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14 May 2009 : Column 1030

That is the substantive point, but will the Leader of the House consider a process point, as well? Could consideration be given to introducing a system whereby, if enough right hon. and hon. Members sign an early-day motion—250 or 300, perhaps—we could vote on it as we do in the deferred votes on Wednesdays, and, by such a mechanism, express the will of the House of Commons? People such as the Chinese Government, the Burmese authorities and others would be able to see that the House of Commons has expressed its will, without our needing to hold a full debate, followed by a resolution. We in this place, unlike those in other legislatures, are rather restricted in how we express our will.

Ms Harman: Early-day motions are important for that reason. They allow hon. Members to put their names to motions tabled to show support for a particular position.

We are all concerned about the arrest in Burma. We have always held that the detention is illegal, and that has been confirmed by a UN working group. We cannot speculate on whether the regime were behind the US swimmer incident, but they are clearly exploiting it for their political advantage. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to raise the matter again at Foreign Office questions next week.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I understand that the Leader of the House has come up with what can only be called a prime ministerial solution to the second home problem. I understand that she has identified a site that is rent-free and very close to Parliament and can accommodate hundreds of MPs. Is it true that, next week, she will issue hon. Members with tents and order them to camp on Parliament square?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that question. Of course we all support the principle that there should be probity and integrity in the system, but we also support a principle for which the Americans have a much better expression than we do—from log cabin to White House. It should not be necessary to be wealthy to become a Member of this House.

A point on which we also all agree and on which the hon. Gentleman’s question touches is the importance of the constituency link. That is a uniquely important feature of the House of Commons: not only do we do our business here, but we are linked with our constituents in our individual constituencies. That is the main reason why we have the allowance. We have to sort out the system, but we must respect and support the constituency link in doing so.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): May we have a debate on how to ensure that the people elected to this House more accurately reflect the make-up of our society, especially people with disabilities?

Ms Harman: The Speaker’s Conference is doing exactly that. It has members from both sides of the House and we look forward to its report and recommendations.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): May we have a debate on the funding of successful, expanding sixth forms in England, such as the one at Highdown school in my constituency? Many hon. Members have already
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raised the funding formula cut, which the Government have now put right, but the Learning and Skills Council is still not properly funding successful, expanding sixth forms and this is causing great concern to many parents and students in my constituency.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will know that, despite the massive increased investment in further and higher education, there have been major problems with the LSC, which have affected sixth forms and colleges in all constituencies. We shall continue to increase the budget for apprenticeships, colleges and Train to Gain, but as he rightly points out, there is still some sorting out to do in the Learning and Skills Council. The problems are causing uncertainty and we want to resolve them as quickly as possible.

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Points of Order

12.26 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Disappointingly, the Leader of the House said that only one day would be available for the Policing and Crime Bill on Report. She admitted that that would result in scrutiny only of those clauses that the Government arrange in the programme motion. I understand that programming was designed to aid scrutiny, but it is being used to stifle it and, in effect, to impose the Government’s selection of amendments and new clauses. I also understand that—perhaps for procedural reasons—you do not or cannot select amendments to order of consideration motions at Report stage.

Although in this case the Leader of the House has offered to consult on the programme motion, ultimately, the Government can impose their own, as they did with the Bill that became the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, the Coroners and Justice Bill and the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. My question to you, Mr. Speaker, is: will you consider how programming operates and—perhaps as a defender of Back Benchers’ interests—how we can return to the original function of programming, which was to aid parliamentary scrutiny of Executive action? At present, the Government, not necessarily in bad faith, decide what parts of their programme we are able to scrutinise.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. He will have heard the remarks made by the Leader of the House a few minutes ago. I understand that the Procedure Committee is starting an inquiry into the subject, and that is the best way for him to take his deep concern forward. I thank him for raising the matter.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not think that any hon. Member underestimates the gravity of the revelations that have appeared over the past week. It is clear that individual Members will have to account for their own actions and that we as a House are responsible for the system within which they have operated. It is appropriate for the House to reflect on the judgment of those who, in recent years, have sought to block reform of the system and increased transparency. It is that last point that I want to ask you about.

