Previous Section Index Home Page

The Minister needs to tell the House what evidence exists of attacks on Red Cross or Red Crescent personnel that have their origin in resistance or hostility towards those emblems. I have yet to hear any evidence in this debate that those attacks have been about the emblems,
1 Apr 2009 : Column 974
rather than about something more fundamental or more contextual. Unless evidence is brought forward that those emblems have stimulated hostility, the argument for a new symbol will be less persuasive.

The second question to which I want the Minister to respond relates to the timetable and the costs of the change. It is perfectly reasonable for the House to want to know what time scale the implementation of the new measures will be governed by. The Minister will also want to bring to the House’s attention the notional costs of implementation, which her Department will surely have drawn up.

To reflect this afternoon’s debate, the third question for the Minister to answer is about how much consideration was given to the accommodation of those who are hostile to the symbol of the cross and about how much counter-consideration was given to the adoption of the cross as a universal symbol. I do not want to reprise the argument of the 1870s today, but one understands why a compromise was reached to deal with the complaints of the Turks then.

However, if a new symbol were to be established that was designed to have universal appeal, it is as good an argument to say that it should have been the cross as it is to suggest that it should be a new crescent. There are perhaps even stronger arguments for reverting to something that is already well established, because the battle is half won, if I can put it that way. The crescent would take considerable time to gain the kind of recognition that the cross already enjoys.

Mr. Walker: Will my hon. Friend give way briefly?

Mr. Hayes: I will give way very briefly, because like an indulgent father, I seek to learn from and to teach my hon. Friend.

Mr. Walker: I only try to be helpful. In his last sentence, my hon. Friend talked about the red crescent, when I think that he meant to say “red crystal”.

Mr. Hayes: I did mean to say that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has illustrated my very point: that I learn from him almost every day.

The final question relates to scrutiny of the legislation. We have had a brief debate, and the argument has been made that we should have had more time to consider the Bill. It has even been suggested that we should have had witnesses. I do not necessarily agree with that, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s perspective on it. Could we have benefited? Might the debate have been better informed if we had been able to scrutinise the Red Cross in the way that hon. Members have suggested? I make no judgment about that, but it is at least worthy of a ministerial response.

I am sorry to have had to abridge my remarks in the interests of the whole House, because there is much more that I wanted to say. I know, however, that these matters will be aired fully in the summations. It is to be hoped that, as the Bill wends its way through this House and the other place, we will have longer and more detailed discussions about its origin and its effect, and about the possible problems that it might give rise to. Having said that, this is a relatively non-controversial measure, and it is not one that the House will want to hear too much more about, either from me or any other hon. Member.

1 Apr 2009 : Column 975

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure, the Ayes were 362 and the Noes were 21, so the Question was agreed to. I also have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day on the motion relating to the May day Adjournment. The Ayes were 304 and the Noes were 103, so the Question was agreed to.

[The Division lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]

4.26 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Mr. Deputy Speaker, that last result that you read out will be of great interest to people outside the House. We are increasingly getting a reputation for wanting to curtail our proceedings, but that vote shows that no fewer than 103 of our colleagues want the House to sit on May day bank holiday in order to hold the Government to account.

I want to express my disappointment that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) has curtailed his remarks. I hope that he did not do so in order for me to take over from him, because I cannot follow his act. Indeed, if there were a crystal award for conciseness and clarity—whether a red crystal or an ordinary one—he would receive it.

I want to make a few comments about where we are getting to with the red cross symbol. I was rather depressed to read the summing up by Lord Malloch-Brown in the other place on 27 January, in which he explained what he expects to happen as a result of what a number of colleagues have called a dilution of the symbolism of the red cross. He asserted that it was not the Government’s intention to destroy the Red Cross, stating that

[ Laughter. ] I note that that has caused derisive laughter among some of my colleagues. Lord Malloch-Brown went on to say that

He sees that process as inevitable, but I find that outlook very depressing. He effectively said that the Government are engaging in appeasement. Indeed, the whole of the British and international Red Cross movement now seems unwilling to hold the line that the red cross and red crescent symbols are not religious or political symbols. That line has now been abandoned, and we shall increasingly find ourselves in a mess.

