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The concern is that the mood among members of the Palestinian community is that time is somehow on their side and that the longer they leave things, the better the position that will emerge for Palestine in the long run. That is a very short-sighted view, because the progress of settlements in East Jerusalem will shortly—I would say within the six months—render a Jerusalem that is the capital of Israel and a Palestinian state almost impossible. Those settlements and the motorways—effectively—that link them are proceeding rapidly, which will make a two-state solution difficult.

Sandra Osborne: I, too, have visited many of the areas the hon. Gentleman speaks of. Has he been to Gaza and seen the economic and humanitarian results of the blockade? I can assure him the people of Gaza do not think time is on their side—quite the opposite, in fact.

Bob Blackman: I thank the hon. Lady. I say quite openly that I have not visited Gaza. That is why I am speaking instead about the west bank and why I made the point I did.

The problem that has emerged with the peace process is that we have, for far too long, had talks about talks about negotiations. We need to get both sides round the table to ensure that there are proper, face-to-face negotiations. In that regard, there is a duty on the Government of this country, which is widely respected in the region, where it has deep historical ties, and which is, in many ways, trusted by both sides.

Bob Stewart: The fact of the matter is that good people have been trying since 1967 to bring the two parties together, but all attempts have failed. We can all sit here piously saying that people should get round the table and negotiate, but some Methuselah, perhaps, has to come along and devise a way to bring that about. Until that happens, we will not have progress. That is what we must achieve somehow.

Bob Blackman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is clear that we need to break the logjam. Mention was made of the peace process in Ireland, and I certainly never thought we would see a peace process there in my lifetime. I welcome what has been done there so that we can have a proper democracy and a proper arrangement between people on that island.

Similarly, we have to break the logjam between Israel and Palestine, but there has to be good faith on both sides. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) rightly reminded us, Israel has, over the years, agreed to put the issue of settlements on the table. To get peace with Egypt, there was an agreement to remove settlements, and they were removed; to get peace with Gaza, settlements were removed; and to get peace with the west bank, settlements were removed. The Egyptian peace treaty was highly successful, but such success has not, sadly, been the case in Gaza, and that is a problem for the Israeli Government.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I do not know how anybody can say that the issue of the settlements in the west bank was somehow solved by

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a treaty. When was the hon. Gentleman actually in the west bank? Every time I have been there, the settlements have increased, and the settlers’ violence against innocent Palestinians has increased exponentially. What land is the hon. Gentleman talking about? It is not the one I visit.

Bob Blackman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I was in the west bank last October—

Michael Connarty: How many settlements?

Bob Blackman: I saw many settlements. I also saw how the Palestinian people have been sold out by their own lawyers—their own people. Palestinians have sold land to the Israelis and given them the opportunity to build houses on it. They had claims over that land, but, unfortunately, they sold them. They went through the courts, and their lawyers sold them out. It is difficult for someone who has been through a legal process to complain when it has gone against them.

Where we go now is quite clear. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups oppose Israel’s right to exist and they refuse to accept the Quartet principles. Until such time as they openly say, “We accept Israel’s right to exist”, no meaningful peace talks can take place. That is where the British Government have a clear duty. They must ensure that pressure is put on the state of Israel and the Palestinians to enter negotiations in line with President Obama’s excellent speech setting out how the peace process could proceed. The Israeli Government were quite keen to commit to that up front, but the Palestinians seem to want to delay; they do not seem to want to enter talks. They must understand that unless they enter talks rapidly, the prospects for a two-state solution will diminish by the day, and we could end up with a three-state solution—the state of Israel, a Palestinian state in Gaza and a Palestinian state on the west bank.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. His premise is that the situation can be solved by dealing with the Israelis and the Palestinians, but is not the real problem that the bigger split in the middle east is between Iranian-led Shi’as and the rest of the Arab world? Until that issue is solved, Israel and the Palestinians will remain proxies for that debate, and it will not be solved locally.

Bob Blackman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Clearly, the elephant in the room is Iran, and the United Nations will have to resolve that issue.

I end with the hope that this process will see our Government operating a more level playing field, putting pressure on the state of Israel to negotiate, but, equally, putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinians and emphasising to them that the need to have urgent talks is paramount. Those talks need to be without preconditions and need to come with an expectation that they will result in a lasting peace and a just settlement for everyone. In that way, the issues in this part of the world can be settled in a manner we would all like, and everyone can live in peace and harmony, religions can be respected and people can promote the economic prosperity they want.

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3.18 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this important debate.

Until the events of the Arab spring, it was generally suggested that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key issue—indeed, the only issue—in the middle east. It is now abundantly clear to everyone that that is not, and never was, the case. Despite that, it is vital that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is resolved. Both peoples have the right to self-determination, and it is a tragedy that Arab and Jewish nationalisms came forward at the same time and became embroiled in such conflict.

Israel, of course, has been under threat since it was set up in 1948. The issue since then has been not its borders, but its existence. In 1948—1947, to be more precise—the United Nations made one of a number of offers of a state to the Palestinians. However, Arab states invaded the new state of Israel and rejected the concept of a Palestinian state at that time.

Much discussion centres around the significance of Israeli settlements. The origins of that settling movement were in the 1967 defensive war, when Israel, whose existence was threatened by all its neighbours, went to war, won that war, survived and as a result ended up occupying lands beyond the boundaries that it had had before. I do not want to go into any long, historical debate, but it is significant for everyone to remember that at the Khartoum conference after the ’67 war the Arab states came together and uttered the “three nos”—no peace, no recognition, no negotiation. It was after that that the settler movement went forward so that we are in today’s situation.

That interpretation of settlements is, of course, valid only for people who accept the existence of a state of Israel, and look at settlements as land occupied as a result of war, which was then not negotiated on. The people who do not think Israel should exist at all use the word “settlements” in a rather different way when they talk about Israel being occupied Palestine. When I listen carefully to people who criticise the state of Israel, it is sometimes clear, sometimes less so, on what basis they are speaking.

We are told that the current major impediment to peace is the existence of the Israeli settlements. The obvious question that must be raised when they are described in that way—not as undesirable but as the major, or only, obstacle to peace—is why Israel’s forcible withdrawal of 8,000 settlers, and its soldiers, from Gaza in 2005 was followed not by peace in Gaza but by the election of Hamas, which declared that it would fight for ever to get rid of all the state of Israel, and by the continuation of rockets being fired from Gaza to Israel—to Sderot and other places.

Hamas has a charter that is blatantly anti-Semitic and talks about Jews ruling the world and being responsible for the Russian and French revolutions—events that I seem to remember took place before the state of Israel was set up. Of course, Hamas was and still is supported and armed by Iran, which also armed Hezbollah in Lebanon and has been moving missiles and arms to Hezbollah there in recent weeks. The forcible removal of 8,000 Israeli settlers from Gaza by the Israeli army

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did not result in peace at all, so the settlements are not the only obstacle to peace. I support what the Israeli Government of the time did. It was the right thing to do, but it is clear that settlements are not the sole obstacle to peace.

Peace—recognition of the rights of Palestinians and Israelis in two states—can come about only through negotiations, and anyone who wants that end knows that negotiations must be about borders, the status of Jerusalem and refugees. A number of very detailed and protracted negotiations, involving international support, have taken place and come fairly close to resolving some of those difficult issues, but they have never quite been concluded.

Each side will have its explanation of who is at fault. Gilead Sher, a senior negotiator on the Israeli side who has worked extensively with Palestinians, and who to this day is working on the west bank persuading Israeli settlers to prepare to leave, has said clearly that a solution was never reached in the negotiations in which he was involved, because the Palestinians were not willing to signal an end to conflict. They could not or would not do it. That view was echoed by President Clinton who tried so hard to bring about a solution.

What is happening now, and what is there for the future? The past is relevant and important in this protracted and difficult conflict, but people must look to the future if a solution is to be found. In recent years, major progress has been made by the Palestinian Authority on the west bank, working with Tony Blair and the Quartet in developing the economy of the west bank and instruments of government for a future Palestinian state.

