Previous Section Index Home Page

13 May 2009 : Column 843

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Given the non-negotiables—quite right, too—may I endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and ask the Under-Secretary to continue to help in the humanitarian way the Government are rightly doing? What grounds for optimism does he have in the light of Morgan Tsvangirai’s extraordinary courage and achievements?

Mr. Lewis: The optimism results from the changes that the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and other reformers in the Zimbabwean Government make. Their optimism gives us hope. However, we also know that forces still exist in the Government who do not embrace the reform agenda, and we need them to do that. That is why it is important to send a message of solidarity and support, and make resources available to back the Prime Minister and the reform programme, while also making it clear that there will be no normalisation of relationships with that country until the entire Government are focused on meeting the needs of the ordinary people of Zimbabwe and rebuilding the economy and the health and education systems.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): In the midst of the turmoil in Zimbabwe, what assurance can my hon. Friend give the House about opportunities for children to get education? That will be the way in which the country can rebuild and give people real hope for the future.

Mr. Lewis: My right hon. Friend raises an important issue. We know that many schools in Zimbabwe have not opened this year. Teachers are rightly demanding salaries in hard currency and poor Zimbabweans cannot go to schools that charge in US dollars. That emphasises the importance of the Government’s rebuilding the education system, starting with paying teachers properly so that they turn up to teach the children of Zimbabwe. The good news is that, through UNICEF, we have ensured, with United Kingdom support, that more than 100,000 orphans and vulnerable children remain in school. That would not have happened without UK investment.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I welcome the Minister’s indication that the cholera outbreak is under control, but what is his assessment of the situation in Zimbabwe in respect of HIV/AIDS, a problem that was callously and deliberately neglected by the Mugabe Administration?

Mr. Lewis: Part of the extra support made available by us, both in the past and most recently, to strengthen health systems is about ensuring that the Zimbabwean health system has the capacity to tackle HIV/AIDS properly. We also want the new President in South Africa to remain committed to the new approach to HIV/AIDS there, which does not just affect attitudes in that country, but affects attitudes to how HIV/AIDS is tackled across the African continent. Our support for strengthening the health system means that we hope for a rapid improvement in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

13 May 2009 : Column 844

Sri Lanka

4. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. [274661]

5. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka; and if he will make a statement. [274662]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): The humanitarian situation remains severe in the conflict area. The UN estimates that there are around 50,000 civilians trapped in an area of just 3 sq km. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the only humanitarian agency allowed access, and every humanitarian need in the area is unmet. For the 190,000 internally displaced persons in camps away from the conflict area, such as those that I visited two weeks ago, the conditions are best described as basic.

Mr. Jones: Yesterday’s Human Rights Watch report would appear to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that, contrary to their denials, Sri Lankan forces continue to bombard the Mullaittivu area, an action that has resulted in more than 100 deaths in the past few days, according to reports on the ground. Can the Minister say what representations the Government are making to the Sri Lankan authorities with a view to persuading them to cease the bombardment and allow humanitarian workers into that area, which is, after all, meant to be a no-fire zone?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and one that certainly featured in the conversations that I had with the Foreign Minister in Sri Lanka when I was there two weeks ago. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman’s exact request was also a feature of the conversation that I had with the Sri Lankan high commissioner just this morning.

Peter Luff: The Minister will understand the sensitivity around the screening process for those seeking to enter refugee camps in Sri Lanka. I am sure he is aware of the concerns expressed by the UN Under-Secretary-General John Holmes about that process and, in particular, about allegations of possible pre-screening by the Sri Lankan army. Can the Minister assure me that Her Majesty’s Government are doing all in their power to ensure that the screening process is conducted both fairly and properly?

Mr. Foster: It is always good to agree with the hon. Gentleman, a near neighbour of mine. We raised the issue of the screening process in conversations that I had with John Holmes when we were in Sri Lanka together. We have called for an international presence to be there during the screening process to give it credibility and give the assurance that the Tamil population is looking for.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I thank the Minister for what he has done so far, including taking my call at 5 am on the current humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka when he was in Indonesia. The key is ensuring that the
13 May 2009 : Column 845
boat that is just off the coast of Sri Lanka can deliver the tonnes of aid that the Red Cross has already collected. What further steps can we take to ensure the safe passage of that food from the boat into the Tamil areas?