This will mean that the great intentions of the founder of the Red Cross movement, Henry Dunant, will not be able to be realised. In 1863, he set out the basis for a new symbol, stating that it needed to be simple, identifiable from a distance, known to everyone and identical for friend and foe. The emblem had to be the same for everyone and universally recognisable. It is apparent from today’s debate that there will be a proliferation of different symbols, which will inevitably not be so clear
1 Apr 2009 : Column 976
or identifiable from a distance. Those symbols will not be the same for everyone, and it will be even more difficult to obtain universal recognition for them. I therefore think that this is a retrograde step.

One of my hon. Friends has said that the red crystal symbol could easily be mistaken for other symbols already used by the military. My recollection from driving across Salisbury plain is that the red crystal symbol relates to roads that are used by tanks. I am sure that there are all sorts of other uses of that symbol, which could create confusion rather than clarity. One is left wondering why the principles enunciated in the first Geneva convention passed in 1864, which is popularly regarded as the time when modern international humanitarian law was begun, are now being undermined. I fear that the Government and the international community have not thought this through. I am not sure whether appeasement will get us anywhere—in fact, I am certain that it will not.

My second point relates to scepticism about the United Nations and other international organisations that use high-flown words and phrases. The Bill inserts schedule 7 into the Geneva Conventions Act 1957. The preamble contains all that language with which we are so familiar, but which does not mean anything whatever. If it meant something, relatively few countries would want to sign up to the schedule.

The preamble says, among other things, that the signatories to the schedule would have to note that

It goes on to stress

In order for countries to sign up to the schedule, they have to accept that the existing symbols of the red cross and the red crescent do not have

but it is quite apparent that they do not actually believe that. Will that prevent them from signing up to this convention?

The preamble goes on, emphasising

while recognising

These are the typical weasel words that we find in so much of this type of legislation.

What concerns me as much as anything is the fact that those symbols are not going to be enforced. We have had the recitation of a number of horrific incidents across the world where no respect whatever has been shown to these symbols, whether they be a red cross, a red crescent or, indeed, a red crystal. What is happening now is that people risking their lives on overseas expeditions in order to serve the cause of humanity are being picked off, and the people who attack them are beyond and above the law because there is no way of enforcing the sanctions against them that should be entered into under the Geneva conventions and associated protocols.

1 Apr 2009 : Column 977

I feel that, in a sense, the debate is taking place in a vacuum, under the illusion that somehow it will make some difference on the ground, when we know that in almost all the areas in which the United Nations currently operates, the “host countries” have not even complied with, or put their signatures to, the conventions that we are discussing. I wonder whether we should tell the United Nations that it should not enter those countries unless or until they are prepared to sign up to what are very basic humanitarian agreements. That might concentrate some minds.

The Government have done the House a disservice by producing a regulatory impact assessment which is far from adequate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) has pointed out, the section on the small firms impact test does not take account of the fact that a fair number of organisations already use the expression “red crystal”. Although that symbol has not been recognised as a registered trademark, many organisations would not have wanted to register it, because they would not have thought it worth registering. Small firms using that symbol may be caught out by the legislation, which will criminalise the use of that symbol or those words. I hope that the Minister will respond to the real concerns on that subject.

I shall make my remarks extremely brief, but I find it extraordinary that, for the second time in as many Bills, not a single Government Back Bencher has participated on Second Reading. The first occasion was the Second Reading debate on the Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill, which took place two or three weeks ago—on the very day on which the Government Chief Whip addressed the Press Gallery, saying that he wanted to enter into a new compact with members of his party involving their participating in our affairs. That compact may have just been spin, and it is certainly not working. I find it extraordinary that the Government, or their Back Benchers, seem to have given up.

Mr. Greg Knight: One issue on which the Minister has given no answer to those Conservative Members who have raised it is the date of commencement for the proposed legislation. If the Bill is as welcome and as overdue as the Minister would have us believe, why does clause 3 not specify a commencement date?

Mr. Chope: I hope that the Minister will respond to that question. When I examined the detail, it was apparent to me that as soon as the Bill was passed the Government could ratify the protocol, and that under the terms of the protocol the measure would come into effect six months after ratification. I am not sure about the significance of the fact that we have no clear commencement date, but perhaps the Minister will clarify the matter.

Mr. Hayes: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be unfair to point out not only that few Labour Members have spoken—[Hon. Members: “None!”]—but that Labour Back Benchers have been entirely absent from the debate? Would it be unfair to put that on the record, or shall I do so?

