that report true? Can the Chancellor tell us now that when he spoke to Parliament, he had not been told of the potential involvement of a senior official? Are we to believe that the Chancellor has so little grip in his Department that when he spoke to Parliament, he did not know that his own senior officials had been copied into and involved in those decisions? Are we to believe that in the 10 days that he had to prepare for that statement, he did not ask to see the internal correspondence that was published just a couple of days later? Or did he want us all to believe that it was all down to some lowly official and that no Government of any colour could prevent such a thing from happening? Ignorance or deceit—neither is much of a defence for a man who holds the highest office in the land.

The involvement of senior officials is—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have called before, on another occasion, for temperate language. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the word “deceit”— [Interruption.] Order. There is only one referee in the Chamber.

Mr. Osborne: Let us be generous, then, and just call it ignorance.

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Hon. Members: Withdraw!

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is fair. That is a withdrawal.

Mr. Osborne: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The involvement of senior officials is not the only inconsistency between what the Chancellor said to the House and what now appears to be the case. He told us that the reason that he had delayed telling the public and Parliament about the loss of personal data was—I quote from his statement—that

He said:

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