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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Leader of the House will know that the ministerial code says that when Parliament is in session, the most important
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announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament. Last week, when she published the Equality Bill—which was not available to Members until Monday—she should have restrained herself from giving on-the-record briefings and making media appearances over the weekend on details in the Bill that were not previously available to Members. If the Leader of the House, who is supposed to be the guardian of the interests of Back Benchers, cannot make announcements to the House first, the concept of the Government’s accountability to Parliament is clearly dead and buried for this Government.

Ms Harman: The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is especially relevant to statements. If hon. Members are coming to the House to hear a statement, they should have the opportunity to ask the first questions on it, rather than being the second in line after those questions have been asked by a presenter on the “Today” programme or another media outlet. On the publication of Bills, the situation is slightly different. Action on gender pay gaps, positive action and the duty to narrow the gap between rich and poor have all been the subject of consultations and statements. I know that the hon. Gentleman has written to me on this issue, and I have thought carefully about it, but I find myself not guilty in that respect. I am sure that that will reassure him.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): We need a debate on the conduct and competence of Home Office staff at immigration appeal tribunals. I attended one such hearing on 30 March in Bradford for my constituent Enid Ruhango, who is a victim of torture and rape in Uganda. As the hearing was about to start, the Home Office staff withdrew the entire decision, meaning that no appeal could be made—it was a complete farce. They then promised a new decision within 10 working days, but it has now been a month. I wrote to the Home Secretary on 30 March, but I have had no reply. This is not good enough for someone in such a position. When can MPs call the Home Office to account for such farces?

Ms Harman: There will always be occasions on which the Home Office decides on appeal that it will withdraw its case. I have more immigration cases coming through my constituency office than any other Member, and I know that there has been a big improvement in the promptness, accuracy and courtesy with which the Home Office deals with cases, and we should put that on the record. There will always be cases in which things go wrong, including human error or facts that are discovered later in the process that mean that a decision has to be changed. Overall, however, Home Office staff are doing a good and important job, and improving how they do it.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): We all hope that pandemic flu, even though it now seems pretty inevitable, will not prove too dangerous for people in the United Kingdom. However, has the Leader of the House thought through the implications for this place if it does prove dangerous? On the face of it, gathering a representative from every community in the United Kingdom, putting them in one Chamber, forcing them through old-fashioned crowded Lobbies and then redistributing them to every part of the United Kingdom
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sounds like the perfect transmission mechanism. Is this perhaps not a good time to try out more modern methods of voting, such as electronic voting?

Ms Harman: The House of Commons Commission has contingency arrangements, which include the emergency planning arrangements for swine flu.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: May I thank hon. Members, as we got through 34 Back-Bench contributions and two Front-Bench contributions in 46 minutes? I thank the Leader of the House for her answers, too. It shows what can be done.

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Sri Lanka

12.20 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I am not sure whether I can compete with that number of questions and answers in the next 45 minutes, but we will try our best.

With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the civilian crisis in Sri Lanka. I am very grateful to all Members of the House who contributed to yesterday’s important debate on the subject. I returned this morning from a visit to Sri Lanka with the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. I regret very much that the Sri Lankan authorities declined to allow our Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, to join us. Our visit to Sri Lanka was prompted by our increasing concern and that of many international colleagues, as well as of many Members of this House, for civilians in the north of the country, and in particular for the plight of the civilian Tamil population.

There are in fact two crises: that of the civilians trapped in the conflict zone as the Government enter the final stage of their fight with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorists, and that of the thousands of civilians who have crossed over the front line in recent days. The purpose of the visit was threefold: first, to highlight the need to bring the conflict to an end in a way that minimises further civilian casualties; secondly, to press the case for the humanitarian relief effort to be ratcheted up, as the United Nations and the European Union have been calling for; and, thirdly, to make clear the need for a long-term political settlement that meets the aspirations of all communities in Sri Lanka.

Foreign Minister Kouchner and I met President Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Bogollagama, the leader of the Opposition, Tamil and Muslim mainstream politicians and a series of permanent secretaries of the relevant Government Departments. We were briefed by the heads of the main United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross. We also visited a Government-run camp for internally displaced people at Vavuniya and visited a field hospital donated by the French Government. I heard a number of personal testimonies from recent arrivals in the camp. I am grateful for the way in which the Sri Lankan Government facilitated our visit.

The fog of war makes it difficult to be certain of the facts of the present situation. This is compounded by the lack of access for international agencies and the media. I heard widely different estimates of the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone. Government estimates ranged from 6,000 to 20,000 people. The UN, the ICRC and most others believe that there are at least 50,000. Some thought that the number could be as high as 100,000. Whatever the truth, it is clear that significant numbers remain, living under appalling conditions, under-nourished and in fear for their lives. I heard reports of civilians hiding in trenches to escape the shelling and of horrific injuries. I also spoke to people in the internally displaced person camps who recounted how the LTTE had forced them to stay in the so-called no-fire zone against their will and shot at them when they tried to flee.

