Previous Section Index Home Page

1 May 2008 : Column 476

Finally, let me discuss the Arab peace plan. Hon. Members have spoken of the vital importance of the Arab peace plan in securing peace in Palestine and Israel. I, too, would like to express my sincere appreciation for all the hard work that the Arab League is doing, particularly King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Arab League is genuine in its determination to find a credible solution. We must do everything possible to help the Arab League and Saudi Arabia, so that its proposals and imaginative solutions are deliberated on in this House and more Members of Parliament are aware of them.

1.34 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): It is understandable that the focus in this debate and the wider international community has rightly been on the situation in Gaza. However, it is also worth while mentioning again, as other colleagues have, that the situation facing the Palestinian people on the west bank, although not as severe as in Gaza, is nevertheless extremely serious. That situation becomes more serious day by day, primarily because of the activities authorised, initiated and approved by the Israeli Government in extending Israeli settlements on the west bank.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): It is also worth remembering to condemn Hamas a little more than we have been today. Some 700 rockets have rained down on Israel since January. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said about many such incidents being a case of somebody trying their best in their back yard. However, Hamas has said that the purpose of the rockets is to cause Israeli migration away from southern Israel, so perhaps we should remember to condemn Hamas a little more.

Mark Lazarowicz: If my hon. Friend had waited a bit longer, he would have heard me making that condemnation, which I will make now. Clearly everyone in the House would—indeed, does—condemn that activity. However, that should not hold us back from saying that pressure needs to be put not only on Hamas, but on the Israeli Government, to enter into the peace process more substantively than they have too often done in the past.

The settlement activity is an indication of the lack of good faith on the part of the Israeli Government. In spite of the Annapolis peace conference, there has been a continuation of settlement activity on the west bank in the past few months. That activity is in breach of international law and UN resolutions, and goes against the spirit of the Annapolis summit.

The Israeli organisation Peace Now has produced some statistics about settlement activity on the west bank in the past few months. There has been construction in 101 settlements, with construction started on 275 new buildings, while almost 1,000 units have been established in caravan neighbourhoods. At the beginning of March, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior approved the conversion of one local council into a new city. The number of tenders and construction plans in East Jerusalem has leapt. Tenders for the construction of at least 750 housing units in East Jerusalem were issued between December last year and March 2008, yet throughout
1 May 2008 : Column 477
2007 and up to Annapolis, only two tenders for 46 housing units were issued. All in all, the Israeli Government are, according to Peace Now, promoting the building of more than 3,500 housing units in the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem located east of the green line.

When that is happening, there is every reason, bluntly, to doubt the good faith of the Israeli Government in working towards a settlement that we all want to see. That is not only why it is so important to put those facts on record, but why the international community needs to put more pressure on the Israeli Government to move towards a settlement that is at least acceptable to all parties in the area. I can understand why, with his lengthy experience in such matters, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) should feel that the international community should draw back and allow the parties to reach their own resolution of the disputes. However, the experience on both sides, particularly in respect of the approach of the Israeli Government over the past few months, shows that without that pressure we will not move forward to a genuinely acceptable peace settlement.

I hope that the message will go out from the House today that of course we want to see a stop to the rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza or from anywhere, but equally that we need to see a change in the policies, actions and behaviour of the Israeli Government and in those actions that they authorise and support.

In seeking to apply pressure through the international organisations of which we are a part—I recognise what the Government have done in that respect—we will be reflecting the views of many of our constituents. I am sure that I am not alone in having a number of constituents who are active on the issue locally. Tomorrow, for example, one of the Amnesty International groups in my constituency is opening an exhibition of photographs showing the plight of the Palestinian people.

My constituency also contains the Hadeel fair trade shop, which imports products from Palestinian craft workers and sells them throughout the UK. It also imports olive oil that is produced by Palestinian farmers—sometimes with great difficulty, because of the transport restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities. I am told by Hadeel that in the past few years, almost 750,000 olive trees have been uprooted in the west bank, largely because of the activity of Israeli military units or because of the expansion of settlements there. That is worth mentioning, because although we talk about and want to see economic progress for the Palestinian people, even existing economic activity is being undermined all the time by activities either promoted directly or authorised by the Israeli Government. That is another example of how the Palestinian people continue to be put under pressure, and why the world needs to take action to relieve the immediate pressure on the Palestinians in Gaza and the west bank. It is also why we need to bring about a long-term settlement that can be accepted by the Israelis and Palestinians alike.

1.40 pm

Dr. Howells: I thank hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, which has been good. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for his speech, which was, as
1 May 2008 : Column 478
always, thoughtful and well informed. He posed several questions that were picked up in other hon. Members’ speeches.