Mr. Chope: I do not think that putting the truth on the record can ever be regarded as unfair. My hon. Friend has effectively criticised me for being unduly generous to Government Back Benchers by failing to
1 Apr 2009 : Column 978
draw attention to the fact that none are present, let alone participating in the debate. But let us hope that they will support us in the Lobby and oppose the programme motion, which will enable more of them to participate in the remaining stages of this very important Bill.

Mr. Graham Stuart: I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that we must look for every opportunity to allow Labour Members of Parliament to engage in Parliament, especially given the fact that the Leader of the House has said that 5 per cent. of Labour Members are “bone idle”.

Mr. Chope rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have probably dealt sufficiently with the question of attendance in the House. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will move on to the Bill.

Mr. Chope: Absolutely, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is worth pointing out, however, that, by convention, a Second Reading debate in the House takes up one whole day. Earlier we saw some movement on the Government Benches suggesting to me, if not to others, that there might be some move on the part of the Government to try to curtail this very important Second Reading debate, just because no Government Back Benchers wanted to participate. I hope that we will not have a situation where, because one side does not wish to participate, the other side is prevented from being able to exercise their democratic right to hold the Government to account.

That is the situation with this Bill. A series of important questions have been raised. Were the Government to try to put the Question, it would deprive the Minister of the opportunity to respond to those real concerns. Because a lot of time is still available, I hope that the Minister will not feel inhibited in any way and will respond as fully as possible to the concerns that so many Conservative Members have properly made about the Bill.

4.41 pm

Gillian Merron: We have had a comprehensive debate. We have heard immense support for the British Red Cross and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which I welcome. In the round, I will take from the debate that the Government have support from most, if not all, of the House to implement these measures. Doing so, as I said earlier, will help to safeguard the invaluable work of UN, medical and other personnel worldwide.

In picking up the main themes of the debate and reminding the House why we are here, particularly in respect of clause 1, I can do no better than to refer to the letter and briefing that were made available to every right hon. and hon. Member from the chief executive of the British Red Cross. I am sure that it has been widely read in advance of today’s debate:

1 Apr 2009 : Column 979

I want to pick up some of the questions that have been raised today. Clause 1 refers to the extension of the emblems to include the red crystal. First, on the important matter that right hon. and hon. Members have raised about getting better recognition through a newer symbol than the red cross and red crescent, I do not foresee, nor has the international movement made me aware of, any of the difficulties that right hon. and hon. Members have outlined. It is true, however, that recognition of the red crystal will have to increase, and we will train our armed forces. I know that the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will play a full part in the through training and promotion of that important emblem. It will take time, but we have to start somewhere. Ratification is our contribution to that start.

The question of which emblem should be used has been raised, and I reiterate what I said in my opening remarks. That is a decision for those who will use the emblem, whether it is the national societies or the military commanders in theatre. We do not keep a list of countries and their likely attitudes to that matter and believe that such decisions are best made by those who use the emblem.

Mr. Hayes: It is my understanding that the emblems can be used alone or in combination, which could lead to an extraordinary range of approaches in different countries. Is that likely to be confusing?

Gillian Merron: I have a lot of respect for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and its experience, and it has requested this change. When emblems are used as protection against attack in a conflict situation, they cannot be used in combination. Only one of the three distinctive emblems will be used for protective purposes. But in non-conflict and domestic situations, a national society could choose to use the red cross, the red crescent or the red star of David within the red crystal in conformity with the relevant national legislation, which is another reason why the Bill is important. The British Red Cross could, therefore display an emblem showing the red cross within the frame of the red crystal, but only to promote its activities within the UK.

A further area of questioning concerned what would happen if there were attacks on those using the new or existing symbols, which relates to the issue of protection. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, the emblem is not a literal shield around people, much as we might like it to be. Prosecution will be a matter for national prosecuting authorities, and by ratifying these protocols we will send a message to others to do likewise and give impetus to the promotion of a third protective symbol.

Reference has been made to existing users and the regulatory impact assessment. We do not foresee any impact on businesses or charities, and there has been full consultation across Government. There are protections in clause 1(5) for existing users of the red crystal, which apply except where there would be confusion in armed conflict. Not only does that reflect article 6.2 of the protocols, so other countries will have the same rules, but it is unlikely that a ladies dress shop or a book title will cause confusion in armed conflict situations.

On the issue of control of use in the future, that would only apply where it is justified in the public interest.

Next Section Index Home Page