I am in no doubt that Officers of the House are being bombarded with requests for information. They have the invidious job of trying to respond to those requests. Will it be possible to share with the wider House the advice that is given to Officers on how to respond to those requests, so that we as a House can take ownership of the appropriate response to requests for transparency and so that we are not put in the same position again? Officers must have clear guidelines within which they operate and the House must be assured that we are not inappropriately blocking requests for information which should properly be given to the public.

Mr. Speaker: Those matters are being looked into by Committees of the House. It is not for me to agree to the hon. Gentleman’s request. If he puts what he has just said on the Floor of the House in writing, I will reply, giving him a reasoned response.

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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I assure you that this point of order has nothing to do with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)?

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Why not?

Dr. Lewis: I think that the hon. Member for Lewes has done enough to himself.

Mr. Speaker, you have rightly drawn attention to the distinction between that information which has been released early and that information, such as Members’ home addresses, ex-directory telephone numbers and bank account details, which has been stolen as a result of a criminal breach of the Data Protection Act. What guarantee is there that the same thing will not happen again with the next year’s claim forms and receipts if the House insists on handling them in electronic form rather than in paper form? If the House had not handled that material in electronic form, it would have been impossible for people to steal the private data, which everyone, whatever they think about the claims—the substantive data themselves— must agree should never have been copied.

Mr. Speaker: I have to be careful about what is said on the Floor of the House regarding hon. Members’ private business and that of their staff. The Clerk of the House, as the corporate officer, felt that there was a criminal matter involved, and he took it up with the police. Perhaps some clarity can be given to the issue: the Clerk felt that there was a criminal matter and, he, as the corporate officer, took it up with the police. I endorse what he had to do. Now that we have called in the police, I have to be careful about my response to the hon. Gentleman and his point of order. I know that he will appreciate that.

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Sri Lanka

Topical debate

12.31 pm

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

With the conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE in a critical phase, it is appropriate that we again discuss events in Sri Lanka. At the outset, I must apologise to the House, however, because I shall not be present for the winding-up speeches.

As the conflict area shrinks, now covering fewer than 5 sq km, so the risk to the tens of thousands of civilians who are still trapped in that area rises. That was shockingly brought home by the latest reports of the use of heavy weapons and of very many civilian casualties, including children. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary surely spoke for all Members when he said at the United Nations on Monday that he was appalled by those reports. Such actions would be deplorable at any time; they are all the more deplorable coming so soon after the Sri Lankan Government’s own commitment on 27 April to cease using

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the Foreign Secretary’s excellent statement in New York. Is there any truth to the rumour, or, indeed, is it a fact, that Russia and China are still blocking Britain’s efforts to bring the issue to the United Nations Security Council? Have the Government made an effort to place a resolution calling for a ceasefire on the agenda of the Security Council? Yes or no?

Bill Rammell: I shall come on to comment in detail about that situation, but let me reassure—unfortunately reassure—my right hon. Friend that there is still no consensus for Security Council action in terms of a resolution.

The use of heavy weapons in an area of such dense civilian occupation will inevitably result in heavy civilian casualties, making it very difficult to comply with requirements under international law to minimise civilian casualties. Let me state quite clearly up front that we would support an early investigation into all incidents that may have resulted in civilian casualties, particularly the reported shelling of hospitals, to determine whether war crimes have been committed. The UN estimate, if accurate, of more than 6,500 civilian deaths since January is truly shocking and appalling.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): It is quite clear that the Sri Lankan Government are impervious to anything that the rest of the world says. They have turned their back on the rest of the world; is it not time that the rest of the world turned their back on the Sri Lankan Government, isolated them and held them to account for the appalling things that are going on?

Bill Rammell: As I shall come on to say, democratic states are held to a higher standard of responsibility than other organisations, and the Sri Lankan Government, as we have repeatedly urged them, must respond to that point.

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Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) rose—

Bill Rammell: I am conscious of time, but I shall give way and then make progress.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the Minister for making it absolutely clear that the Government support an investigation of any allegation of war crimes. Have they made it absolutely clear to the Sri Lankan Government that that is our message and that is what we will pursue?