That work has been done effectively, but it is extremely disturbing that at this moment, as the Palestinian Authority is talking to Hamas about a unity agreement, the architect of those substantial improvements in security and in Palestine’s economy and autonomy, Prime Minister Fayyad, is being told that as a result of the unity negotiations he should go. There is intense pressure on him. Last week he was going; this week it is a little less clear. That is an ominous sign. The Palestinian who has worked to develop a Palestinian state and economy is now told by Hamas that his services are no longer required.

Michael Connarty: I respect my hon. Friend’s strongly held views on these matters, but she has spent all her time talking about the Palestinians. As we heard from Opposition speakers, at the moment the Israeli state is demolishing houses, surrounding and crushing East Jerusalem, moving large numbers of people out of their homes and, it would appear, condoning an attempt to emasculate the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem. Surely she should talk about what the Israeli Government are doing, because they are obviously not aiding the peace process.

Mrs Ellman: I certainly do not support every move of the current Israeli Government, but I have to remember that under previous Israeli Governments, whom I did support, it was the Palestinians who were the block to peace; whatever policies may be going on that people may disagree with, the fundamental point here is that it is the Palestinians who at this moment are refusing to go to the negotiating table and settle the conflict, when there is an opportunity to do so on the basis of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

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The only way forward is a return to negotiations on the basis of two states living in co-operation and peace. I hope supporters of all the parties involved will do their best to bring those negotiations forward, so that there can indeed be an agreement leading to a peaceful future.

3.27 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for securing the debate.

Ever since the state of Israel was set up it has been under attack, and all of us in the Chamber can agree that there should be a state of Israel. We represent constituencies all over the country, but I suggest that someone who represented a constituency into which rockets were fired daily would want to take pretty strong action.

We all accept that there are faults on both sides. However, given the constant pressure from virtually all Israel’s neighbours, and the fact that the Iranians say that Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth, it is necessary to keep a strong, powerful Israeli Government, to try to contain what could happen. Iran is a huge threat not only to the Israelis but to the whole region. I suspect that many of its Arab neighbours are just as frightened of Iran as Israel is. That key matter will need to be sorted out in the future, but I will not go into it now.

It is right for us to have this debate, but we must deal with it in a commensurate manner. We must accept that Israel will retaliate when it is attacked. We may sometimes believe that it over-reacts, but if we were facing such attacks we would probably react in a similar way. In the end, the only way peace will break out in that part of the world is through prosperity and trade. While hostile acts take place, that will not happen. I know that the Israeli President is keen on creating greater trade in the region, but that is a huge problem with the security situation as it is.

We believe in a two-state solution, but that will be difficult to achieve if Hamas and other organisations will not come to the negotiating table. I ask our Ministers and Government not only to take a strong position in the region and to give Israel good advice when she needs it, but to make sure that they are fair in their dealings with Israel and the whole region and that there is a two-state solution and a state of Israel.

3.30 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I will be brief, Mr Walker, so that the Front-Bench representatives have time to respond. I am grateful for this debate and hope that it will lead to a full day’s debate on the Floor of the main Chamber, because enormous issues are involved.

I have visited Palestine and Israel on many occasions and would characterise Palestinians as under occupation, under siege or in exile. Having visited many Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, I have felt the sense of anger, hopelessness and depression that people who, along with their grandparents, parents and

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now their own children—great-great grandchildren—have spent 60 years in refugee camps thirsting for the right to go home. They have been living in poverty, under oppression and with a sense that, for many generations, whole lives have been lived in limbo.

I recall meeting those who were removed from Palestine in 1948 and who went to the Gulf states and Iraq. They were eventually moved out of Iraq into Syria, and I met them languishing on the border between Iraq and Syria. Have a thought for how they feel, think and look at the world. Have a thought for the plight of the 1.5 million people in Gaza who are effectively in imprisonment and cannot travel to the west bank or Jerusalem. Some are elected parliamentarians who cannot go anywhere. Have a think about them and about what the situation does to the psyche of young people growing up in imprisonment, unable to do anything other than watch the world on TV and computer screens. That is the reality for many Palestinians.

Some talk blithely about the need for negotiations and for promoting a two-state solution, which is fine, but look at the criss-cross roads all over the west bank, and look at the settlements and at the water that has gone. I applaud what my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has said about the need for an ecological approach to the River Jordan. We could start by not abstracting all the water from it, a practice that is leading to the Dead sea disappearing, literally, before our very eyes.

The march for Jerusalem will take place this month. The campaign is calling on the British Government to do a number of things and I would be grateful if the Minister said what support they can give it. The campaign wants to stop the systematic demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem; stop the building of illegal settlements and their structures; stop the granting of discriminatory and insecure residency rights to Palestinians and their arbitrary expulsion from that city; and stop the expulsion of many from Jerusalem. Homes in Silwan have been destroyed to make way for the city of David.

Mr McCann: Will my hon. Friend ask for those who are firing missiles into southern Israel to stop? His list will be incomplete if he does not put that part of the picture in place.

Jeremy Corbyn: I have never supported anybody who fires rockets at someone, but I ask my hon. Friend to get a sense of reality and to compare rockets with the 1,500 people who were killed during Operation Cast Lead, when F16 jets using phosphorous bombs killed innocent women and children. I am not in favour of rockets or bombing. We will achieve peace only if there is real recognition of the rights of and injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. That includes ending the settlement policy, ending the occupation of East Jerusalem, and ending the whole policy of the expulsion of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

Israel is a very rich and very powerful nuclear-armed state situated in a region where it is in a position to threaten any of its neighbours at any time. I suggest that the way forward in the region is to end the injustice suffered by the Palestinian people, end the occupation of the west bank and the imprisonment of the people of Gaza, and allow those who have been stuck in refugee camps for so long to return home.

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Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jeremy Corbyn: No, I will not.

Britain was involved in the original partition and in the Balfour declaration, so we have a duty to help promote peace. That means suggesting to Israel that leaving the United Nations Human Rights Council, running away from international institutions and opposing Palestinian membership of the UN are hardly an indication of a process of peace, or of recognition of or respect for international law. They are very much the opposite.

If Israel cannot abide by international law and if it continues to abuse human rights and imprison Palestinians, why is the European Union-Israel trade agreement carrying on as normal, as though there is nothing wrong? That agreement has a human rights clause and that clause should be respected. We should, therefore, enter negotiations and tell Israel that if it cannot abide by the trade agreement’s human rights clause, the agreement itself will be suspended.

John Woodcock rose

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): Order. I believe that Mr Corbyn has finished his speech. I call Mr Slaughter.

3.36 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Walker. In the few minutes that I have, I will first declare an interest. My entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests notes that I went to Egypt last March with the Council for European Palestinian Relations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has usefully introduced the debate and I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss the issue at greater length on the Floor of the House. The picture painted by my hon. Friend and Government Members, however, is not one that those of us who regularly visit Gaza, the west bank and Israeli Arabs in Israel would recognise. The actual picture is one of occupation.

Mr Offord: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Slaughter: I will give way once, and that will be it.

Mr Offord: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. When he went to Gaza, did he visit the Gaza city shopping centre, where many of the goods are provided by Israel at a much cheaper price than those coming through the tunnels from Egypt?

Mr Slaughter: I am not sure that that is relevant; I wish I had not given way.

The Palestinian people experience occupation, persecution and discrimination. I wish that some of the rights that Israelis give to their own citizens—some hon. Members have rightly mentioned them—were also provided for the Palestinian people. When considering this issue, the judgment of some hon. Members seems to lapse in a way that it would not in relation to other issues.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has given the example of Operation Cast Lead, in which 1,500 people, the majority of them civilians—many of them women and children—were massacred by bombardment from sea, land and air. I visited Gaza two to three weeks after that happened and saw the devastation that it wrought.

Over the 20 years since Oslo, the number of settlements has doubled from 250,000 to 500,000, irrespective of how the Palestinians were negotiating or of which parties were in government.

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Slaughter: No, I will not give way again.

