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Gillian Merron: The truth is that we are in the very early stages, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and that our best hope of turning the country around is to create effective government and to improve security and humanitarian access. We work consistently on all those matters. It is true that we need a more inclusive Government, and we hope that there will be many opportunities for that through the unity Government. It is right that I welcome the engagement that has taken place with clan leaders and the business community, which had previously not happened. Inclusiveness will be the way forward.
T1.  Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): The Foreign Secretary set out to the House yesterday our determination to achieve an immediate and sustainable ceasefire in Gaza. The situation remains deeply concerning. Since the statement yesterday, the Palestinian death toll has passed 900 and dozens more rockets have been fired into Israel. As I said earlier, the Egyptian efforts to find a way forward remain critical, and we continue to expend every ounce of energy to support those efforts, secure greater humanitarian access and bring the conflict to a close.
Mr. Burstow: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Quite rightly, the eyes of the world are focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. However, I should like to refer to another humanitarian crisis, which was marked only yesterday by the attendance of thousands of mourners at the funeral in Sri Lanka of a newspaper editor who was murdered last week. Intimidation and violence are the hallmarks of Governments who do not respect the freedom of the press. Some 70,000 people in that country have died in the conflict and many have fled their homes. There have been press reports suggesting that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are on the verge of being defeated by the military. If that is so, what additional steps will the Government take to ensure that the minority Tamil population really do have their human rights respected, and that peace and justice prevail?
Bill Rammell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are extremely concerned about the increased military hostilities in northern Sri Lanka and their humanitarian impact. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the continuing acts of violence and intimidation against the media, including the killing of the chief editor of the Sunday Leader on 8 January. We have put our views forward forcefully, and my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown is very much engaged on the issue. We shall continue to do everything possible to bring about a settlement.
T4.  Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): With the worlds attention understandably focused on the middle east, can the Minister assure the House that the peacekeeping and relief mission in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo will continue to receive requisite attention? Can she report to us what progress has been made on finding the necessary reinforcements for the UN troop forces in the eastern DRC?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): I can assure the House and my right hon. Friend that the UK does indeed remain very active in the region, and will continue to do so without being diverted. We are encouraging the work of the UN Secretary-Generals special envoy, and just yesterday my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister for Africa, spoke to him to offer our further assistance. We continue to provide the substantial humanitarian assistance that is so desperately needed and to reinforce the work of MONUC, the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
T2.  James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): In what circumstances do UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office civil servants need ministerial approval to meet Department for International Development staff members?
Gillian Merron: If the hon. Gentleman has a specific example to draw to my attention, I will investigate it, but what the House needs to know is that there is close working between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, endorsed by Ministers and led by officials.
T7.  Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I share my hon. Friends concern about the impact of piracy off the Somalian coast, but do Foreign Office Ministers share my concern about reports that people are taking advantage of lawlessness in Somalia to dump toxic waste, perhaps even nuclear waste, in the seas and to fish in Somalian waters? Will my hon. Friend tell the House what the Government plan to do about that?
Gillian Merron: I certainly share my hon. Friends concern about that illegal activity off Somalias coast, which impacts negatively, as she is aware, on the marine environment and on the livelihoods of those who depend on it. That can push them into crime, which may mean piracy. As I said earlier, a new international contact group on piracy will meet in New York tomorrow, and we will discuss with our international partners whether the group may be an appropriate forum to consider that serious problem.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Does the Minister agree that although we and the world are naturally focused on Gaza, we must keep up the pressure on President Mugabe in Zimbabwe? We share the frustration that, without South African support, we seem powerless to push Mugabe from power. Will the Minister, perhaps with colleagues in the Home Office, therefore consider the plight and concerns of Zimbabweans here in the UK, not least following todays allegation to the Prime Minister from Citizens for Sanctuary? More than 11,000 Zimbabweans are destitute in the UK today with no right to work and no access to benefits. Can she not see that we are missing a massive opportunity to prepare for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe by not allowing those talented people to contribute to the UK while they are here?
I am sure that the House agrees that the continuing political impasse is a direct result of Robert Mugabes abuse of power. I assure the House
that we shall continue with our intense diplomatic activity, including pressing for further targeted sanctions from the EU, and that our humanitarian commitment continues. The hon. Gentleman is aware from his discussions with the Minister for the Middle East and Africa that no Zimbabwean asylum seekers are forced to return home against their will. We are still hearing and granting claims for asylum from Zimbabweans in the UK, and we are providing measures to ensure that they are not destitute. All are treated with respect and humility, but if the hon. Gentleman or other right hon. and hon. Members have examples, I shall be pleased to consider them.
