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Mr. George Galloway (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Respect): The Foreign Secretary is not in favour of the isolation of Israel but he was in favour of the isolation
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of the Government elected in Palestine, in the only free parliamentary election ever held in any Arab country, because the people voted the wrong way. He joined the siege of the Hamas Government and helped create the desperation that led to the barrage of rockets—largely ineffectual, as he has conceded. Action speaks louder than words. The resolution he boasts of drafting is an ineffectual section 6—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the hon. Gentleman. He must ask a question. He is up there making a speech but he has not asked a question. He knows the rules of the House well enough. Ask a question.

Mr. Galloway: I will, Mr. Speaker. Why will the Government not recall our ambassador from Tel Aviv, ask the Israeli ambassador to leave, and, above all, stop selling British weapons to the mass-murderers who are taking so many lives and limbs in Palestine today?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has no evidence at all of British arms being used to take lives and limbs in Gaza. Withdrawing our ambassador from Israel, or kicking the Israeli ambassador out of London, may be the sort of gesture politics that the hon. Gentleman thinks is effective, but I do not think that it would achieve anything when it comes to making the sort of progress that all of us in this House want to see in the middle east.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): That there are two sides to the escalation of the conflict is beyond doubt, but the appalling disproportion in the civilian casualties demonstrates that there is collective punishment of the civilian population of Gaza; that is what is shocking people around the world. My right hon. Friend rightly stressed the importance of a unified voice for the Palestinian people, but does he agree—and can he convey the fact—that that has been fatally undermined by the failure to ensure that the Palestinian people are incentivised and rewarded for pragmatic negotiation? In particular, illegal settlement building has been a major contributory factor. Can he convey that message to the Israeli Government?

David Miliband: Well, yes. I not only can convey it, but think that the Prime Minister and I have been conveying it. It is precisely that point that the Prime Minister addressed in his speech to the Knesset. Settlement building is not just an encroachment on the future Palestinian state; it is also illegal and a massive block on the work of, and the appeal made by, the peaceful, committed, moderate leadership of the Palestinian people, so there is a double or triple tragedy at the heart of the settlement process. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the issue of the settlements, and what they do to the prospect of a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines, must be at the heart of any discussion that goes beyond the immediate crisis. I spent a lot of last year saying that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is closing. That is in part because the longer settlement building goes on, the harder it will be to draw up, conceive and then deliver the Palestinian state that will be essential for any sort of stability in the middle east.

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Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Following on from the question of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), does the Foreign Secretary agree that achieving a lasting, as opposed to short-term, ceasefire will in the end require dialogue between Israel and Hamas, either direct or indirect, however difficult that may be, in order to agree the terms of any such ceasefire? What role does he think that he or the British Government can play in bringing about that dialogue?

David Miliband: Obviously, the answer is yes; indirect talks are happening now, precisely on the subject of the ceasefire—long-term, not just short-term—that the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about. It is important to go back to the point that the Arab League has mandated Egypt to engage with Hamas, on its behalf and on behalf of the international community, on the issue of Palestinian reconciliation and the ceasefire, and I think that that is the right approach. The truth is that the door is open to Hamas, if it is willing to recognise the fact that an Israeli state has to be part of the solution. That is what is set out in resolution 1850, passed three or four weeks ago, in its references to the Quartet principles and the Arab peace initiative. However, Hamas needs to recognise its negotiating partner. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman feels strongly about the subject, but it is important to point out that people talk about Hamas being the representatives of Palestinians, without recognising that there is an elected leader of all the Palestinians—a President of the Palestinian Authority, elected in 2004 by all Palestinians to represent them. A further President will be elected this year or next year. That is a vital part of the issue, and we should not fall into the trap of allowing Hamas’s leadership in Gaza to claim that it represents all the Palestinians.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Would my right hon. Friend accept that the reason why there is such strong emotion in the House of Commons today is that, in the past week, the Israelis have shown total indifference to the suffering and lives of Palestinian civilians, and that some of the Israelis’ actions amount to war crimes against humanity? In those circumstances, is it not clear that a stronger approach is required by Britain, and that it should tell the Israelis that what they are doing is totally unacceptable and an affront to humanity?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend’s diagnosis is right: that is why there is such passion in the House, allied to the fact that the repercussions of conflict in the middle east echo around the world. The truth is that the easiest recruiting sergeant for extremism anywhere in the world is the absence of a Palestinian state, so for those two reasons the issue reverberates around the world. If words brought peace, they would have done so a long time ago, not just in this conflict but in the wider middle east, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to speak loud and clear, publicly and privately.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): In the early hours of the morning of 30 December, the Gibraltar cargo ship, the Dignity, was rammed by an Israeli gunboat. It was carrying aid and three doctors to Gaza, one of whom was my constituent, David Halpin, who
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has a proud record of trying to take aid to those beleaguered people. In response to that attack, a Foreign Office spokesman said that