We are right to concentrate on the situation in Gaza and Israel. We could, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, have talked about several issues for some time. He has taken part in our many debates on the middle east, and I share his frustration. This is my first topical debate. I did not know what that was until someone explained it to me this morning, but I know that there certainly is not enough time to deal with subjects such as this.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked many extremely relevant questions, and set the scene of the appalling situation in Gaza with vivid descriptions. I say to him that we must keep up the pressure on Israel to see the good political sense in lifting the blockades. I doubt whether there is an hon. Member in the Chamber who would seek to defend the insane actions of Palestinian jihadist extremists. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) who described some of the effects that restrictions on gas supplies have had in Gaza. It is bad enough that the Israelis are restricting the supply of gas, but it was absolute insanity for Palestinian Islamic jihadists to blow up the pumping station at the border and kill two Israeli security personnel. I do not know why that sort of thing happens, although there are many theories, some of which we have heard today. Perhaps there are elements who want the situation to intensify and become worse—I do not know. The situation is doing no one any good. We have to keep making the case for diplomacy instead of those kinds of violent confrontations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) outlined vividly the dire situation in Gaza, especially regarding key areas such as health care provision. We have heard several distressing accounts of children and others dying because they were not allowed admission to hospitals, in Israel and elsewhere, where they could have received treatment that might have saved their lives. He makes an important point, although I disagree with some of the points that he made. I say to him that it is quite right to emphasise that every time there is a perceived injustice, it creates more enemies for Israel and the peace process. The dilemma is not easy for Israel to solve, or for its defence forces or its Parliament, but it is making a great mistake by taking its eye off the fact that the deaths of children create more enemies. I would never condone the violent attacks on Israel. There is no defence for that approach, which has got people nowhere for the past 60 years. It has simply meant that people have been killed and maimed all over the place.

The hon. Member for Reigate made an interesting speech. He said that the international community should perhaps pull back a little and let the Israeli and Palestinian people face the issues that will determine the fate of both their countries. I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view, although I do not think that any of us can be sure what would happen if we were to do that. There have been attempts to do it in the past, which usually took the form of military invasions of Israel. Those scars are still there in the psychology of that nation and in its approach to its neighbours.

1 May 2008 : Column 479

However, there is a kernel of truth in what the hon. Member for Reigate said. He made the important point that Israel and Palestine’s neighbours must wake up to the fact that they hold the key to the future of that region, and that it is no good thinking that the Americans can sort it out or that the British, EU, Russians or Chinese will sort it out. Ultimately, the situation will be changed by the decisions of the people who live in that region.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) made constructive points, which I was glad to hear. I very much hope that, as a consequence of the debate, the talks that will take place in London from this afternoon onwards—the ad hoc liaison committee talks—will at least keep the momentum going that was started at Annapolis. We have to do that. There is no other show in town as far as the diplomatic community is concerned.

Finally, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) made an important point about King Abdullah, to whom we are all grateful for the renaissance in Saudi international diplomacy that has helped to put more life back into the Arab peace plan. I, too, pay tribute to the Arab League for its work.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to the temporary Standing Order (Topical Debates).

1 May 2008 : Column 480

Child Poverty in Scotland

[Relevant documents: T he Third Report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08, on Child Poverty in Scotland, HC 277 and the Government’ s response thereto, HC 525.]

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I beg to move,

I am grateful to have the opportunity to address this issue, and I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and his colleagues on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs for their report. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend’s speech, should he catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Let me say at the outset that for members of the Government and Labour Members, a number of issues go to the heart of our involvement in politics. Poverty—crucially, child poverty—is one such issue. The Governments of the 1980s and 1990s were reluctant to talk about poverty and unwilling to accept that it even existed. They presided over the view that unemployment was inevitable and that the economic consequences on workless families and children were unavoidable. As unemployment grew and matters such as schools, hospitals and housing failed to get the investment that they needed, poverty also grew. In particular—in a telling comment on the policies of the previous Government and, dare I say it, to their shame—child poverty not only grew, but doubled. In Scotland, we saw communities devastated by unemployment and the once aspirant working man and woman worn down as they were abandoned by an uncaring and apparently unconcerned Government into an existence based on worklessness and benefits.

When the Government came to power in 1997, they inherited some of the highest rates of child poverty among the industrialised nations. One in four children lived in poverty. Child poverty had doubled between 1979 and 1997 and 3.4 million children were living in poverty across the country. The UK topped the European league for the number of children living in poverty, and the trend was getting worse instead of better.