Bill Rammell: Emphatically, yes.

Before I say anything further about the conflict, I shall touch on the Tamil demonstrations outside the House and elsewhere. It can come as no surprise that the Tamil community in this country has been galvanized by events in Sri Lanka to march through the streets of London, and to stage protests on our doorstep, in Parliament square, and outside a number of diplomatic missions. I pay tribute to the vast majority of Tamils in the UK who make valued contributions to British society, and I assure them that we fully recognise their legitimate concerns. The right to demonstrate is fundamental to the workings of our democratic society, but demonstrations must remain within the confines of the law.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am pleased to hear the Minister say that, but is he aware that the reputation of the Government and the British state is harmed in the eyes of the Tamils by pointless attempts to use terrorist legislation against individuals such as Muralee and Vithy Tharan who were found innocent of any wrongdoing in terms of consorting with the Tamil Tigers? To those people who make such strange judgments about whom to arrest and attempt to prosecute, will the Minister please pass on the message that it does not help to put innocent men in the dock and to wreck their lives for a year only to find out that they are innocent, as anybody who knew them already knew?

Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman knows, as I have stated, that there is a right to peaceful protest; he knows also that, on the decisions that are taken in such circumstances, there is operational independence. That is the right approach.

Returning to the conflict, I believe that two crises are unfolding in Sri Lanka. The first, and most immediately pressing, concern is the fate of the civilians who are still caught in the conflict area. The lack of independent observers makes it impossible to be certain of the facts, but the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross estimate that there are anything between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians still trapped in an area that, to put it in context, is slightly larger than the combined area of St. James’s and Green parks. There are very clear indications that the LTTE is holding many of those civilians against their will and using some of them as human shields. It shoots at civilians who try to escape, forcibly recruits those able to fight, including children, and uses others as labour to construct earthwork defences. We rightly and utterly condemn those practices, but we also have to be clear that they do not in any way, shape or form excuse any failings by the Sri Lankan Government.

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As I said earlier, democratically elected Governments are rightly held to higher account by the international community. The UN has spoken of a bloodbath, which must be avoided.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Minister knows how supportive we are of him and his colleagues. Given the inability to establish the international presence that everyone wants in the area, are the Government willing to make representations to the Americans, who I understand have taken satellite photographs that show as much evidence as there is of activity, to make them formally available to the international community in order to seek to influence both sides, which would know that what they were doing was being seen and recorded?

Bill Rammell: The hon. Gentleman has taken a long interest in the issue, and our comprehensive view is that there is still not enough information to make an accurate assessment. However, I have listened to his point, and I shall consider it with my colleagues to see whether it represents a way forward.

We have consistently maintained that both sides must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and do everything possible to avoid putting civilians unnecessarily at risk. As the Foreign Secretary made clear in New York on Monday, our message is simple: the killing has to stop. The Government call on the Sri Lankan Government to stop their military campaign and allow the UN or the ICRC to facilitate a move away from danger to safety for those civilians who wish to leave. We call on the LTTE to let civilians—those same Tamils whom it claims to represent—to leave the conflict area.

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab) rose—

Bill Rammell: I am very conscious of the time that is available, and many Members wish to speak. I shall give way one more time and then make some progress.

Mr. Sharma: Everybody appreciates and is thankful for the Foreign Secretary’s intervention, the statement from the USA and the visit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), the special envoy, to Sri Lanka. However, despite the statement made on Monday, thousands of people have still been killed and the bombing is still going on; we can see the photographs today in the free papers distributed in the London underground. There is enough evidence. The communities over here are not satisfied; they are worried about, and unaware of what is happening to, their loved ones. The communities, particularly the Tamil community, would like more and more intervention in the situation.

Bill Rammell: I emphatically understand the frustration of people who want the conflict to be brought to a conclusion. The reality is that, despite our best efforts, the conflict is still going on. I say that to describe the scale of the challenge that we face, but in no way do I mean that we will stop our unstinting efforts to try to bring the conflict to a conclusion.

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