Can the Secretary of State say what that means, and what action he will take to ensure that a ship sailing under British protection is protected? Will he make sure that that crime on the high seas is brought firmly to the attention of the Israeli ambassador?

David Miliband: The first action I will take is find the details of the case and write to the hon. Gentleman as a matter of urgency. I will make sure that I place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Has not the time come to recognise that neither the British Government nor other EU Governments have any serious influence at all over the Israelis? We should recognise, as other Members have suggested, that these are war crimes that we are witnessing in Gaza, and start talking with our EU allies about organising sanctions and, at the very least, stop selling weapons to the Israelis, and perhaps talk about the withdrawal of our ambassador, because those are the only things that will make any impression on the people currently running Israel.

David Miliband: We have covered some of those issues in the course of our discussions, and I take seriously my hon. Friend’s views, although he will know from my earlier answers that I do not agree with him on all those points. However, in respect of allegations of war crimes, any such allegation or any breach of international humanitarian law must, of course, be investigated.

Mr. Winnick: These are war crimes.

David Miliband: Well, in that case, they must be investigated. The right thing to do with any allegations of such seriousness is to investigate them, find out if they are true and, if they are, take appropriate action. That is what should happen.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): In view of the fact that the Foreign Secretary is in touch with the Israeli Government and the Prime Minister—I have just returned from Israel and saw for myself what has been talked about in the House—is he aware that, as far as I was told, the Israeli Government would stop their attack on Gaza, the shelling and all the devastation if the rockets stopped coming from Gaza tonight? Is that correct?

David Miliband: I am certainly aware of all the statements that have been made, on both the Israeli and the Hamas sides. There must be simultaneous cessations—that is the only way in which this will be finished, and that is what we are working for.

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Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): As this brutal and utterly disproportionate blood letting continues, will my right hon. Friend use all his influence in the EU as part of the Quartet to try to ensure that, whatever ceasefire agreement is finally reached, it is firmly linked to a further, wider process of negotiation aimed at securing a comprehensive peace treaty between the Arab states and Israel, as the Saudis themselves proposed in 2002; the withdrawal of all Israeli forces to pre-1967 borders; and the creation of a viable Palestinian state, without which there will be no end to this century-long conflict between the Arab states and Israel? What contact has my right hon. Friend had with President-elect Obama or his team to secure those ends?

David Miliband: I obviously agree that any ceasefire must be swiftly followed by precisely the sort of development of the vision of a lasting, comprehensive peace that my right hon. Friend described. He talked about linking the ceasefire to such a programme. The ceasefire will be hard enough to get in and of itself, but I certainly agree that it must be swiftly followed. In respect of President-elect Obama, it is important to say that it is not just a public line that the Americans are saying that there is one President at a time and one Secretary of State at a time; that is the reality. However, I can assure my right hon. Friend of my confidence that the issue will be high on the agenda of the Administration come five minutes past 12 on 20 January.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that while most of life is a matter of varying shades of grey, it is a black and white matter that Hamas is a terrorist organisation which sets out to kill civilians? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) talked about “a glimmer of hope”. Is there any glimmer of hope that Hamas could be persuaded to stop its rockets for good, in which case Israel would be able to do what it dearly would like to do—namely, leave Gaza for good?

David Miliband: The right hon. Gentleman is right that Hamas uses terrorism to further its ends and some of its commitments in its charter that were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) are utterly grotesque. It would be wrong to start saying that there are glimmers of hope here or there. What I can say, and what I believe, is that there are some people in Hamas who recognise that there needs to be a politically negotiated solution to the conflict. That is an important part of the equation. However, the truth is that they are not the majority in Hamas, and that is the tragedy at present.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. We now come to the main business.

