Previous Section Index Home Page

5 Feb 2009 : Column 1004

Points of Order

1.14 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I refer to the Speaker’s statement earlier today. In it, he referred to the investigations that he had made since the point of order that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) raised about the police’s desire to look through e-mails sent between us. I find it extraordinary that, in a matter that concerns e-mails, which may be private, between two Members, the House authorities did not approach me to establish facts, but approached the Metropolitan police and took only their version of events as the basis for a Speaker’s statement.

In addition, and even more seriously, the House will wish to know that Mr. Speaker has declined my request for the Standards and Privileges Committee to look at material seized from my office to decide what is privileged. Instead, the Clerks of the House—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member and knows that that is not the appropriate way in which to question the Speaker’s statement. Clearly, I will ensure that his remarks are brought to Mr. Speaker’s attention.

Damian Green: Further to my point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is absurd that I can say things outside the House, but not inside—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Damian Green: I—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already made a ruling. It is open to the hon. Gentleman to write to Mr. Speaker in addition to the action that I shall take in ensuring that his comments are drawn to the Speaker’s attention.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Mr. Speaker’s statement was in response to my original point of order of last Monday, when I asked him to give a ruling about whether the communications of Members of Parliament other than my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), wherever those communications reside—e-mails can reside on everybody’s computer or on several computers—should come within the protocol that Mr. Speaker had published in the previous week. It laid down that such applications would require both a warrant and an application to him prior to any action. I have to say that we have not had a response to that request.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I repeat what I said earlier—the remarks will be brought to the attention of Mr. Speaker. I have nothing to add to the statement that he has already made.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 15 December on behalf of my constituent, Mr. Raymond Hardy, who, like 30,000 others, had deposits with Kaupthing Singer
5 Feb 2009 : Column 1005
& Friedlander in the Isle of Man. I have repeatedly chased up the Treasury for an answer. Yesterday, the Treasury e-mailed me, saying:

So, I and other Members have constituents who cannot meet their commitments because they cannot access moneys, which are supposed to be guaranteed, yet their Members of Parliament cannot get an answer from the Treasury. Please could you help in ensuring that the Treasury does something about it?

Madam Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has made his point. He knows that it is not a point of order for the Chair, but Ministers are present on the Treasury Bench and will have heard his comments.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In pursuance of previous points of order, and I do not want to get involved in the controversy about e-mails, could you, or the Speaker in due course, let us know the position on the inquiry—I hope that there will be a parliamentary inquiry—about the way in which the police came into the Palace of Westminster and took possession of the papers and equipment of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)? It is important to bear in mind that concern is not by any means confined to the Opposition. Many of us are very concerned, and said so on 3 December, that such entry took place without a search warrant. Leaving aside what various Select Committees are doing, it would be interesting to know whether it is possible for the House to conduct an inquiry into what occurred.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I can only add to and repeat my earlier comments. I will ensure that Mr. Speaker is aware of the matters that have been brought before me as points of order and of the feelings of hon. Members of all parties.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Further to that point of order. Two issues are now clear. First, as Mr. Speaker said, privilege—the protection that Members of Parliament enjoy—is a matter for the House. Secondly, it is clear from the conduct of the investigation that those carrying it out for the Metropolitan police are well aware of that because they appear to have been contacting the House and its servants to ascertain what might be privileged and what might not. Given that the decision ultimately falls to the House, is not it a strange state of affairs that the House is being denied the opportunity of getting the advice that it needs to make a reasonable decision? There has been no reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee, which has been set up for that express purpose. Could you please ensure that the Speaker is aware that the way in which the matter is developing gives rise to serious concern?

5 Feb 2009 : Column 1006

Madam Deputy Speaker: I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman—and, indeed, all right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon—that I will ensure that Mr. Speaker is made aware, as I have already said, of the comments and the feelings of Members across the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I do not know that there is anything further that I can add. I have already restated, on more than one occasion, that the comments of Members will be drawn to the attention of Mr. Speaker.