Israel is portrayed as the victim when it is, in fact, a regional superpower, a nuclear-armed state and, above all, an occupying power. It is a power that has occupied a people for longer than anywhere else in the world.

The Minister did not have a chance to answer a question that I asked him during last night’s debate in the House on Jerusalem, so I will ask it again. What stance will the Government take when the Palestinians go to the United Nations, again, in April for recognition? Could the British Government please take a different attitude?

We cannot expect the Palestinians to negotiate while settlements are being built at their current rate. On 18 December, the Israeli housing Minister announced that another 1,000 new settler homes would be built in East Jerusalem. That was a punitive response to Palestine’s admission to UNESCO. How can there be any basis for negotiation when settler violence has gone up by 150% in two years; when Jerusalem is being ethnically cleansed; when there are 5,000 Palestinian prisoners—more than 300 of them in military detention; and when a report, published just last week, said that child prisoners were being tortured and ill-treated in Israeli prisons?

Those are the offences that have to be addressed. It is time that those who rightly support the state of Israel’s being able to live in peace and security, as we all do, opened their eyes to the crimes being committed against the Palestinian people on a daily basis throughout Gaza, the west bank and, indeed, in Israel. Until we have that—

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): Order. I call Mr Ian Lucas.

3.40 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this important and valuable debate. I wholeheartedly support the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) that we should have a longer debate.

As we have touched on in this brief debate, the question of Israel and the peace process has been of immense—possibly unique—importance as a political issue for 60 or 70 years and longer. We are, of course, in a very novel situation because of the democratic developments that have taken place in the middle east since the Arab spring. Although I accept that Israel-Palestine

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is not the only political issue in the middle east, my discussions with new parliamentarians who will be engaged in the issue in countries such as Morocco and Tunisia have shown that it is very important to them. When I have spoken to them, they have asked for Britain to play its role in making progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. It is important to recognise that Britain has a role to play in this changed world.

At the moment, the situation in Israel is very fluid. Israeli elections are likely within the next year, and elections to the Palestinian Authority are also due. We know that negotiations are going on politically between Fatah and Hamas that will have a major impact on Israel and its perception of working with Palestinian representatives.

From the discussions that I have had, I am very aware of the importance of Iran in terms of the perceptions of Israel. When I speak to Israeli representatives both in Israel and here, I hear about the sense of insecurity that exists within the minds of Israelis in relation to that very important issue. I accept that Iran is not simply an issue for Israel. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in breach of agreements is an issue for the world and for the United Nations. That is an extremely important matter.

Of course, I have had the benefit of visiting Palestine and Israel on two separate occasions: first, in 2007, and secondly, last November in the company of my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), the shadow Foreign Secretary, when I was privileged to have discussions in not only Israel, but Ramallah. On that occasion, I was visiting as a guest of Labour Friends of Israel, and I intend to visit as a guest of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. I hope to visit places such as Gaza later this year.

I thank hon. Members who are here today and who have been engaged with the issue for many years. It is important that the breadth of view that we have heard expressed in the debate today is reflected in the positions that are adopted by the Opposition and by Her Majesty’s Government. Britain has an important role to play in the middle east peace process. We are respected. I do not know to whom the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) spoke, but Tony Blair is respected. I have had important disagreements with the former Prime Minister on middle east policy at different times, but I have spoken to representatives of both the Palestinian Authority and Israel who appreciate the work that Tony Blair continues to do in the region. It is unfortunate that that partisan point was made in what has been a good debate.

What struck me on my two visits to Israel was that there has been progress in the west bank between 2007 and 2011. Economic progress has taken place, which is welcome and is part of the process of Israel and the Palestinian authority being able to work together. That will change individuals’ lives. We touched on the issue relating to Northern Ireland, which sometimes casts a fog but sometimes sheds light on the middle east peace process. Unless people see that, individually, their lives will be changed by progress in the peace process, they will not buy into that process. There are areas where progress has been made.

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Mrs McGuire: Does my hon. Friend recognise the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court to instruct the Government to clear the settlement area of Migron? That is one of the largest settlement areas in the west bank and it has very clearly been identified as land owned by the Palestinians. That decision was endorsed on Sunday.

Ian Lucas: It is very important to recognise that Israel is a democracy and that it has an independent judiciary. We applaud those types of decisions and the fact that, within Israel, those decisions are being taken. However, pressures are coming from the Israeli Government. In the past year, they have talked about withdrawing funding from non-governmental organisations that do not support Israeli Government policy. That sort of thing does not help Israel, but the independent judiciary, to which my right hon. Friend refers, does. It is important that that is preserved. We have a situation in which some progress is being made, but that progress is not within the peace process at the present time. That is intensely frustrating.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ian Lucas: I am sorry, but I must make some progress. I apologise to my hon. Friend.

From my observations, the position of the peace process on the ground is intensely difficult. It is true that there had not been negotiations for a long time when I visited in November and that some meetings have occurred this year. We must, of course, welcome the fact that those meetings are taking place, but the settlements are a major barrier to any progress on securing peace. I should like to ask the Minister what efforts we are making to convey to the Israeli Government the importance of stopping settlement building. Unless that happens, the prospects for progress in the peace process are very limited.

I should also like to highlight the issue of UN recognition, because although the Labour party agrees with the Government position on many areas, we fundamentally disagree with their position to date on UN recognition. That is a matter of principle. If we really support a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, we should establish the relevant mechanism in the United Nations. It is very disappointing that the Government took the view that that was not the correct approach.

As no real negotiations were going on, should we not have made an approach to the United Nations, which is a multilateral and respected organisation that had a major role in the establishment of the state of Israel? The state of Israel was, of course, granted recognition in 1947 and 1948 by UN resolutions on which the United Kingdom abstained. Should we not have gone to the UN to try to secure progress? It seems extraordinary that, when progress was not being made, the UK Government were resistant to using multilateral agencies and the most important multilateral agency of all—the United Nations—to secure progress.

I have been privileged to meet some hugely impressive individuals: Dan Meridor, the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, who was in the Palace only last week, and Salam Fayyad, who has been mentioned. Anyone can do business with them and, most importantly, they can do business with each other. Those individuals are

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clearly people who can bring and achieve peace in the right circumstances, with pressure brought to bear by the international community.

We all want to see progress in the middle east. It is one of the great political issues of our lifetimes. Progress can be achieved only through a two-state solution. We need to exert pressure from the international community to get the two parties to the negotiating table to seek a solution. If a solution is reached in the Israel-Palestine conflict, we will have a more secure and stable middle east, and an Arab spring that will bring wider democracy to us all.

3.50 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to conclude this short but important debate, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this important debate. I strongly agree with him that Israel, certainly by the standards of the middle east, is a force for social progress. He lost me a little bit when he argued that socialism had proven to be the greatest international guarantor of religious freedom, but let us move on to wider issues that are specific to the debate.

Israel is an important ally of the UK and a valued friend. I am pleased to note that our bilateral trade increased by 34% last year. I am also pleased to note the continued high-level exchanges on issues of national security, including the current threats from Iran and Syria, and instability elsewhere in the region. We are also expanding our ties in the fields of science, education and cyber issues. These are signs of a strong relationship being made stronger yet between Israel and the UK.

Our relationship with Israel is crucial for our national security and prosperity objectives. However, just as we are building a strong partnership with Israel, we are continuing to enhance our relationship with the Palestinians. That is reflected in high-level visits, including by President Abbas to the UK in January, our flourishing education links, and in parliamentary and cultural exchanges, some of which we have heard about this afternoon. Our open relationship with both Israel and the Palestinians allows us to have frank discussions with both. We do not always agree with each other, but, by ensuring robust partnerships, we will be more able to find ways to address each other’s concerns. I agree with the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas): the UK is a voice that is heard loudly and clearly in this debate.

