The prospect is that we will perhaps start arming elements in the opposition, but the conflict will continue for a very long time, with the sponsors of the Assad

21 May 2013 : Column 1190

regime continuing to provide more and more weaponry. Russia will strengthen the air defences and the whole outcome will be a disaster. We need to be trying not to give arms to the Syrian opposition, and instead to be battering on the doors of the White House and the Kremlin and doing far more to get the countries that really can make a difference to stop the process before it is too late.

8.10 pm

Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I welcome this evening’s debate on the Council’s decision and commend the Government on securing the flexibility that we and other countries need to step up the pressure on the Assad regime. I am especially pleased that the Council document explicitly sets out the humanitarian context that underlies our rationale for action. The urgency for a political or, reluctantly, a military solution is the humanitarian imperative on which I want to focus for a few moments. We cannot talk of aiding the Syrian opposition without stressing the urgent need and plight of the Syrian people, who live in constant fear for their lives and who in their hundreds and thousands are fleeing every day.

The Syrian crisis is entering its third year, and while we hope for a political solution, a humanitarian tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes. The situation for Syrians is desperate. Life for those caught up in the spiralling violence is unbearable. As ordinary civilians fall into ever deeper despair, the humanitarian need is growing more urgent by the day. According to the United Nations’ estimates, the death toll is now 80,000; 8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance; and more than 4.25 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting to other areas of Syria, with now well over 1.3 million refugees in neighbouring countries. The majority of these refugees are women, children and the elderly, more than half of whom are children below the age of 11, suffering first and foremost from psychological trauma. These figures are alarming, but from my own experience having visited two camps in Turkey, I can say that they do not capture or convey the full extent of the crisis.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees conceded that the total numbers are far higher than have officially been accounted for. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate rapidly as increased fighting and changing of control of towns and villages, in particular in the conflict areas, is driving more and more people out of the country.

Beyond Syria’s borders, the problems continue. For the countries that have taken in those refugees—Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey—the burden that they face in economic, security and social terms, on their energy, water, health and educational facilities, is huge and proving a serious challenge that far exceeds their capabilities to cope with.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says about the burdens put on Jordan in particular. Does he agree that more pressure should be put on the United Arab Emirates to contribute more to humanitarian relief?

Mr Walter: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I want to make a point about the international community’s responsibility, and that includes the Gulf states.

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If the scale of the humanitarian needs continues to outstrip the support available, the risks will only soar. The pressure on Jordan’s already scarce water, energy and education resources is enormous. Approximately 40,000 Syrian students have started attending classes in Jordanian schools, and health services are strained by the average daily influx of 3,000 refugees into Jordan alone. If that influx continues at that pace, we will be looking at 1 million refugees in Jordan by the end of the year.

Where is the European Union and the rest of the international community in this devastating and desperate hour? Many promises have been made, but not enough have been delivered. I find it dispiriting that we have collectively fallen so far short of our obligations to help the Syrian people caught up in the turmoil and to alleviate the burdens borne by the neighbouring host countries. Appeals for funding to provide food, water and other humanitarian aid inside Syria have received only meagre support, while the UN Refugee Agency says that its appeal for half a billion dollars was only one-third funded. As a result of the woeful state of funding, the UN and other aid organisations can reach only 1.5 million of the people in desperate need, of whom there are probably around 3 million.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Walter: I am very conscious of the time limit that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have placed upon me and so will take no more interventions.

There was a conference in January at which $1.5 billion was pledged. The Foreign Secretary reported yesterday that payments have now reached 71% of the amount pledged, but that is still nearly half a billion dollars short. I think that we can be proud of honouring our financial commitments, but we know that there are still countries that have not done so. That is not good enough. When the Foreign Secretary goes to Brussels on Monday, there must be progress on dialogue. In the long term, the whole international community will have to pull together to find a solution to the conflict.

8.16 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am pleased that we are having this debate and hope that at the meeting in Brussels the Government will not use their veto and lead us into the danger of supplying arms to Syria. For some time now the Foreign Office has been chatting quite openly about the possibility of supplying arms. Indeed, in a letter to me of 22 April the Minister stated:

“As things stand today, there is going to be a strong case as we come towards the end of May, for the lifting of the arms embargo on the Syrian National Coalition, or some very serious amendment of the EU arms embargo”.

I just make the point, as others have, that we would be supplying arms to people we do not know. We do not know where those arms would end up or how much worse the conflict would get as a result. Anyone who doubts the leakage of arms should think carefully about the way the USA raced to supply any amount of arms to any opposition in Afghanistan in 1979, which gave birth to the Taliban and, ultimately, al-Qaeda. We should

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think very seriously before doing that. I hope that we do not end up with any arms supplies, or indeed any UK involvement in the conflict.