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We were told that 30 tonnes of food were delivered to the conflict zone between 1 April and 27 April, apparently enough to feed 60,000 people for just one day. A further ship delivered limited supplies during our visit. The ICRC has been able to send in only very limited medical supplies, despite having plentiful stocks in Sri Lanka. The block on deliveries of food and medical supplies hinges on security. To deliver these essentials to those innocent civilians trapped in the conflict zone, there needs to be safety. Ships take time to unload and the pauses provided by the Sri Lankan Government have not been long enough. As the House knows, the Government of Sri Lanka declared an end to so-called combat operations on 27 April. The President and Defence Secretary confirmed this to me personally and in definite terms. These commitments must be upheld.

In our discussions with the President and the Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Kouchner and I made it clear that the protection of civilians must be paramount. We emphasised that if the LTTE had any heart at all, it would let the civilians leave the conflict zone. As G8 Foreign Ministers said in their statement on 25 April, we were also very clear that the time for the conflict to end is now.

We were briefed in detail by the Sri Lankan authorities on their humanitarian relief efforts outside the conflict zone. We welcomed this exchange of information, the extensive work that was under way and the commitments that the Government of Sri Lanka made. Nevertheless, some of what we were told was in contradiction to the information given to us by the international humanitarian agencies.

Let me go through the facts as we understand them. According to the UN, 161,765 Tamils have left the conflict zone since October last year, including an estimated 119,000 in the past 10 days. This is very welcome, but the numbers have seriously challenged the Sri Lankan authorities. The UN agencies we spoke to were frustrated that the Government appear to put unnecessary obstacles in the way of them and others who are trying to assist the Government in dealing with this crisis. The agencies lack any access to IDPs until the IDPs have already been through the preliminary “screening” process. They do not have full access to the camps, and visas and authorisations to move people and goods into and around the country are too limited. Meanwhile, people are not being allowed out of the camps and many families have been separated. Some men, alleged to be LTTE cadres, have been taken from families and placed in so-called rehabilitation camps. All that reinforces the need for full and unhindered access by the UN and other agencies.

We therefore in the course of our visit returned again and again in our talks to five specific points in respect of the humanitarian situation: first, the need for visas to be issued swiftly to international humanitarian staff; secondly, the subject of travel permits for staff working on approved projects inside Sri Lanka; thirdly, the need for full access to IDPs as soon as they have crossed the front line and the monitoring of all stages of screening; fourthly, the need for a proper resettlement programme with specific deadlines to fulfil the Government's commitment to have 80 per cent. of IDPs resettled by year’s end; and, fifthly, to allow the distribution of sufficient food and medicine to meet the needs of civilians trapped in the conflict zone. We were promised
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intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government and we will continue to engage with them on all these issues.

At present, the Sri Lankan Government are engaged in a war without witness in the north of the country. Civilians have fled the terror of the LTTE, but are afraid of what awaits them at the hands of the Government and unsure whether they will ever be allowed home. We were given assurances by the Sri Lankan Government that they had nothing to hide. We responded that it could therefore only be to the benefit of the Sri Lankan people and the Sri Lankan Government to work with the international community in a fully transparent way. By giving UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations the freedom to operate to capacity in all areas, the Sri Lankan Government would not only bring much needed relief to thousands of traumatised or injured people but attract greater confidence from the international community.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) will take up the invitation of President Rajapaksa and visit Sri Lanka as part of a cross-party group of MPs next week and will pursue these points. The other members of the group will be the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Buckingham (John Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar). I share the gratitude of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun that they have agreed to take part in this important visit at short notice. I will be visiting New York on 11 May for UN Security Council business and will pursue further UN involvement in the crisis. I will be discussing with Secretary Clinton tonight, as well as with other like-minded colleagues, how we can work more closely together to find a way to bring the fighting to a stop.

No one should underestimate the murderous damage done to Sri Lanka over the last 26 years by the LTTE, or the sheer hatred felt for its leadership. That is recognised in the international community, but while terrorist organisations work by killing people, democratic governments exist to protect them. That is why the fighting in Sri Lanka must end now. The LTTE is apparently cornered and trapped, having inflicted grievous suffering on the people of Sri Lanka, primarily Sinhalese and Tamil, but also Muslims. How the conflict is ended will have a direct bearing on the prospects for long-term peace in the country. The Government there must win the peace as well as the war. That will be the continuing focus of this Government’s activity, hand in hand with international partners, in the days and weeks ahead.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): May I begin by thanking the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House to make this statement? It was surely right for him to travel to Sri Lanka with the French Foreign Minister to highlight our deep concern about the civilian situation there and about the other issues that he has mentioned. He was also right to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to live up to their obligations, and to call on the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone. All hon. Members across the House support the right hon. Gentleman in making that mission and in what he has said today. We also wish to register our emphatic dissatisfaction that Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister, was denied a visa to join him on the visit.