Hon. Members will be pleased to note that our recent changes to legislation on universal jurisdiction have been welcomed. We know the Israeli Government felt that this had previously been used inappropriately to target Israeli nationals. Where we identify such issues and can act on them, we will. We will continue to raise UK concerns strongly with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

This afternoon’s debate has demonstrated the high levels of interest, which rightly exist in the House, in the middle east peace process. The goal of the UK Government remains a two-state solution. We believe firmly that it should be based on 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps, incorporate a fair and realistic solution for refugees,

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include security arrangements respecting Palestinian sovereignty and protecting Israeli security, and be based on Jerusalem as a joint capital for both states. We remain fully committed to this strategic goal.

Jonathan Reynolds: I do not think that anyone would object to, or oppose, the statement the Minister has just made. Each one of those issues is so intractable that it prevents progress on any of the others. Is there any scope to try to make an intervention on just one of those issues—perhaps refugees or settlements—to at least push the peace process forward in a way that has not happened for quite a few years?

Mr Browne: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. In the remaining time available, I will try to illustrate precisely how we are advancing those objectives.

We are clear that a solution cannot be imposed from outside. Our current priority remains bringing the parties back to negotiations. We believe that it is only through negotiation and agreement that a sustainable two-state solution can be achieved. The UK will continue to be one of the principal supporters of Palestinian state-building efforts, assisting them to tackle poverty, build institutions and boost their economy. We will also continue, however, to emphasise to all parties the importance we place on direct negotiations, without preconditions.

What we believe is most needed is not a push for Palestinian statehood within the UN or its specialised agencies—that could push Israel and the Palestinians further apart—but a renewed commitment to the peace process. That must involve a demonstration of political will and leadership from both sides to break the current impasse.

Richard Burden: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Browne: No, because lots of hon. Members have made contributions and I wish to try to respond to all of them if I can.

We remain deeply concerned by ongoing settlement activity, an issue raised by many hon. Members. Settlements are illegal under international law, and in direct contravention of Israel’s commitments under the Quartet road map. They make a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, physically harder to achieve. This is made worse by the Israeli Government’s policy of connecting settlements to already stretched water supplies, and of restricting Palestinian movement and access in the occupied territories, including establishing a secondary road system to separate Palestinian and Israeli traffic. The Government have consistently called on Israel to halt all settlement activity and to reverse its recent announcements about expanding existing settlements.

We urge all sides to exercise restraint and avoid civilian casualties. It is unacceptable that Palestinian militant groups continue to threaten ordinary Israeli citizens—a point powerfully made by many contributors to our deliberations. It is also unacceptable that Israel continues to launch strikes that affect, and on occasions kill, ordinary Palestinians. We remain concerned by conditions in Gaza. It is deeply troubling that Gaza, which should have a thriving economy, is currently one of the highest per capita recipients of aid funding in the world. We will continue to press the Israeli Government

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to ease the movement and access restrictions that make life so difficult for the people of Gaza and are doing ongoing damage to its economy. Such restrictions do not help the peace process.

The UK has been providing valuable support to Palestinians through our programmes. In Gaza and the west bank, we help to support 5,700 children through primary school, and immunise 2,000 children under five against measles. This type of work—there is much more I could put before the House—is vital to the Palestinian people and helps to keep the prospects of a two-state solution alive, and we will continue to do it.

We continue to follow developments on Palestinian reconciliation closely, including recent meetings between Hamas and Fatah officials. We have been clear that any new Palestinian authority, including any technocratic Government formed to prepare for elections, must be composed of figures committed to the principles set by President Abbas in Cairo in May 2011; must uphold the principle of non-violence; be committed to a negotiated two-state solution; and accept previous agreements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. We will judge any future Palestinian Government by their actions and their readiness to work for peace.

In the context of the dramatic changes in the wider middle east, we continue to encourage all groups to espouse the principle of non-violence and to join mainstream democratic politics, thereby contributing to peace and stability in the region. Hon. Members have spoken about the significance to Israel, and to the peace process, of changes in the wider middle east in the past year or so. The encouraging aspects of the Arab spring highlight the enormous benefits that could follow for Israelis and for Palestinians, and for the region as a whole, were lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians achieved. The opportunity to conclude an agreement based on a two-state solution that is acceptable and beneficial to all parties will not exist indefinitely. It is of the utmost importance to all parties that this chance is taken while it exists. As a result, the UK Government recognise that there is a degree of urgency involved in the process.

I assure hon. Members from all parts of the House that the UK remains fully committed to developing our partnerships with both Israel and the Palestinians. We will continue to work tirelessly in support of the effort to achieve a long-term, durable solution to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As long as we judge that a two-state solution remains obtainable, we will do all we can to encourage all parties to obtain it. That remains our objective. I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate, and the wide interest shown in this vital issue of our times.

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EU Directive on Animal Experimentation

3.59 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

The transposition of the European Union directive on animal experimentation into United Kingdom law provides an opportunity to celebrate and protect the UK’s proud record of pursuing the best standards of animal welfare. It was initially thought that the new directive would have little effect on the operation of the seminal Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. However, the process has turned out to be much more comprehensive and complicated than expected.

In response to a call for comments issued in 2011, the Home Office received more than 10,000 responses from individuals and almost 100 from organisations, illustrating the high level of interest in this issue.

In October 2011, the Home Office said that a report on the outcome of the consultation would be published early in 2012, as would a draft code of practice and draft guidance on the application of the revised UK legislation, and that these documents would be accompanied by an indication of the Government’s intentions in making the transposition of the requirements of the directive into UK law. It later became clear that Parliament would have to consider the Government’s proposals in yes/no votes, without the opportunity to make amendments, before the summer recess in July 2012. It is now expected that regulations to transpose the provisions of the directive will be published in May, giving little time for meaningful, effective consultation.

It must be recognised that there was a need to harmonise protection of laboratory animals within the EU member states. The new directive has a number of positive, welcome provisions. For example, it requires that upper limits of pain and distress should be laid down and should not be surpassed; that the weighing of likely benefit and likely suffering should be conducted before any project work begins; that there should be retrospective assessments to evaluate whether the stated objectives were achieved and what harm was inflicted on the animals used; that there should be personal records from birth for individual cats, dogs and non-human primates; and that all personnel involved should be adequately educated and trained.

The Government have attempted to reassure interested parties that high standards of laboratory animal protection, which have operated in the UK for many years, will not be relaxed. However, there is concern that the UK legislation might be watered down to harmonise with an EU minimum. This concern is not expressed only by animal welfare groups. Comments published in February’s edition of the British Medical Journal indicated that organisations representing some of the main users of laboratory animals, including the UK Bioscience Coalition, the Association of Medical Research Charities and the Institute of Animal Technology, are also apprehensive.

The fear expressed in the BMJ article was that the Government will not take advantage of article 2 of the directive, which permits member states to maintain higher standards than those required by the directive, but will merely copy out those standards word for word into UK law. Recent experience indicates these concerns may be justified.

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The use of great apes as laboratory animals in the UK has been banned since 1997, but it is not in UK law. I wrote to the Minister earlier this year, on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group for the replacement of animals in medical experimentation, which I chair, suggesting that there were compelling ethical, scientific, logistical and economic reasons for making the ban a legal stipulation in the UK. Unfortunately, the reply was disappointing, saying the intention was indeed to copy out the paragraphs in the directive that allow member states to apply to permit the use of great apes in certain circumstances.

The case against using chimpanzees is unanswerable, since, even if their use were ethically acceptable, scientifically justifiable and affordable, where would animals be obtained from in the necessary numbers, if an unforeseen threat to humans arose that could not be dealt with in any other way? Surely the Government should seize the opportunity to put protections into this legislation.

The Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, which provides the secretariat to the all-party group, and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection presented a joint submission to the Minister, which spelled out the case for making the ban on using great apes in the UK permanent and legally binding. The answer they received again repeated the Government’s view that they did not envisage any circumstances in which the UK would claim that there was a compelling need to use great apes. So why not make it clear in this legislation?

Unfortunately, the Government’s approach to great apes fuels concerns about their overall approach to the transposition, giving credence to concerns expressed by bodies such as FRAME, the BUAV, Animal Defenders International and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as those listed in the BMJ article, which I mentioned earlier.