Mr. Foster: I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s commitment on the issue, which his early morning phone call clearly demonstrated. The Red Cross was able to unload 25 tonnes of food into the conflict area by boat on Saturday. It was hoping to repeat the process yesterday, but was unable to do so because of fierce fighting in the area. We urge both the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to stop the fighting so that the Red Cross can continue its most valuable work.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Is it not now clear that there has been firing into a zone that is supposed to be for humanitarian protection? Is that not a war crime? What action will the Government be taking, with the rest of the international community, to put pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka to stop firing into hospitals, schools and civilian areas?

Mr. Foster: Not only have we called on the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE for a ceasefire in the area, but we have made it clear in a debate in this House that we are calling for an early investigation to see whether crimes have been committed against civilians, and that we consider it vital that alleged war crimes are properly investigated. We will be pursuing a mechanism for a transparent inquiry into that process.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am sure that the whole House will have been shocked by the shelling of the Mullivaikal hospital and the consequent loss of life. What more can the Minister’s Department do to impress on the Sri Lankan Government that they should allow into the country all the aid—not just the food aid—that his Department allocates, and that they must ensure that it reaches those for whom it is intended?

Mr. Foster: I met the Sri Lankan high commissioner this morning to request not only greater international humanitarian access to the camps but United Nations access to the conflict zone, so that we can make a proper assessment of the needs in that area. I should like to pay tribute to the Red Cross worker who was killed yesterday in the conflict zone. He was a water technician who was working to try to save lives, not to prolong the conflict, and he has paid the ultimate price for doing that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [274643] Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will join in expressing our condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed on operations in
13 May 2009 : Column 846
Afghanistan in the last week. They were: Sergeant Benjamin Ross of the 3rd Regiment the Royal Military Police; Corporal Sean Binnie of the 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Black Watch; Rifleman Adrian Sheldon of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles; Corporal Kumar Pun of the 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles; and a soldier from the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, who died yesterday of wounds sustained in Afghanistan at the weekend.

I have been fortunate enough to witness at first hand the bravery, professionalism and dedication of our soldiers from every battalion fighting for us in Afghanistan. We are determined to ensure that we can be a force for good in helping the people of Afghanistan and protecting the security of people in Britain and the wider world. These men, and all those who have lost their lives in conflict, deserve our profound gratitude. Their service will never be forgotten.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Dr. Stoate: I associate myself—as, I am sure, does the whole House—with the condolences paid by my right hon. Friend to the families of the brave soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

The whole country is deeply concerned about MPs’ expenses, and public anger is surely heightened because of people’s own financial and economic circumstances. Laing O’Rourke, a major construction firm in my constituency, has just announced that it is taking on several hundred extra apprentices this year, but unemployment nationally remains extremely worrying. What can my right hon. Friend do to invest in skills and jobs to ensure that we are well placed when we come out of the recession? I am sure that he would agree that unemployment is never a price worth paying.

The Prime Minister: In answer to my hon. Friend’s first point, our responsibility is to create a system of MPs’ allowances that is transparent and will be seen by the country as wholly fair. We must prove ourselves worthy of the public’s trust. We must apologise for the mistakes that have been made. We must rectify all the errors that have happened, and we must reconstruct the system in a way that the public will see as building confidence in the political process. I believe that the steps that were taken last night by the Members’ Allowances Committee were the first important steps in dealing with this matter for the whole of the House together.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: any unemployment is a tragedy in any area of the country, and it is our duty to do everything we can to help those people who are unemployed. Where people are being taken on, there is help available. Where people are on short time, we are providing help through the working tax credit and through training allowances. For where people have become unemployed, we have announced today the details of a scheme under which, for all 18 to 24-year-olds who are unemployed and out of work, there will be an offer after a year of training or of work. I am grateful that social entrepreneurs, as well as charitable organisations, are already involved in the offer of work. We aim to provide 150,000 jobs as a result of the initiative that is being taken today.

13 May 2009 : Column 847

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the officer from the Welsh Guards who died of his wounds at Selly Oak hospital, and to the four service men who were killed last Thursday: Corporal Kumar Pun of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, Corporal Sean Binnie of the Black Watch, Rifleman Adrian Sheldon of 2nd Battalion the Rifles, and Sergeant Ben Ross of the Royal Military Police. Such a tragic loss of life in a single day should remind us of all the bravery that all our service men and women show every day. They have all made sacrifices on behalf of our country, and we must never forget them.