T8.  David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As European reliance on Russian gas is likely to increase over the next decade and more, can the Minister assure the House that the European Union will not be persuaded to ignore the diplomatic and social consequences of the stagnation in Russian development because of fear of jeopardising domestic energy needs?
The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): That is a very topical question. Gas supplies from Russia have been switched on, but I understand that there are technical difficulties in getting energy through to families. I was at the informal General Affairs and External Relations Council last week when I heard my Bulgarian and Romanian colleagues talking about the many families who are affected. The matter is serious. Although Russia is the largest external gas supplier to the EU, it is far from being a monopoly provider. We shall continue to support EU efforts to diversify supply routes and sources, as well as looking for alternatives and energy efficiency. We must also step up efforts to improve gas interconnections and to move to a more liberalised market. In that way, we can ensure that we have the necessary security and diversity.
We have embarked on negotiations for a new agreement to replace the existing partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia. It is in the interests of the UK and the EU to have a rules-based relationship, and the new agreement will cover several areas, including trade and how Russia will work with the EU, as well as human rights and democracy. We look forward to continuing those necessary discussions.
T3.  Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Just over a month ago, the President of the European Commission stated that the people who matter in Britain are increasingly in favour of our joining the single currency. Is there anything that one of the Foreign Office Ministers here can say to reassure the 71 per cent. of the British people who were reported in a BBC-ICM poll as being against our joining the single European currency that none of the people who matter in Britain is a member of the Labour Cabinet?
As I made clear on 1 January on the The World at One when that poll was put to me, I totally agree with the people who said that they did not think that entering the euro was a priority for Britain at the present time. That view is shared by this Government, but it is also shared by businesses and others. We need to focus on the need to tackle this global economic challenge. That is why I am pleased to say that we have
unity in the 27 member states in Europe. Our German colleagues have just announced a huge fiscal spending package, which I am afraid leaves those on the Opposition Benches lost for answers as to what they would do as we endeavour to ensure that we meet the challenge that families and businesses are facing in Britain today.
T9.  Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Does the Minister welcome the determination of the incoming US Administration to treat the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan as a top priority?
Bill Rammell: I very much agree that the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a top priority. There is an improved relationship between those two countries and it is one that we very much want to support and develop. I have no doubt that, with the formation of the Obama Administration, that relationship will be one of the highest priorities.
T5.  Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The Minister will recall that following my visit to northern Iraq, I raised the issue of the persecuted Christians of Iraq, who have suffered terribly in the past four years. Many have been murdered even since September. Often persecuted minorities benefit from being talked about on the Floor of the House, so will the Minister use this occasion to voice his concern and say that he will leave no stone unturned in giving them safety and security in their villages in the Nineveh plains?
Bill Rammell: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a genuine interest in these issues, so let me say to him, as I said in that Adjournment debate, that there are real concerns about the position of Christians, particularly in Mosul. I and the Government have very much welcomed the Government of Iraqs robust response. Christians are now returning, but this is an issue on which we will continue to work with the Iraqi Government to ensure that the constitution of Iraq, including article 41, is upheld and that Iraqi Christians are safe and secure.
T6.  Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I welcome the Ministers earlier restatement of the Governments support for the closure of Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay? Can he confirm whether the Government will accept the return to this country of former Guantanamo detainees, if necessary as part of that closure process?
I reiterate what I said earlier: we very much welcome the statement from President-elect Obama
about closing Guantanamo Bay. There is currently no request on the table from the US Administration. Our focus remains the two UK residents and securing their release from Guantanamo Bay. Partners of the United States will undoubtedly want to look at how we can work to ensure the closure of Guantanamo, but our overriding concern as a nation will remain the safety and security of our nation and its people.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Is it not plain as a pikestaff that Israel is in breach of article 2 of the trade association agreement with the European Union, which is the worlds biggest importer of Israeli goods? Why can we not suspend the trade agreement forthwith, as suggested by my Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)?
Bill Rammell: As I said to my hon. Friend yesterday evening, we do not see sanctions as the route to the desperately needed ceasefire. Also, whatever our view might be, there is no appetite elsewhere in the European Union for sanctions. Our position has been clear and unequivocal: we need a ceasefire. That requires words to be translated into actions, and that means action from Hamas and from the Government of Israel.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The Minister with responsibility for the middle east will be acutely aware that what happens abroad can have consequences at home. Given the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain since 27 December, including an attempt to burn down a synagogue, and given the attacks on Muslims and mosques that have taken place since 9/11, will he tell the House what discussions he has had with domestic Ministers to ensure that they at least try to get Jewish, Muslim and other organisations to talk to each other at this difficult time? Also, does he agree that, while it is entirely right for people to march, protest and demonstrate if they feel so moved, violence and intimidation must be left outside the door of our common British home?