The Minister knows that there is particular public concern about the use of any primates, highlighted by the recent Bateson report, showing that at least 9% of experiments, and probably more, have no discernible potential benefit for humans. In transposing article 8, will the Government clarify the meaning of “debilitating clinical condition” to make it clear that the use of primates can only be considered where a serious human disease is involved, not simply a mild or temporary deterioration, such as baldness or the common cold?

I am particularly concerned that we take the opportunity to put animal experiments on a more transparent footing. I welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act needs to be reconsidered to meet the transparency requirement of the directive. The simplest way to do that would be just to remove it, while leaving in place the protection of personal data, safety and commercial confidentiality provided for in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. In fact, if the Government published anonymised project licences centrally, together with the findings, whether positive or negative, that would remove any remaining risk of individual researchers being harassed, while allowing a mature public discussion of the costs and societal and scientific benefits of experiments, as well as enabling researchers to check that they are not duplicating previous research. Will the Minister confirm that university research will still be open to freedom of information requests, within the existing FOIA safeguards?

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Of grave concern is the possibility that the current financial situation could be used to reduce the effort put into the administration of the UK legislation, including the licensing system and the work of the Home Office inspectorate. The system of licensing, consultation between licensees and inspectors, unannounced visits and regional administration has worked well for many years and is strongly supported by the scientific community. However, there are fears the number of inspectors will be allowed to dwindle, that inspectors will interact less with licensees, as advisers and unannounced visitors, and that the whole system will be run electronically from one site, probably at the Home Office in London.

Such changes could undoubtedly be made to fit with the requirements of the directive, but they would have a serious, deleterious effect on the standard of protection of laboratory animals in the UK, which, we are regularly informed, is currently the highest in the world and is something that we in the UK can rightly be proud of.

Given the high regard in which it is held and the key function it plays in ensuring compliance with the law, the implementation of the three R’s—replacement, reduction, refinement—and the maintenance of best possible practice, the Home Office inspectorate should be maintained at its current capacity and its advisory role should be kept intact.

Furthermore, there are concerns that UK housing and husbandry standards might be reduced to the lower EU standards, including for the floor area of cages for dogs or the height of cages for rats, which are greater in the UK than would be required under the directive. Many in the scientific community would find that undesirable. In order to maintain good public relations and perceptions of research and to ensure the continuation of the UK’s established reputation for high standards of animal welfare, lower standards should be avoided, by recourse to article 2 if necessary.

In addition to possibly lowering technical standards, the transposition could weaken the current, successful ethical review process, by substituting it with the “animal-welfare body” stipulated in the directive. Although the Home Office indicated in the consultation that the two were similar, there are important differences in function and emphasis. For instance, it is important to retain the “ethical” aspect of the name, as that more accurately reflects what the role of the body should be. A great deal of effort has been invested in improving the effectiveness of the process, and the general consensus is that it is useful and desirable, and that, where there are problems, they are about effective implementation, rather than with the process per se. There are strong arguments, therefore, for retaining function 2 of the process, namely project evaluation, which would be lost in purely animal welfare considerations. That is particularly important in considering local factors that impact on projects, and in facilitating communication and dissemination of information to the various people involved.

In summary, the recent media coverage concerning the unwillingness of internal transport companies to carry laboratory animals shows that animal experimentation remains high on the public and scientific agenda. Therefore, very great care should be taken to ensure the transposition of the directive does not in any way weaken the UK’s hard-fought reputation for maintaining the highest standards in preserving the essential fine balance between science and animal welfare. In a joint response, the

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British Veterinary Association and the Laboratory Animals Veterinary Association emphasised that the responsible use of animals in research has improved human and animal welfare through the advancement of scientific knowledge and the development of safer and more effective medicines. They went on to say:

“animals should only be used in research when no alternative is available and the work is justified through independent ethical scrutiny, and we continue to support the traditional principles of the ‘Three Rs’. We strongly believe that higher standards should be retained under Article 2 of the Directive even without clear evidence of benefit to animal welfare, unless there is evidence to show that no reduction in welfare will result.”

That is a clear message from the professional bodies. They conclude:

“The high level of public confidence in the robust regulation of scientific procedures using animals in the UK should not be compromised by the reduction of requirements without this evidence.”

I will be grateful if the Minister could clarify a number of issues in his response. How will he ensure sufficient parliamentary time to scrutinise the proposals when they are brought forward? Will he take the opportunity to put the protection of great apes in legislation? Will he clarify the meaning of “debilitating clinical condition”? Will he clarify how the transparency of access to information will work, so that researchers do not duplicate their research? Will he give reassurances that the current successful approach to licensing and inspection will not be weakened? Finally, will he commit to retaining a robust ethical review process?

4.14 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing the debate and on his energetic chairmanship of the all-party group. I may not be able to give him as much detail as he might like because, as he will appreciate, I am standing in—no doubt inadequately—for the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), and because she and the Home Office more widely are still looking at the details of the transposition, but I will try to answer as many of his detailed questions as I can.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government recognise that the regulation of animal experiments is of significant public interest. We are strongly committed to ensuring the best possible standards of animal welfare and protection for animals used for scientific purposes.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): My last report in the European Parliament, before I retired from it, took the directive through to First Reading. One of the problems in getting the agreement of 27 countries is that the regulations often have to be reduced in order to get them agreed by all member states. I would like to put it on record that I believe that we have some of the best research, done under the best welfare requirements in the world, and I do not want to see that watered down. In many cases I like to see the reduction of regulation, but on this occasion it is essential to keep our strong rules in place, because we are dealing with animal welfare and the quality of the science. I want that reassurance from the Government.

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Damian Green: By the time I sit down, I hope that I will have provided my hon. Friend with that reassurance. He, too, deserves congratulations, on taking legislation to that stage in the European Parliament, which I suspect is more complex and difficult than anything we try to do in this Parliament.

The Government are strongly committed to ensuring the best possible standards of animal welfare. Current legislation, as was rightly acknowledged by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, provides that high level of protection: work cannot be licensed if it could be carried out without using animals, and the procedures must cause the minimum possible suffering to the smallest number of animals of the lowest sensitivity. That approach reflects closely what the public want. At the same time, animal experimentation continues to be a vital tool in developing health care improvements and in protecting man and the environment. The potential health and economic benefits from new and innovative treatments are dependent on providing the right framework for the UK’s life sciences sector and university research base, which are vital national assets and critical to our long-term economic growth, so we are determined to provide the right framework.

The transposition of the new European directive for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes provides us with a valuable and timely opportunity to review our own legislation governing experiments on animals. As has been pointed out, many requirements of the directive are similar to current UK legislation and practice. For example, it places a strong emphasis on minimising the use of animals and the promotion of alternatives. Some requirements go further than current UK legislation, most notably the introduction of mandatory minimum standards of care and accommodation for animals. Other requirements are potentially less stringent; the directive does not, as UK legislation does, provide special protection for cats, dogs and horses. Article 2 of the directive allows us to retain current stricter UK provisions as long as they do not inhibit the free market. The directive thus provides us with an opportunity to confirm the best aspects of current UK regulation and to make improvements where we can do better.

During 2011 we held a public consultation on options for transposition. I have slightly different figures from the hon. Gentleman, so I hope they are accurate. More than 13,000 individuals and 100 organisations responded, which clearly confirms a very strong interest in the topic. We are currently completing our analysis of the responses and will announce our decisions shortly—I hope shortly enough to leave proper time for parliamentary scrutiny, which the hon. Gentleman reasonably mentioned.

The directive clearly offers some opportunities, such as helping the work that we are already doing to promote the development of alternatives. The programme for government includes commitments to end the testing of household products on animals, and to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research. The new directive assists with those objectives by strengthening the protection of animals used in scientific procedures, and promoting the three R’s: the development, validation, acceptance and implementation of methods and strategies that “replace, reduce and refine” the scientific use of animals.