Sir Patrick Cormack: But I have a special comment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Sir Patrick Cormack.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Thank you. I think that we all appreciate both what you have said and the delicacy of your position, Madam Deputy Speaker. The fact that you are going to talk to Mr. Speaker is something for which we are all grateful. When you talk to him, will you ask him whether he would be kind enough to consider making a statement on Monday to clarify a number of points? One of those points is that in the debate on 8 December he proposed that a committee be established, but because the motion that was put down was very different from his original proposal, the whole issue has run into the sand. It would be helpful to the whole House if Mr. Speaker could make an up-to-date statement, referring to the points made today and saying how he sees the way forward now.

Madam Deputy Speaker: May I repeat, once again, that the comments that have been made by hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon will be relayed to Mr. Speaker? I am sure that it will then be up to him, at the time that he feels is appropriate, to make a response to the House.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am not going to refer in any way to the specific issues already raised, although I have repeatedly asked that the matter be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. Could you possibly have a word with Mr. Speaker and ask him to reconsider the decisions that have been taken, including those taken here, to close down opportunities for Members to make points of order in response to this specific issue?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Well, I can repeat once again—

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Gagged.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I repeat once again that I can give an assurance to all Members in this House that the strength of feeling and the comments that have been made will be relayed to Mr. Speaker.

5 Feb 2009 : Column 1007

Sri Lanka

Topical debate

1.22 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): I beg to move,

I am pleased that we are having this debate today because, to put it bluntly, the situation in Sri Lanka is nothing short of shocking. We are very concerned about the humanitarian and human rights situation there. The humanitarian situation in the north of the country particularly has seriously deteriorated since the House last debated this subject in December.

In recent weeks, the fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Government of Sri Lanka has become increasingly bloody and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated dramatically. Fighting has continued even within the Government-declared safe zone, and on Sunday a hospital that had been declared a no-fire zone was shelled three times. Further shelling has taken place this week. The United Nations reports that at least 50 civilians have died at the hospital and that many more have been wounded, including women and children. There are more civilian casualties every day.

Those attacks are serious violations of international humanitarian law. Any attempts, including by representatives of the Sri Lankan Government, to defend the shelling of the hospital are frankly unacceptable. We expect and urge the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate any allegations of abuses by their forces. We would support a full investigation into the shelling of the hospital and into other civilian deaths. The primary burden for investigation rests on the authority against whose forces allegations of war crimes are made, and we expect such investigations to be undertaken.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I thank the Minister for that statement, which is a strong condemnation of the actions of the Sri Lankan Government? On Saturday, 100,000 British Tamils marched through the streets of London peacefully, to draw attention to the plight of the Tamil community. Have the strong words that the Minister has issued in the House today been transmitted to the President of Sri Lanka?

Bill Rammell: We have repeatedly communicated our concerns to the Sri Lankan Government and we will continue to do so. I am conscious of the number of Members who wish to speak in this debate. I will therefore try to make some progress, to get the Government’s position on the record, and then allow other Members to come in, if time allows.

The statement made by the Sri Lankan Government on Tuesday—that civilians should move out of the conflict area because they could no longer guarantee their safety—was extraordinarily worrying. The Sri Lankan Government have a duty to protect all their citizens and should do everything in their power to ensure their safety. Accurate figures of casualties are difficult to come by, but we estimate that there are around 250,000 internally displaced persons caught up in the conflict area. The United Nations has been unable to send a major humanitarian convoy into the conflict zone to
5 Feb 2009 : Column 1008
assist civilians since 16 January, although some supplies were sent on 29 January. These are major matters of concern.

Our overwhelming priority is to press for a humanitarian ceasefire. Both sides have to respect international humanitarian law and take steps to protect civilians from the profound threats that they face, as well as allow humanitarian agencies the access that they need to bring those desperate people the help that they need. Over the past few weeks, we have increased our efforts to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to take action to alleviate the suffering of civilians.

We have also been acutely aware of the concern felt by members of the Tamil communities about the suffering of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary and my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown last week met more than 100 representatives of the Tamil communities in the UK to listen to their concerns, reassure them that we take them very seriously and explain the efforts that the Government are making to help bring about an end to the conflict.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to President Rajapakse in mid-January expressing our fundamental concern. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary telephoned the President last week and urged him to declare a humanitarian ceasefire. My right hon. Friend has since repeated his calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and has publicly called on both sides to allow the wounded to receive medical treatment, to allow civilians to leave the conflict areas and to allow access for humanitarian agencies.