That inexorable rise in child poverty was the backdrop to what has become one of the boldest and most historic commitments of any new Government coming into power. In 1999, this Government committed to halving child poverty by 2010 and to abolishing it by 2020.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Minister will know of the widespread concern among the relevant non-governmental organisations that we are probably not going to meet the 2010 target. Since the report was published, we have seen a remarkable rise in the cost of many staple foodstuffs and, indeed, in the price of fuel. What impact have those significant increases had on the Government’s ability to meet the 2010 target, and what assessment has her Department made of that impact?

1 May 2008 : Column 481

Mrs. McGuire: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will come on to deal with those issues later. We must recognise the fluctuations in costs and it is quite difficult to carry out an analysis over such a short period. I will deal with the heart of these questions a little later in my speech.

In 1999, the Government committed themselves to halving child poverty by 2010 and abolishing it by 2020. We not only committed to halt the upward trend in child poverty and bring it down but set ourselves on a path to abolish it altogether. I hope that all hon. Members, regardless of their political background, will recognise that our commitment was bold as well as ambitious. I would like to put on record the fact that we made such a powerful commitment because we understood the damage that poverty does to individuals and communities. Poverty not only erodes a person’s self-confidence; it limits their ambition and puts them at a long-term disadvantage.

In childhood, poverty is especially corrosive. During a time of life that should be full of hope and opportunity, a child living and growing up in poverty, is especially vulnerable.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that linked with poverty is the issue of education, which provides the way out of poverty? The Government have done an excellent job in that respect, as did the previous Administration in Scotland. What should we say, however, about a party that would deny young people their right to education, particularly at the pre-school under-five level?

Mrs. McGuire: That is obviously a question for another Administration of a different political party to answer, so I hope that during this afternoon’s debate we will be able to hear some defence of the more eccentric decisions taken by the new Administration in Holyrood. Although they are good at talking warm words, they are not very good at alerting us to their delivery mechanisms. My hon. Friend thus makes a very good point, and I know that the importance of education is recognised in many parts of his constituency as the key to liberating young people and enabling them to have a career that will give them both fulfilment and finance.

Labour Members—I will be generous and say that this might also apply to some other Members—well know that children who grow up in poverty are likely to see their educational aspirations crushed and their health and development stymied by it. That is why this Government acted and have continued to act on poverty every year since 1999. We want nobody to be left behind, no child’s life blighted before their potential is realised.

I am especially pleased to report that things have improved markedly. Compared with 1997, there are now nearly 3 million more people in employment across the UK and 600,000 fewer children living in poverty. In Scotland, there are more people in work and 90,000 fewer children living in poverty. Since 1997, unemployment in Scotland has fallen by 82,000—nearly 39 per cent.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Perhaps the Minister will describe how the abolition of the 10p starting rate of income tax will help in the battle against general poverty?

1 May 2008 : Column 482

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman’s party lacked the commitment to stay up and vote for any of our policies to alleviate poverty. Let me remind him of the national minimum wage, for example— [Interruption.] I will address the issue in general terms, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have said that they will do more to help single and older people affected by the abolition of the 10p rate. If he has a fair mind, and I am open to persuasion on that— [Interruption.] The Minister of State says that he has already made up his mind about that. If the hon. Gentleman has a fair mind, he will recognise that over a 10-year period, we have invested in families and children in Scotland. I am coming on to deal with some of the more specific issues.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Before the Minister moves on, may I say that extra help for families with children was provided in the Budget, but the Scottish National party voted it down?

Mrs. McGuire: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has pinpointed the inconsistencies—we have to be careful about the words we use in this Chamber—in the views of SNP Members. [Interruption.] Let me make a little progress, particularly in view of the heckling by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil).

I was saying that progress has been made on child poverty in Scotland. Thanks to a co-operative and sustained partnership between the UK Government and the previous Scottish Executive, child poverty in Scotland is now lower than the UK average. Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, the proportion of children in relative low income in Scotland fell from 28 per cent. to 21 per cent.—a fall of 90,000—and is now lower than the UK average, as was identified by the recently published Scottish Government discussion paper on tackling poverty.

Those statistics mean that Scotland met the 2004-05 child poverty target to reduce relative child poverty in Great Britain by one quarter and it is no coincidence that, as employment rises and unemployment decreases, we see this marked reduction in child poverty. The Government continue to believe that employment—a job—is the key route out of poverty and that work for those who can remains the most sustainable route in tackling poverty. So, achieving our goals on child poverty will be realised only by making real progress in achieving our goal of employment opportunities for all.

Next Section Index Home Page