The directive will also allow us to remove unnecessary bureaucracy where it still exists, and to build on the significant improvements we have already made in our

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day-to-day implementation of current legislation. We are planning to focus on simplifying the details of personal licences, and making further improvements to the project licence application process and to the format of the project licence. The directive requires member states to inspect animal research laboratories and breeders, but the minimum frequency of inspection is less than we currently practise. Many of the responses to our consultation commented on the strengths of our current inspection system, and clearly that is an issue of great interest to the hon. Gentleman.

We are committed to maintaining a strong and properly resourced inspectorate, and a full, risk-based programme of inspections. The relationship between inspectors, licence holders and animal care staff is crucial to the effective implementation of the regulatory framework, and we will not jeopardise that relationship. The hon. Gentleman referred to the current move to centralise the operation of the administrative part of the legislation in London. That does not apply to inspectors. Indeed, it has been confirmed that inspectors will continue to be located close to those they inspect. I hope that that provides the hon. Gentleman with some reassurance.

We are aware of the concerns that have been expressed that transposition will lead to a lowering of welfare standards for laboratory animals in the UK. That is not our intention, and we are determined not to weaken UK standards, but that does not mean retaining stricter UK standards when there is no clear evidence that they translate into better welfare, nor does it mean that we must put everything into the legislation if we can achieve the right outcomes by encouraging good practice. What we are looking for is the right balance. We must ensure that we can maintain and further enhance our high standards, but at the same time we must avoid putting UK research at a competitive disadvantage compared with our counterparts in other member states. For the Government, both are objectives for the transposition of the new directive.

I shall give some specific examples of our approach to transposition. We intend to retain higher UK standards when there is strong and broadly-based support or good evidence for their retention. I mentioned some of those earlier, but it is important to put them on the record, not least to reassure the hon. Gentleman. One example is that we propose to continue to provide special protection for cats, dogs and horses, as well as non-human primates, and will allow their use only when no other species is suitable or available. That was widely supported in our public consultation.

I turn to the specific subject of great apes. We will continue to prohibit the use of great apes. There has been concern—the hon. Gentleman expressed it earlier— that the directive weakens the protection of those animals by providing a derogation allowing their use in exceptional circumstances. I can assure him and the House that we foresee no circumstances in which we would use that derogation, and we will put the ban in the legislation, as he asked. That is a full assurance such as he sought.

We propose to retain protection for foetal and embryonic forms of birds and reptiles during the last third of their development. That is not a requirement of the directive, but we received persuasive evidence from the public consultation of the welfare benefits of giving the same protection to those species as will be given to mammals during their development stages. I hope that that will

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also be welcome. We were persuaded that the burden of providing that additional protection is proportionate to the benefit. That is the test we are operating. We also propose to retain a system of personal licences as a means of monitoring and ensuring the competence of those working with research animals.

The directive lists methods of humane killing that may be used without project authorisation. Our current UK legislation takes a similar approach to that of the directive in this area, but there are significant differences between the UK list of methods and that in the directive. Some methods listed in the directive are not currently permitted in the UK without specific authorisation. The differences have caused widespread concern, and we are minded to maintain the best of our current approach to humane killing. To take that forward, we have recently published a revised list of humane killing methods for consultation, and will incorporate only the best methods in our updated legislation. Again, I hope that that provides reassurance to the many people who are particularly concerned about this part of the directive.

Another issue of particular concern to many people is animal care and accommodation standards, specifically those examples in which current UK cage and enclosure sizes are greater than those required under the directive. For some, when there is good supportive evidence, we are minded to continue to mandate the UK dimensions. For others, the difference in dimensions may be so small as to make little difference to the welfare of the animals, but sufficient to add significantly to the costs for the life sciences community if they were retained, which would risk making the UK less competitive than other countries in Europe and beyond. Instead, we are considering ways of using the revision of our current UK code of practice on care and accommodation to encourage voluntary improvements in standards of housing.

The UK has a long tradition of housing animals in conditions that are better than those mandated in regulations—for example, the housing of non-human primates in the UK has significantly exceeded the minimum requirements for many years. Our approach has been driven by sound evidence from our welfare scientists, together with a willingness on the part of both the academic sector and industry to provide the best environment for our animals. We want to support that approach by encouraging the work of welfare scientists and the research community. As scientific evidence for higher standards emerges, we will expect our research community to respond.

On freedom of information, which the hon. Gentleman brought up at the start of the debate, most responders to the consultation recognise that section 24 in its current form is not compatible with the directive’s commitment to transparency, and many also recognise that it may be a barrier to the sharing of best practice and information on the three R’s. At the same time, personal details, intellectual property and commercial information will continue to require protection. We will consider how best to provide that protection under the new legislation, at the same time as meeting the aspiration to greater transparency.

The hon. Gentleman also brought up the issue of weighing pain against benefit. UK legislation already requires the Secretary of State to weigh the likely pain against the expected benefit, and in that regard the directive confirms current UK practice.

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The hon. Gentleman referred to transport disruption. We have been working actively with the life sciences community and the transport sector to broker a commercial solution to provide a sustainable and resilient supply chain. That will be important to the future of the life sciences industry.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the use of non-human primates, and particularly the definition of a debilitating condition. We do not intend to define further what a debilitating condition is because we believe that that should be done on a case-by-case basis for each project licence application received. Using the current UK code of practice in that way to encourage voluntary improvements, particularly for housing, will lead to better standards. Overall, in addressing these sensitive issues, we believe that good welfare is fundamental to good science.

Animal experimentation is an area in which Government policy must recognise a wide range of opinions. Our current policy is based on the belief that there are real benefits to man, animals and the environment that can, at present, be achieved only with the use of animals, but it reflects the need for all animal use to be fully justified, and for animal suffering to be minimised. Any suffering must be carefully weighed against the potential benefits. Those are the foundations of our current legislation, and the directive provides us with the opportunity to build on them.

As I have said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities and others will consider carefully—

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): Order.

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British Expatriates (Punjab)

4.29 pm

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate under your chairmanship and wise guidance, Mr Walker, and I wish to highlight an issue that has important implications for British citizens living and working in India. This debate was inspired by one of my constituents, Mrs Tejinder Soor-Hudson, who contacted me in the summer of 2010 to express her concerns about the death of her mother, Mrs Mohinder Kaur Soor, a British national who owned a house in Jalandhar in the Punjab region of India. Jalandhar is part of the so-called NRI—non-resident Indian—belt of the Doaba region. Many Britons of Indian origin own properties there, and it has become an affluent hub of investment.

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I am sorry to intervene at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but this debate concerns not only those who work or live in India, but visitors and people who live in Britain but travel to India, particularly to that region. I must declare an interest because I was originally a resident of Jalandhar, so I know the area well. People and visitors there are afraid for their properties, as well as for other business in the area, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will mention not only people who work there, but also visitors.

Mr Raab: As usual, I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I am not seeking to narrow the confines of this debate; this is clearly a serious and substantive issue that affects those who live in the area and those who travel to it.

My constituent’s mother, Mrs Soor, travelled to India in June 2009 with the intention of selling her home in Jalandhar. Instead, she was found dead later the same month. Mrs Soor-Hudson contacted me because she is convinced that her mother’s death was organised by a criminal gang in order to facilitate the theft of her property. Worse still, she believes that the Indian authorities were complicit in a cover-up of that appalling murder.

The objective evidence is striking. The resulting post-mortem, carried out on tissue samples from Mrs Soor’s body, concluded that she had been the victim of insecticide poisoning. That, however, was in stark contradiction to the official police report, which stated that no poison had been detected in Mrs Soor’s body, which was then cremated before the results of the post-mortem were made available. On top of that, the official police report did not give any indication about what—if any—investigation was carried out at the home where the body was discovered.

The most basic details that one might reasonably expect from the scene of a suspicious death, such as what time the police entered the premises, whether there was evidence of forced entry, and the condition in which the body was found, were not properly recorded. Subsequently, Mrs Soor-Hudson discovered that a key suspect in the case is related by marriage to an officer working under a deputy commissioner, who may well have the means and motivation to influence proceedings.

