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27 Jan 2009 : Column 19WH—continued

Economic assistance must be spent wisely and properly, and audited correctly. We must ensure that it does not find its way into the hands of the Hamas extremists. That is not where the aid is needed. We must do all that we can to assist in the negotiations for a lasting peace settlement in the middle east. Only through a two-state solution, with a secure Israel living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state, can true peace exist. Trust must be restored through negotiations. There is recognition
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that Israel must open its borders, but in doing so it must be open only to items that foster development, not violence.

As I have said to the Israeli ambassador, if peace is to endure in the long term, there will have to be a political solution, as we found in Northern Ireland. The onus is on Hamas to demonstrate that it prefers its people’s welfare to warfare against Israel. In the west bank, Fatah has chosen a path of political engagement over conflict—a process that has not been easy but is beginning to show signs of progress. Developments are being witnessed in trade, employment, security and agriculture, all of which lay the groundwork for future economic and social developments, free from the threat of war. More can be done, however, and I hope that the Minister will say something about the fact that Mahmoud Abbas needs to receive more support from the western world to prevent him from being sidelined and silenced by Hamas. Israel needs to offer more carrot and less stick in the west bank, and the further opening up of borders to allow the free movement of goods and people that will allow the region to develop.

From the other middle eastern states neighbouring this conflict, we must see a greater demonstration that they truly believe in peace in the region and are doing all that they can to assist. I was very interested to hear the hon. Member for Battersea say that Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion and Kuwait $500 million, and that the United Arab Emirates has pledged to rebuild 1,300 houses. That is an excellent start. However, I urge all Arab states, many of which have plenty of wealth from oil revenues, to do more and to apply pressure to bring about a political solution. In addition, the international community must monitor developments to ensure that the rocket attacks do not resume, because the consequences of a resumption of hostilities, on top of what has happened already, do not bear thinking about.

I welcome Barack Obama’s initial engagement with the issue and greatly look forward to seeing how he and Hillary Clinton, the new Secretary of State, choose to proceed. In particular, I welcome the appointment of George Mitchell in his new role as special envoy to the middle east. He has a proven track record in Northern Ireland where he was pivotal to the peace process. Let us hope that he can repeat some of that work in the middle east. However, we should not lose sight of Britain’s historical involvement in the region and must ensure that we remain a key player and continue to work with our friends in the United States and Europe in trying to find a solution to this desperate situation.

In conclusion, I welcome the good will of all those, especially our generous public, who choose to provide money to combat suffering wherever it takes place. I hope that, despite the BBC controversy, they will continue to donate generously to the DEC appeal and to other non-governmental organisations trying to alleviate the suffering of those poor people in Gaza.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on introducing this debate. It is not only timely, but has been of a very high quality, as the
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hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said. I congratulate all Members on their contributions; I shall address as many of their questions as I can, but if I cannot do so in the time allowed, I shall follow up in writing to the Members concerned.

We have heard hon. Members’ concerns about the grave situation in Gaza—concerns that the Government share. We have all been shocked by the loss of life and the scenes of violence in Gaza in recent weeks. The images on our television screens have been harrowing. My hon. Friend asked whether we should debate the causes of the situation—whether it was 1967 or 1948, for instance. When I was in Saudi Arabia, yesterday, we talked about events as far back as the 1917 Balfour agreement. However, we should leave historians to debate and rewrite the history books. What we should do as politicians is try to shape the future for the Palestinian people.

May I remind the Chamber, and all those listening, what the UK’s position has been since 27 December when the conflict resumed? We called for an immediate ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary led the way at the United Nations to secure resolution 1860. My Department has led efforts to ensure that, even when violence is wrecking people’s lives, they have access to medical supplies, food and shelter. The Government have not stood by, and we have not walked by on the other side of the road. My Department has moved incredibly fast to ensure the availability of all the resources that are needed for this immense humanitarian effort.

Since 31 December, the United Kingdom has pledged nearly £27 million for the relief effort. According to the UN, that makes the UK the current largest donor of humanitarian assistance. Many other countries have pledged future commitments. Saudi Arabia, for example, has pledged $1 billion for the recovery and reconstruction of Gaza.

Of the more than £11 million that we have spent since 31 December, £4 million has gone to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides food and shelter for the people in Gaza. Last Sunday, I announced a donation of £4 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to deliver medical supplies and to support the medical evacuation to Egypt; £1 million has gone to the UN humanitarian emergency response fund to help non-governmental organisations support local work; and £1 million has gone to the World Food Programme to support logistical efforts in the task of getting aid through the crossings from Israel into Gaza.