The Foreign Secretary also discussed the matter with US Secretary of State Clinton on Tuesday. They jointly called for a no-fire period to allow civilians to leave the conflict area and to allow humanitarian agencies access. There is no doubt that there is also concern in the United Nations about the safety and well-being of civilians caught up in the conflict, as the Secretary-General made clear in his statements of 26 and 30 January. We fully support the Secretary-General’s sentiments and endorse his call for both sides to the conflict to abide by those important humanitarian obligations.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I endorse what the Minister has said and welcome the strength of his call for a ceasefire. That said, if the Government of Sri Lanka are simply not prepared to listen to the international community’s calls for a ceasefire, is it not time for some degree of sanctions, such as suspension from the Commonwealth or the suspension of military or trade agreements, to show that the rest of the world means business in trying to bring about peace in Sri Lanka?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend will know that the European Union’s generalised system of preferences plus is already under investigation. I do not rule anything out. The situation is extraordinarily worrying. At the moment, we are focused with all our international partners on ensuring that both sides meet their obligations and that we get an end to that horrendous conflict, which is blighting the lives of so many people.

On 29 January, President Rajapakse offered safe passage to civilians, but the LTTE failed to respond positively and hostilities did not cease even temporarily. The LTTE continues to refuse to allow civilians to leave the conflict areas. Worse still, it is deliberately using them as
5 Feb 2009 : Column 1009
a human shield. There are credible reports that the LTTE fires artillery on Sri Lankan Government troops from locations next to civilian centres, including from next to the hospital in the no-fire zone where civilians were killed on Sunday.

We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to repeat their offer of safe passage. We are working with others in the international community, particularly the United States and other members of the co-chairs group—Japan, the EU and Norway—to increase the pressure on the LTTE to respond positively. The call for a temporary no-fire period by the Foreign Secretary and Hillary Clinton this week should be acted upon immediately. The co-chairs have also called on both sides to allow a period for humanitarian aid to be delivered and have called on the LTTE to discuss ways of ending the current hostilities and to participate in a process to achieve a just and lasting political solution. Too many lives have already been lost in this terrible conflict. We do not want to see the situation deteriorate further.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Minister’s strong comments will be widely welcomed. So far, independent agencies have not been able to gain access to the north of Sri Lanka. Will he undertake to ensure that such access is given priority, through action by either the United Nations or the Commonwealth, or both? If necessary, will the Prime Minister—who has been very helpful—make a further telephone call to the President of Sri Lanka, so that independent humanitarian and political agencies can gain access to the north, so that everyone knows exactly what is going on and can act accordingly?

Bill Rammell: I agree that humanitarian access is crucial. The Sri Lankan Government can be in no doubt about our views on that subject, but we will continue to put them forward forcefully at all levels.

Given the urgency of the situation, we are also taking immediate practical steps to alleviate the suffering of civilians. We have allocated a further £2.5 million, on top of the £2.5 million that we committed in October last year, to support the efforts of humanitarian agencies in Sri Lanka.

When the House last debated Sri Lanka, I explained that an objective assessment of the conflict was impossible because independent media and non-governmental organisations had limited access to the conflict zones. Attributing responsibility for individual attacks to one side or the other remains difficult. It is clear, however, that both sides have to take immediate steps to protect civilian lives.

The conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has now been going on for more than 25 years. It has claimed the lives of at least 70,000 people in Sri Lanka and is daily claiming more. We recognise the Government of Sri Lanka’s right to root out terrorism, but we are seriously concerned about the impact that the current military approach is having on civilians in the north. It remains our position that a political solution that addresses the legitimate concerns of all communities is the only way to bring a sustainable end to the conflict. We are continuing to call for a full debate, free from intimidation, among all communities—Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese—on what an acceptable political settlement to the conflict might look like.

Next Section Index Home Page