There is ample evidence to suggest corruption in this case. Mrs Soor-Hudson was told that if she wanted the suspect brought in for questioning, she had the option

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to pay an unidentified individual to make false statements about that suspect. That individual would then commit perjury if necessary. Unbelievably, that suggestion was even endorsed by my constituent’s then solicitor, although I hasten to add that Mrs Soor-Hudson, of course, rejected any notion of becoming involved in such improper or criminal behaviour. However, it is not difficult to see why she believes that such a dark shadow of suspicion lies across the local police investigation into her mother’s death.

I met Mrs Soor-Hudson at my constituency surgery at the beginning of the year in order to get an update on the case. She is resolute and passionately committed to uncovering the facts about what happened to her mother in June 2009, and after a number of years of bureaucratic frustration, we appear to be making some initial modest progress in the investigation. As the Minister will be aware, over the past 18 months I have written several times to Foreign Office Ministers on behalf of my constituent, and I wish to thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its help and assistance in pursuing Mrs Soor-Hudson’s concerns in this distressing case, and for taking it to the Indian authorities via the high commission.

As I understand it, a fresh inquiry into the matter has now been ordered by the commissioner of police, who will report to the Indian high commission in due course. I am not aware of any progress beyond that initial statement of intent, but belated though that is, it is a welcome development even if it is a point of departure rather than of arrival. Will the Minister undertake to do everything within his power to press the Indian authorities to ensure that a proper, robust, rigorous and independent investigation is carried out into this tragic case?

While particularly distressing to the family, this case is all the more alarming because, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) pointed out, it is by no means an isolated incident. A number of other hon. Members have become involved in similar cases that have affected their own constituents, and there is every reason to believe that those cases are only the tip of the iceberg. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) will soon attest, there was also the horrific murder of Surjit Kaur, a 67-year-old mother of three from Chatham, who was kidnapped and beheaded in March last year while visiting the Punjab region. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tenacity in raising that terrible case with the Prime Minister, and for his support in helping Mrs Kaur’s family get an independent investigation into that appalling crime, and a measure of justice.

Sadly, there are many other cases of similar nature. Mr Mohan Singh Biring, a Leicester businessman who had gone to India to oversee a property deal, was murdered—again in the Punjab—after a vicious and unprovoked attack in August 2005 by a gang wielding baseball bats and iron bars. Two men were jailed for life for his murder, but only after intervention from the local Member of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), and I pay tribute to his efforts. Mr Charanjit Singh ran a business in Plumstead but was shot dead while visiting Jalandhar in 2009, the apparent victim of a financial dispute over a property purchase that had taken place in England.

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Those are tragic cases in their own right, but they also tell a wider story and demonstrate a broader trend. A worrying number of murders and other serious crimes are being committed against British citizens of Indian origin, the so-called NRIs, and visitors to the area, particularly in the Punjab region. There are major concerns regarding the allegations of incompetence and—let’s face it—corruption within the Indian authorities, which seems to feature in so many of these cases. I commend the support that the Foreign Office has given to the victims and their families, but I feel that we must do more to protect British citizens, and others, who are travelling to or residing in the Punjab region.

What advice does the FCO offer to British non-resident Indians who are travelling to or living in the Punjab region but who may have real and objective grounds to fear for their safety? What is the FCO’s support mechanism for dealing with cases such as those I have described today? Does the Minister feel that that support mechanism is adequate, or is it time to review the current arrangements?

I am, of course, acutely aware that primary responsibility for investigating crimes committed overseas must rest with the police and the judicial authorities in that country. However, we can work with India on a bilateral basis to keep our citizens in that region safe from harm. What, if any, formal arrangements are currently in place with the Indian Government to facilitate such a co-operative approach? Is any or could any of our bilateral aid be focused on co-operation? How does the Minister think that we can work with the Indian authorities to ensure that we offer our citizens, and others travelling to the region, the same protection when they travel abroad that Indian nationals would rightly expect to receive in this country?

4.39 pm

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this important debate on an issue that has real ramifications for British nationals who visit India. I also pay tribute to his excellent work in representing the concerns of his constituents.

Like my hon. Friend, I have encountered a tragic and horrific case. It involves the mother of a constituent of mine. Surjit Kaur was a British national who visited India in February and March 2011. I am led to believe from the little information that the family and I, and the Foreign Office, have been provided with by the Indian authorities that Mrs Kaur was murdered on 31 March 2011.

Mrs Kaur’s tragic case was highlighted in The Guardian on Friday 8 April 2011. It is that newspaper’s reporting of the facts of the case to which I will refer. As I said, the Indian authorities have not provided the full facts, which were sought by the family and me in our meeting with the Foreign Office. At this point, I thank the Foreign Office Minister, who was very kind in meeting the family, taking on board their concerns and coming back with a number of points that needed clarification. Despite his best efforts, I was very disappointed with the response of the Indian authorities in not providing that information.

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I will set out briefly the facts of the case. The report in The Guardian stated:

“The decapitated remains of a British woman have been recovered by Indian police who claim she was murdered after a bungled attempt to extort money from her children in the UK.

The head and body of Surjit Kaur, who is believed to have been in her 60s, were found separately this week. Two local men, one a relative of the victim, have been arrested and police said they had confessed to the killing. The two arrested men, named by police as Harbhaghan Singh and Gurwinder Singh, visited the home of a close relative of Kaur after her disappearance to express their concern, according to reports.”

The Guardian report goes on to say:

“Sandip Sharma, the deputy superintendent of…police, who is investigating the murder, told the Guardian the attack took place after the two suspects lured her away under false pretences…He said they strangled Kaur, cut off her head and threw it into a river. Her body was dismembered and scattered in nearby fields, he added.”

In the light of that, I asked some specific questions of the Indian authorities in the meeting with the Minister. I have a response from the Foreign Office, dated 21 December 2011; it followed the meeting between the family and the Minister on 23 November. The first question was this: did the two accused plead guilty to the murder of Mrs Kaur? The answer in that letter was yes—they pleaded guilty to the murder of Mrs Kaur. The second question that I asked specifically was whether they were sentenced for the murder of Mrs Kaur. The answer in the letter was that they were not:

“The trial collapsed before it reached a conclusion and so the accused were not sentenced.”

When two people have confessed to a murder, how can a trial collapse? It defies logic to hear that two people have admitted guilt for the murder of an individual and then to be told that the trial has collapsed. But it gets worse than that, which is why I think that there needs to be a full, thorough investigation.

On page 2 of the letter is a question that I asked:

“Why did the case collapse and what can be done now?”

The answer comes back from the Indian authorities that the police have now confirmed that the case is closed. How can it be closed if Mrs Kaur has been murdered and we have two people who admit to the murder? We are told that the case has collapsed. If it has collapsed, the authorities should reopen the inquiry and try to find out who committed the murder, but in this case the Indian authorities are saying, “Sorry—case closed”. That causes me real concern.

I say this to the Minister. We have so many people, including expat nationals, who travel to India and want to be safe. India is a booming economy, but it also has a moral and ethical obligation for the safety of our constituents. Look at the case to which I am referring. If individuals who have accepted that they committed murder are walking away from a court, that leads me—and, indeed, any reasonable person—to come to the following conclusions. The legal system is defunct and illogical; the investigation is incompetent; there are corrupt practices; or there is a combination of all three.

I urge the Indian authorities to reopen this case. They say that the case has collapsed. In any civilised legal system, if a case has collapsed, the authorities reopen it to get the people who have committed murder. In this

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case, that is even more imperative because the two individuals had previously pleaded guilty to the horrific murder of Mrs Kaur.

The authorities need to carry out an independent and thorough inquiry, so that my constituent and his family can get the one thing that they want—justice for their mother. They want nothing but justice for their mother. I urge the Foreign Office to make the strongest possible representations to the Indian authorities to reopen the case and ensure that those who carried out this horrific murder are brought to justice.