Bill Rammell: I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government and I deplore anti-Semitic attacks and anti-Muslim attacks. I also agree with the underlying thrust of his question. Inter-faith and inter-community dialogue is desperately important. Last week, Ministers from elsewhere in Whitehall and I met a number of Israeli and Muslim groups from within this country to ensure that they were aware of our views and of what the British Government are doing to try to achieve the ceasefire in the middle east that is so desperately needed.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Yvette Cooper): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to open the debate on the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill. The Bill will create a national saving gateway scheme, starting in 2010, giving 8 million people on low incomes the chance to save, with Government help, and I hope that it will have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. The aim is to give those on the lowest incomes help to start saving, to kick-start a saving habit among those who are often the least likely and least able to save, and to bring people into contact with mainstream financial services, some of them for the first time.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way this early in her speech. I very much welcome the Bill. Does she accept that people on carers allowance are often among those on the lowest incomes? Will she extend the saving gateway provisions so that they apply to those people as well?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend might be aware that many carers will be covered by the saving gateway. Certainly, those on the lowest incomes will be covered. The Bill, as it stands, provides for a particular set of benefits and tax credits to be covered. It also allows for an extension to cover other benefits and tax credits in the future. It is right that the Bill should have that flexibility. At this stage, we have concentrated the focus of the saving gateway on people of working age who would most benefit from the support and incentive to start saving for the first time. The provisions are being aimed at those who have no savings, who are often the most vulnerable as a result.
We know that the lower a households income is, the lower its savings tend to be. For example, the most recent family resource survey shows that 24 per cent. of households have no savings. While that includes some households that lack savings only for a short time or for a particular period, it also includes households on the lowest incomes that never manage to build up savings and that might be most in need of savings to deal with the financial problems that can occur from time to time in everyones life.
Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has been talking about the client groups that might be referred to the saving gateway. I am sure that she is aware that our colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have been preparing the reform of the social fund. Many of the clients of the social fund are exactly the same people who will qualify for the saving gateway. Is she having discussions with that Department about the opportunities that the Bill might give us to refer people making social fund applications to the saving gateway, so that our dialogue with them can do more than just deal with their present emergency, and perhaps enable them to move towards accessing better financial services in the long term? The gateway might provide a means for them to do that.
Yvette Cooper: We are in discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions about a series of ways in which we can help those on the lowest incomes. He is right that in many ways the approach of the saving gateway is to encourage people to put a little by to deal with the sort of problems that can end up driving people to ask for help from the social fund because they have no savings. If somebodys fridge breaks, for example, and they need to buy a new one, but do not have any way to make ends meet or any savings to draw on, it will be much harder for them to do so. I will certainly pursue my hon. Friends specific point about whether different referral points could be considered. The intention behind the gateway is that people will be contacted and told that they have entitlement at the point at which they begin to claim a benefit or tax credit. When the scheme starts, there will be an initial wave of needing to contact everyone who is currently on benefits, but I will discuss my hon. Friends points further.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Before the Minister moves on to the body of her speech, may I welcome the principle of the Bill, which is absolutely right at this time? The recent VAT cuts were designed to encourage spending and promote economic activity, and now we have this Bill, which is designed to encourage low-income people to save. Both are absolutely appropriate and both are right at this time, but how can we ensure that the target audience does not get a mixed message?
Yvette Cooper: The saving gateway is a long-term programme to help those on the lowest incomes. It will be implemented in 2010 and it is intended in the long term to help people who otherwise might not save at all to build up some savings. The VAT cut was introduced as a temporary fiscal stimulus in order to support the economy right now by putting money into peoples pockets. Some will have to use the money they save from the VAT cut to pay down debts or deal with problems in their lives while others will be able to spend their money. It is part of a temporary fiscal stimulus, which is about supporting the economy in the short term.
Those on the lowest incomes are the least likely to have savings; 36 per cent. of households with weekly incomes of £100 to £200 and 43 per cent. of those with less than £100 a week have no savings at all. We all know the advantages that come from building up a stock of savings: they can provide people with independence and security if things go wrong and with comfort in old age, and make it easier to deal with unexpected events and to plan for things such as presents for the kids at Christmas or putting down a deposit on a house. We all know about the problems that can be caused by a lack of savings.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Can the Minister give us an indication of what sort of interest rate or return savers could expect from such an account if one were up and running today?
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