Yesterday, the UK airlifted three specially modified vehicles to enable the UN to distribute safely humanitarian assistance and to allow the needs assessment to take place, with aid workers being kept safely in the vehicles. In addition, the Secretary of State announced that we were sending £200,000 to the Mines Advisory Group to help it clear unexploded munitions and other explosive material.

This morning, I can announce that £600,000 will be given to Oxfam to provide water and sanitation in Gaza. That should help to deliver clean water for up to 50,000 people who are most in need, and sanitation kits to more than 2,000 people.

Jeremy Corbyn: I welcome what the Minister has said about the British assistance. Will he confirm that when the exploration is done to uncover unexploded munitions,
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any evidence of illegal weapons that have been used by Israel will be handed over to the appropriate investigators, who may refer the matter to the International Criminal Court?

Mr. Foster: I am conscious that there are allegations on all sides about the illegal use of weapons, and that the matter should be, and is, subject to international humanitarian law and its agencies.

The BBC has come in for a lot of criticism during this debate. Its decision has managed to unite the political parties, the friends of Israel and the friends of Palestine. Somehow, it is deemed to be impartial, and it is worried about its impartiality. As for whether today’s comments constitute interference in editorial decision making, I have to say that if an MP expresses a public opinion on a matter, that is not editorial interference. Trying to secure the best humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza does not constitute interference in editorial decision making.

Access has long been a problem in Gaza. We have been calling for the borders to be opened for a long time. It is an issue that I raised with Israeli Minister Herzog when I was in Jerusalem. It turned out that Israel was perfectly happy to consider increasing the number of trucks going through the crossings from 100 to 500 a day, which, according to the UN, will maintain the status quo. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, that does not take into account the 18 months in which the blockade has taken place and the backlog of work that is needed to be done.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sorry to intervene slightly out of sequence in the Minister’s speech, but it would be useful if he could tell us this morning—in addition to the very welcome announcement he has made on the amount of humanitarian assistance going into Gaza—when the aid is likely to get into Gaza and how much has gone in already. The situation is urgent and the aid is needed now.

Mr. Foster: That is a very good question. The aid is getting through, but clearly not in sufficient quantities. I witnessed lorries being loaded with food aid to be delivered to the Palestinian people, so the work is ongoing. As for the value of the aid that has gone through, that is a different calculation. I will investigate the matter to see what can be established. At the moment, the count that is being made is on the number of trucks going through the crossings as opposed to the value of the aid that is on those trucks.

At a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Livni last week, the Foreign Secretary and his European colleagues pressed for improved access for all humanitarian supplies. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield raised the issue of what would happen to access in the future. Clearly, that issue will be part of the process that is evolving in Gaza. We have made it clear that the responsibility for managing the crossings should be held by the Palestinian Authority. However, if help is needed in the short term, the Prime Minister said that an EU mission would be made available to staff the crossings to maintain the security of the people of Israel while allowing the supplies to get through into Gaza.

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Martin Linton: Before my hon. Friend the Minister leaves the issue of the BBC, will he or his colleagues pass on to Mark Thompson the points that have been made? Does he have any estimate of how much extra could be raised by the crisis appeal if the BBC changed its mind and broadcast it?

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is right to remind the Chamber that Mr. Thompson will be in the House at 4 o’clock this afternoon. Colleagues may want to address their concerns directly to him. As for the likely cost of the BBC’s decision on the appeal and, therefore, the direct help that can be given to the people of Gaza, NGOs have told us that if the DEC appeal did not make the headlines, it could reduce contributions by up to 80 per cent., which is a substantial sum. However, the appeal has hit the headlines over the past few days, so the impact that it will make in the future is too hard to calculate.

In the minute or so that we have left, may I remind the Chamber that the UK has been the third largest bilateral donor to the Palestinian people after the United States and Saudi Arabia? At the Paris conference, we pledged £243 million to be spent over three years. In the first year, £84 million—just over a third—was committed. We are also the second largest contributor to the European Commission, and that has pledged more than $1 billion over three years. We are the second largest donor to the humanitarian relief effort in Gaza. That level of support demonstrates the importance that the Government attach to sustainable peace in the middle east and to improving the lives of millions of ordinary people who have suffered for far too long. We welcome the interest that this debate has shown and I will ensure that hon. Members are kept up to date with developments in the weeks and months ahead.