Let me ask about the issue of MPs’ expenses. The first words that the Prime Minister said about them today concerned the need for transparency. Does he agree that one thing we could do pretty much right now is publish our expenses online the moment we put in a claim? Should that not happen online in real time? Does the Prime Minister agree that MPs from all parties should do that now?

The Prime Minister: Yes, Mr. Speaker, I understand that the Committee on Members’ Allowances is looking at the issue. I think it important for there to be a transparent system so that when a claim is reported to the Fees Office, the Fees Office can itself put it on the internet. That should be a responsibility of the system of the House, and I hope that it will be introduced as soon as possible.

I hope that every Member of the House, in considering this issue, will agree that if trust in politics dissipates or disappears, the whole political system cannot work properly. I think that we all have a duty now to ensure that the agreements that we reach and the independent reviews that are carried out are such that they can restore confidence in the system.

As for last night’s proposal from the Committee on Members’ Allowances, I think it important, as the Committee has suggested, for the receipts and payments of Members over the last four years to be scrutinised by a body that includes people who are completely independent of the political system. By doing that for all MPs over a period of four years, we can show the public that we have taken every necessary action to deal with any anomalies, to repair them, and at the same time to build the confidence in the political system that is necessary for the future. I believe that this is a matter in which all parties will want to be engaged, and it is important that we deal with it now.

Mr. Cameron: Of course I agree with the Prime Minister that we should all support the Kelly commission and the work that it is doing, and yes, we should all support the idea of establishing a committee to look back over the last four years, but is there not a problem with this, and does it not show that we need to get on with things now? If we just ask a committee whether everyone has obeyed the rules, it will take a long time to investigate and will then, I think, find—surprise, surprise—that everyone has obeyed the rules. The issue is not so much about whether the rules were obeyed as about the rules themselves. How much needs to be paid back is not really a legal issue; it is a moral and an ethical issue, and it requires some political leadership to sort it out. Does the Prime Minister not understand that?

13 May 2009 : Column 848

The Prime Minister: Yes, I do, and the leadership means leadership in the whole political system. We have a duty to look across the political system—all parties—to act together, as the Committee tried to do yesterday, and to reach an agreement.

The Committee’s proposals are extreme and radical. It will ask outsiders to look at receipts, expenses and payments over the last four years, and will then report on whether they were regular or irregular. That is dealing with the past. For the present, the Committee proposed an interim system, and I believe that it can command all-party support. However, the long-term changes will require the confidence of the public, which is why, as I have said before, I have always believed that we need an outside body—the Committee on Standards in Public Life—to report on what should be done. Its proposals must then be taken into account by the House.

If we are to make changes in the system, however, we need an outside body—a body carrying some confidence that it is acting completely impartially—that can report on the changes that we can make, and I believe that it should report as soon as possible. I believe that it is in the interests of everyone that we go beyond ordinary party politics, and that we make absolutely sure that what we do affects the whole House and all Members, and the way in which they behave.

Mr. Cameron: I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s answer but I still think that there is going to be a problem with just saying, “Let’s go back and look at the claims people made under the rules”— [Interruption.] Members are shouting but that is again part of the problem in this House—let us be frank about it.

Let us see if that committee can do it. However, if we just look at the rules and whether people were complying with them, that does not go to the heart of the problem. It does not go to the heart of the anger that people feel. That is why Members of Parliament on both sides of the House decided to write out cheques and send money back, and I think that that is right.

Let me turn to another issue: reducing the cost of politics more generally. If we are frank, many of us know that the next issue we have to tackle is the communications allowance that was introduced only two years ago. It is worth £10,000 to every MP. Let us be honest: taxpayers are effectively paying out thousands of pounds so we can all tell our constituents what a wonderful job we are all doing. We have all done it; we all know the facts. Is not this a gigantic waste of money? Will the Prime Minister now get on with something I have suggested many times? Let us save some money—scrap the communications allowance now.

The Prime Minister: The first way we are going to save money is through the changes that were voted on in the House two weeks ago—changes that I and others put to the House—about how we can save money on the London allowance, how we can reduce the cost of the additional cost allowance and how we can get the receipts fully dealt with—even those below £25—and submitted. That is the first stage of reducing cost, and the costs of the system will fall.

Next Section Index Home Page