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Point of Order

4.31 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have seen the large number of Members wanting to take part in the discussion about Gaza. Have you had any representations from the Government to allow a debate in Government time immediately or as urgently as possible on the situation facing the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people as a whole?

Mr. Speaker: I have not had any communication from the Government, but I will let the hon. Gentleman know if I do.

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Business Rate Supplements Bill

[ Relevant Documents: The Seventh Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2006-07, Local Government Finance: Supplementary Business Rate, HC 719; and the Third Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, Local Government Finance Supplementary Business Rate: the Government’s response, HC 210, and the Government’s response, HC 1200, Session 2007-08. ]

Second Reading

Mr. Speaker: I have to inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.32 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

We are living through a time of great economic upheaval and uncertainty, global in its origins but local in its impact on businesses and communities right across Britain. We in Government are committed to doing what we can to help people through these tough times and to prepare for the upturn that will follow. Actions such as recapitalising the banks, targeted tax cuts, loan guarantees, programmes of public spending and support for jobs are necessary measures for the present. But even as we take action to cushion the blows of recession, we are also looking to the future. We do not want to make the mistakes of previous recessions by not continuing investment in major projects, in skills and in business support and by not putting in place policies that may help local areas to recover more rapidly and take more advantage of the upturn when it comes.

The Bill is part of the policy framework needed to prepare for the other side of the downturn. Let me be clear with the House from the outset. We are not imposing a new business tax, but introducing a new power to allow local authorities—with strong safeguards for business—to raise some of the money needed to boost local business and the local economy in the longer term.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The Minister is aware that there are many very good councils, but there are some councils that do not listen and do not consult properly even their residents, let alone businesses, which do not have a vote. Can he give an undertaking that businesses will have a vote on all levies, at whatever level they are proposed by the councils?

John Healey: I will not give that undertaking, but I will give a fuller outline and an explanation a little later, and they will set out the circumstances and the principal case in which businesses would and should get a vote. The hon. Gentleman may wish to consult the leader of his local county council for his view on the issue; he is an innovative council leader interested in the fact that this power could allow Essex to raise more than £12 million each year with the 2p business rate supplement. That money could be used in his county for all sorts of economic development projects.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the Minister tell the House how much he thinks this measure might raise in the full year once it is up and running? It is, in practice, a tax on business.

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John Healey: As I have just explained, we are not imposing a tax on business but putting in place a power through which local authorities can, with safeguards for local business, decide to introduce such a levy. We reckon that a supplementary business rate in London, which is likely to be where this is first put to the test, would raise perhaps £170 million a year. The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is an essential element of the funding package to support Crossrail. It will allow the Tory Mayor and the London assembly to discharge their commitments and responsibilities to contribute to that funding package precisely because it is a major economic project that could bring great benefit to businesses across London. Therein lies the principal case for such a power and for that power being available in other parts of the country.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Minister said that Crossrail will bring benefits to businesses across London. My constituency is the southernmost in London, and I assure the Minister that a small business in Coulsdon will derive no benefit whatever from Crossrail. Where on earth is the equity? Where is the fairness in having the Greater London authority impose a business rate for Crossrail which hits businesses that derive no benefit from it whatever?

John Healey: If the hon. Gentleman reads the Bill, he will see that we are proposing the power for all the upper-tier, top-level authorities. He knows as well as anyone that in London the democratic and electoral arrangements are different from those in the rest of the country: the upper-tier, elected authority is the Greater London authority. If there is a problem with businesses in Coulsdon, or if businesses tell him that the power will not bring benefits to them, I suggest he take the issue up with the Mayor. I will come on to explain the significant safeguards in the Bill which will in all likelihood mean that as many as nine in 10 businesses would not be liable to pay a business rate supplement if it were introduced in their area.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind) rose—

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con) rose—

John Healey: I shall first give way to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), a compatriot of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway); then I will give way to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field).

Mr. Pelling: I want to support the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway). Does the Minister not accept that it is a facet of London politics that a London authority inevitably means a transfer of resources away from rather poor suburbs such as Croydon to projects in the centre or east of London? Would the Minister be willing to follow the Select Committee’s recommendation that boroughs should have some kind of veto so that they can address the issue of the continued transfer of money away from south London to other parts of London, which further taxation through the GLA will inevitably involve?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman will find that the limitations to liability set out in the Bill will help to safeguard areas that are relatively poor in terms of high rateable value businesses.

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