I again pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done and how he dealt with the family. I pay tribute to the work done by the consular staff and all the others involved, including the family liaison officers from Kent police in my constituency who worked with the family. But despite all that, what this comes down to is the will of the Indian authorities. In this case, it is clear that there is no will. If they want the Indian legal system to be taken seriously, they must reopen the inquiry and bring the people responsible to account.

4.45 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): I am grateful for the opportunity to conclude this short but important debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Walker. I start by commending my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for their extremely powerful and persuasive speeches. I hope and believe that those speeches—indeed, the whole debate—will be read by the Indian authorities and that it will be clear to them just how seriously this issue is treated in the House of Commons.

I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton for securing this debate on a subject of great importance to his constituent, Mrs Soor-Hudson, and to him. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to his specific concerns, and I hope that I can go some way towards addressing the issues that Mrs Soor-Hudson has been dealing with during the past three years. My hon. Friend is concerned not just with the difficult situation that faces his constituent, but with the wider issue of the delays in the Indian and Punjabi justice system that can often affect British nationals and that were powerfully articulated a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham as well.

First, I extend my condolences to Mrs Soor-Hudson and to her family for the tragic loss of her mother in Jalandhar three years ago. Mrs Soor-Hudson’s courage and tenacity in taking forward her subsequent campaign to try to establish the facts behind her mother’s death are truly admirable. I hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can continue to be of assistance to her during this difficult time.

Let me set out what contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has had with Mrs Soor-Hudson since her mother passed away and what action has been taken to assist her. The consular directorate in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was first contacted by Mrs Soor-Hudson regarding her mother’s death in December 2009. Since then, consular officials in India have contacted the Indian police on numerous occasions, including at senior levels, to seek progress reports and

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ask for contact details on behalf of the family. The Indian authorities have responded in writing to the British high commissioner in Delhi, as well as directly to Mrs Soor-Hudson.

Consular officials in London also met Mrs Soor-Hudson to discuss the case in February of this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton has written to, and received replies from, two of my ministerial colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), on this issue.

Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton is aware, Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case is not unique. The British high commission regularly raises issues in relation to a number of cases that involve the deaths of British nationals in India. Many of those cases are complicated. Some of them are concerned with deaths in suspicious circumstances, and others with murders. In some cases, the cause of death remains unknown. In others, the bereaved family have had strong concerns about the investigations into the death of their family member, as in Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case.

Such cases illustrate the fact—this point was powerfully made by my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton and for Gillingham and Rainham—that the Indian authorities need to have a justice system that not only enjoys the confidence of their own population but is seen to perform at standards in which people around the world can feel confident.

In an effort to assist all families affected by the cases, I have, on two occasions, raised these issues with my Indian counterparts. Last July, I spoke to the Union Minister of Home Affairs and passed over a note listing a number of outstanding cases that involve British nationals in India. In February, during a visit to India, I met the Minister of State for External Affairs and passed over another note of outstanding cases. I hope that hon. Members will realise that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the whole British Government attach importance to representing individual cases of British nationals who have been involved in terrible circumstances in India and that the families feel that the justice system has not treated their case with sufficient efficiency or, in some cases, seriousness.

However, as I am sure my hon. Friends are aware, the investigation into the deaths of British nationals in India is the responsibility of the Indian authorities. Unfortunately, just as in the UK, such processes can take a number of years. The British Government will not interfere in an Indian investigation. Similarly, we would not accept the interference of a foreign Government in an investigation in the UK. I know that my hon. Friends will feel frustrated by that, but it is the only basis on which we can reasonably proceed. The country within which the incident took place has the sovereign authority over the investigation and prosecution of the case.

Mr Virendra Sharma: I apologise for not congratulating the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing such a wonderful and important debate. Does the Minister agree that in the light not only of these cases but of the many cases of murder and kidnap in

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the state, especially of those people from Britain, that the Department should look into providing information detailing the kind of support that can be secured from the British high commission and others before people leave here? While they are in the country, they need security, guidance and adequate legal support. Such help does not directly interfere with the state, but it would be useful for individuals.

Mr Browne: I will come to that point later in my speech. Although it is an important intervention, the House and the wider public must understand the limitations that we in the Foreign Office face in our jurisdiction and our staffing and budgetary restraints. Literally millions of British people travel abroad every year, and we provide a service that is as good and as comprehensive as we can within the constraints that exist.

I was talking about the role of the sovereign Government—in this case, the Indian Government—in investigating a case. We recommend to the families involved that it is imperative to retain the services of a local lawyer at the earliest opportunity. That lawyer will be best placed to advise the family on how best to proceed within the existing local legal framework and to address any concerns the family may have about any aspect of the investigation. To that end, each British embassy, high commission or consulate maintains a list of English-speaking local lawyers, to which consular officials will refer family members. However, we do not claim to have an expert knowledge of the legal system of every country in which we operate.

Rehman Chishti: Just to clarify the point about not knowing the exact legal systems of the country, does the Minister agree that in any jurisdiction anywhere in the world common sense would dictate that, if someone pleads guilty to murder and it is an agreed fact, that person should be sentenced rather than walk free from court?

Mr Browne: Perhaps I should not be drawn on that specific case. All the cases that have been raised both inside and outside this debate suggest that the Indian justice system is failing to provide satisfactory justice to a number of citizens and that must surely give the Indian authorities cause for reflection.

Mr Raab: The Minister is treating this in a serious and methodical way. I understand his point about resources. We know that there was a dumbing down of bilateral relations under the previous Government and that this Government are trying to address that. May I just challenge his strict approach and focus on sovereignty and the idea that the investigation and the approach of the justice system must be left solely to the domestic authorities in India? Under the Vienna convention on consular relations and as a matter of India’s own human rights obligations on torture or fair trials guarantees and given the endemic corruption that he has rather lightly alluded to, we have every right and it is every bit the British Government’s business to raise these issues and to press the Indian authorities to behave properly.

Mr Browne: I am grateful for that intervention. I certainly accept that we have a legitimate role, which we exercise with vigour and enthusiasm, to press on countries around the world our desire to see them operate an effective and balanced justice system. Where we feel that improvements can be made, we make that point.

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However, it is worth pointing out that British police have no jurisdiction to investigate crimes overseas. If a bereaved family suspects that British nationals were involved in the planning or committing of a crime, I urge them to report their concerns to their local UK police force. There may be occasions when it is appropriate for that force to act, but it is not the decisive and final actor, because that responsibility rests with the host country. FCO officials have met their Indian counterparts to discuss the wider issues that we are discussing today, and we will certainly look for opportunities for future co-operation. As the Minister, I give that undertaking personally, but I also make it on behalf of our high commissioner and his team in Delhi and in other posts across India.

Consular officials in India and in London will continue to monitor Mrs Soor-Hudson’s case and will keep her informed as and when we receive updates from the Indian authorities. I am aware that Mrs Soor-Hudson is concerned about the financial implications of continuing to work on her case in India. Although I appreciate the pressure that that concern must bring, I am afraid that the FCO cannot provide her with financial assistance in that regard. It is not our policy and, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) a few moments ago, given that there are literally tens of millions of overseas visits by British nationals each year, it is not financially viable for us to provide that service in all cases where it might be thought desirable.

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The FCO’s role in such cases is to ensure that the family receive information about local police and legal procedures. Where there are concerns that the investigation is not being carried out in line with local procedures or there are justified complaints about discrimination against the person who has died or their family, the FCO can make appropriate representations to the local authorities.

To summarise, I am confident that consular officials are doing all that they can, within the remits of our consular assistance policy, to assist Mrs Soor-Hudson in her efforts to establish what happened to her mother. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton and all hon. Members are assured that we will continue to raise her case with the Indian authorities at the appropriate times.

The British Government take our consular responsibilities extremely seriously; consular responsibilities are one of our three foreign policy priorities. Although we have a long-standing and close relationship with India, based on a broad range of mutual interests, we will continue to push our consular interests in support of British citizens in India without fear, because we see this as an important area for the Indian authorities to focus on when British nationals and their MPs feel that a shortcoming needs to be addressed.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.