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I want to raise two sets of questions—the first about the needs of civilians caught up in the fighting, and the second about efforts to secure a real ceasefire. On the humanitarian situation, the UN has said that there have been 6,500 civilian deaths since January. Moreover, as the Foreign Secretary said, according to the UN at least 50,000 people are still trapped in the conflict zone. Those are the statistics, but we should always bear it in mind that they mean that entirely innocent human beings are caught up in a situation of absolute horror, and that many thousands of people in Britain are deeply worried every minute of the day about the safety of their friends and relatives.

Is it not a deeply depressing aspect of the conflict that both sides appear to have contributed to such massive civilian suffering? Reports that the LTTE has forcibly recruited young men to fight and used civilians as human shields are abhorrent. There are still conflicting reports about the use of heavy weaponry in the conflict zone. The Sri Lankan Defence Minister said yesterday that there would be

but reports this morning suggest that that promise may have been broken. Has the Foreign Secretary made any assessment of that, in view of the definite assurances that he has received and to which he referred in his statement?

We accept, of course, that the lack of access to the conflict area makes it very difficult for the Foreign Secretary to know the answer to this question, but can he give us his understanding of what the

means on the ground? Does it mean that civilians are still caught up in fighting with lighter weapons? The Foreign Secretary has been to Sri Lanka, although he was not able to visit that specific area—what is his view on that?

There are also two crucial issues related to access to the conflict zone. First, we understand that aid agencies and convoys are still not allowed in to help, and secondly, we also regret the fact that the UN Secretary-General’s humanitarian team has still not been allowed to enter. Did the Foreign Secretary receive any rational explanation of why the Government of Sri Lanka continue to reject that vital assistance? Did he get any indication that their attitude will change?

It is clear that the Foreign Secretary has tried to insist on greater access. Considering the situation in the camps, what else does he think can be done to persuade Colombo to change its position? In his view, is the apparent screening of people held in camps leading to breaches of human rights? In the light of the reports of screening, is the right hon. Gentleman confident that the Sri Lankan Government are on track to meet their commitment to return 80 per cent. of the people in the camps to their places of origin by the end of this year?

Finally, does the Foreign Secretary also agree that recent sustained signs of a deterioration in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka as a whole are of concern? In particular, there have been reports of abductions and disappearances, as well as of intimidation of the media and so on. Does he agree that it is strongly in Sri Lanka’s interests for those reports to be thoroughly and independently investigated?

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My second set of questions concerns efforts to secure a ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary has been quite rightly pressing for a ceasefire that allows the humanitarian situation to be dealt with. It is disappointing that his efforts and pleas have been refused, subject to how we are to define what the Sri Lankan Government have announced so far. Does the right hon. Gentleman see any prospect for any further initiatives, and what is the next step in the process? Is there any prospect of formal UN Security Council involvement? Presumably, that would be very difficult to secure, given the position of Russia and China. Can he confirm reports that the US Government have suggested that they might withdraw their support for the $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund package for Sri Lanka’s central bank unless the Government do more to help trapped civilians? Has he discussed that with the US Secretary of State, and what is the UK Government’s position on the matter?

Does the Foreign Secretary see any scope for the Commonwealth, of which Sri Lanka is of course a member, to use its influence to bring about an improvement in the situation? That is especially important as Sri Lanka sits on the Commonwealth’s ministerial action group, and is responsible for upholding the Commonwealth’s core principles and values.

We all hope that the forthcoming visit by the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) and his colleagues will help to improve matters, and we wish him well. Some kind of end to the immediate fighting may be in sight, but we agree with the Foreign Secretary that long-term stability can be achieved only through a settlement that satisfies the concerns and legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lankans, and that preserves democracy in that country.

We all hope that Sri Lanka’s longer-term future will be one of peace, stability and economic development, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that the country will need allies and partners across the world, and respect for the policies that it pursues? Does that not make a compelling case for Sri Lanka, in its own interests, to heed international calls to protect civilians and to prevent human rights abuses for the remainder of this tragic and continuing crisis?

David Miliband: I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for his broad support for the calls that we have been making. It is notable that they have been echoed right across the House, and that can only be a good thing. He almost asked 46 questions on his own, never mind leaving room for 46 in the whole session, but I shall try to run through as many answers as possible.

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