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Equitable Life

10.59 am

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I quote:

I wanted to start in that way because there is a human face to the Equitable fiasco. In the course of this debate, we will discuss parliamentary process, ombudsmen, Select Committees and all the rest of it, but we risk losing sight of up to 1 million people who trusted the Government and a financial institution, and have been profoundly let down. I contend—as, I suspect, do other hon. Members, of whom there is a good turnout today—that they will still feel let down, not just by Equitable Life and the regulators, but by the Government’s response to what the ombudsman said.

On 17 July, the ombudsman published her second report on Equitable Life. Almost six months later, on 15 January, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave a statement to the House setting out her response. I wonder whether, like me, other hon. Members did not follow it very closely. I just got a vague sense that the Government had said sorry, admitted a bit of maladministration and set up a compensation scheme. I thought, “Well, maybe that’s the end of it,” but my instinct was that it was not, and that that was not what had in fact happened. I believe that I am right in saying that none of the hon. Members who heard the Chief Secretary’s statement that day had yet had the opportunity to read what was behind it: Cm 7538, which gave the details.

The statement sounded reasonable. We heard an apology and the Chief Secretary sounded understanding. She thanked the ombudsman and the Public Administration Committee, and she even asked a retired senior judge to come up with a fair payment scheme. What could be better than that? However, the reality of the situation is very different.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it was obvious even then that there would be a further several years’ delay before anyone received compensation? The Chief Secretary said at the time that it would probably take two and a half years but might take longer.

Steve Webb: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” applies in this case. It was apparent even in the statement that although the ombudsman wanted action to start within six months and to be completed two years later, what would actually happen was delay piled on delay. Many of the people affected have already died, and there are
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questions about whether estates and widows will benefit. Many families have had to live with such unanswered questions for a decade.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposals could not be further from what the Public Administration Committee recommended, which was an independent, transparent and simple compensation scheme to provide swift redress to those who had lost out?

Steve Webb: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I hope to explain, there are many facets of the Government’s response that do not meet what either the ombudsman or the Public Administration Committee said.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the judge appointed to oversee the matter. Does he agree that that judge’s remit has been deliberately restricted by the Government to ensure that compensation is limited and takes considerable time to be delivered?

Steve Webb: There is a good deal of prescience in Members’ interventions. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The process is fundamentally flawed in many respects, one of which is that the judge can answer only the question that he is asked, and that question is being circumscribed overwhelmingly and unfairly.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important topic, and I note that Opposition Members outnumber Government Members by about five to one. Does he agree that the simple message that we need to send from this Chamber is that many people feel that the Government are quite simply hoping that people will die off before they have to meet their obligations? The Government have a pressing moral obligation to do something immediately to compensate some of the most cautious and responsible investors in the country.

Steve Webb: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for speed. I have received a copy of a letter that one of his hon. Friends sent to a constituent, and I am a little worried about what that Member wrote. They said that the Government had announced that they would establish a payment scheme and that they had made an apology, adding:

One of my worries, not only about the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, but about the whole House, is that we have been had. We heard a statement that sounded mellifluous and gave reassurances about feeling people’s pain, but I hope that every hon. Member present will leave this debate more worried than when they arrived, and more determined to do something about what the Government propose.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): May I put it on record that the Government side is represented and that there are Labour Back Benchers in the Chamber? One thing that has troubled me—I have asked everyone who has written to me about Equitable Life to come and see me—is the difficulty of teasing out which losses were incurred as a result of maladministration
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and which as a result of market failure. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that rather than squabbling with each other and scoring party political points, we could try to find a way of taking the matter forward positively?

Steve Webb: I agree that no one is suggesting that people should have a free ride, or that they should not be subject to the same stock market variability as everyone else. The analogy that has been drawn to my attention is the comparison with investment in “Elsewhere Life”: what people might reasonably have expected had their money been with a similar company of similar status, but elsewhere, and how what they actually got differed, particularly because of regulatory failure. We need to focus on those issues.

Several hon. Members rose

Steve Webb: Let me make a little progress and then I shall give way again.

Everyone present knows that there has been a series of reports. The ombudsman’s second report involved four years’ work, at the end of which she made 10 findings of maladministration and five findings of injustice. The Government’s response—this was published repeatedly—said either that there was no maladministration, or, if there was, that no injustice had arisen from it. It is worth considering the list of findings. On finding one, about the dual role of the chief executive and the actuary, the Government’s response said:

On finding two, the Government’s responses were:


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