There is obviously a horrific situation in Syria, with tens of thousands dead already and hundreds of thousands of refugees in neighbouring countries, and the situation will probably get far worse for them all. That is not to say, however, that there are not huge internal conflicts within Syria or that the Assad regime has not committed enormous human rights abuses, but the west has a very selective memory on this. There was a time when western Governments were happy to co-operate with President Assad on many issues. The Assad regime received very large numbers of refugees from Iraq—mainly Palestinians driven out of Iraq after the US invasion. One thinks of the plight of Palestinian people who have been driven from country to country for the past 60 years. The anger in those refugee camps will be the start of the conflicts and wars of tomorrow. There has to be a recognition of human rights and human justice.

However, this war is becoming a proxy war for all kinds of interests. Let us just think of the countries and organisations already involved, by supplying arms, funding or what is euphemistically called non-lethal assistance. The European Union is clearly very involved, as is the United States, and Russia is clearly involved in supplying arms to the Assad Government and protecting its own base there. The Gulf Co-operation Council countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are supplying vast amounts of money and arms to the area. Iran feels under threat and thinks that it is next on the western countries’ hit list, so it is presumably helping the Assad regime in some form. Turkey is a neighbouring country that is both receiving refugees and supplying some weaponry and assistance. Israel has now got involved, with reports of the bombing that took place last week. In today’s edition of The Guardian there is a report of a land incursion near the Golan Heights that was beaten off by certain forces, we know not which.

This is a time, surely, to reflect on the western strategy in dealing with all the issues with which we have been confronted since 2001. In Afghanistan, we have spent a lot of money and lost a lot of soldiers. Lots of civilians have died, and the country remains poor, corrupt and divided. Iraq is a place that can hardly be called at peace. In Libya, we went in with the no-fly zone and spent an awful lot of money and time bombing large numbers of people, and one could hardly say that there is a western-style liberal democracy there at present. Syria was a colonial creation. The French were very good at oppressing Syrian nationalism in the 1920s, and now the country is in danger of splitting apart altogether.

If there is to be a political solution, which the Minister says that he wants, the conference that is being planned looks increasingly like a conference to impose some kind of victorious solution. A conference must include all the countries of the region and all the parties that are in any way involved in this conflict, obviously including Iran, and must recognise the role that Israel is playing. The west was incapable of getting the nuclear non-proliferation treaty conference for a nuclear-free middle east going, so I hope that it is more successful in getting this conference going.

Finally, will the Minister give an absolute assurance that there will be a debate and a vote in this House before any precipitate action is taken and before any

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arms are supplied to anybody, so that those of us who disagree with that proposal will get the chance to express our dissent?

8.21 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Let me start with a note of criticism that relates not to our policy on Syria but to the scrutiny of European documents in this place. The Council decision was taken on 28 February and referred to this Chamber by the European Scrutiny Committee back in March. It is now nearly June; in fact, the three-month arms embargo to which the decision referred has nearly finished. This is not a criticism of the Minister, and certainly not of the Chair. I am afraid that Government business managers must address the issue, and we must all try collectively to carry out European scrutiny in a much more timely and effective fashion.

I strongly welcome much of what the Minister said, particularly his strong emphasis on the main focus of British policy being the achievement of a peaceful political solution. That has to be right, and it has to be our main objective in every decision we take. The Geneva peace process that we hope will develop over the coming months is central to this, and the role of Russia and other countries in the region is a crucial part of that process.

Some slightly ill-judged questions have been asked during the debate. The hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), who made a very wise speech, asked at one stage whether it would be legal for us to intervene in the dispute in Syria, yet I have not heard anyone on the Government Benches saying that we should intervene. We are, in the end, talking only about the possible partial lifting or changing of an arms embargo in a country in which there is no universal arms embargo. In fact, arms are flowing into the country, funded, in the case of the regime, by Russia, supported by Iran and by Hezbollah. The arms that are flowing to the jihadi elements such as Jabhat al-Nusra and possibly al-Qaeda are, by all accounts, funded from within the Gulf. Those arms are flowing in completely legally because of the lack of a UN arms embargo.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) asked whether we were fuelling the fire. It is quite difficult to see how it could be fuelled any more—there is already an inferno. In effect, the EU arms embargo is a little like a sticking plaster floating in a flood. The country is already awash with arms. The most sophisticated arms are going to the regime and, I am afraid, to the jihadis, who are gaining ground against other elements.

As I said, I am worried about the tone of some Members’ speeches. I admire in many respects the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), but he fell foul of this trap. To talk as though no democratic or moderate force is present in the country—to simply ignore its existence—is to make a fatal error. We have fallen into that trap in many parts of the world over the decades. We have assumed that democracy, moderation and the rule of law could never exist in Latin America, eastern Europe or Africa, but one after another, the peoples of those continents and regions have shown

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that they are capable of fighting for freedom and democracy without falling into the hands of extremism. If the Arab spring taught us anything, it was that Arabs too can be moderate, Arabs too can fight for democracy and Arabs too can resist the temptations of extremism.

The Syrian conflict did not begin with western intervention. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Islington North did strongly imply that, but we will both have to check the record. The Syrian conflict began with Syrian people rising up against a dictatorship, in exactly the same way as the conflicts in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and the conflicts that are still tentatively going on in other countries. If we talk as if this is an endless and inevitable bloodbath carried out by wild-eyed foreigners, we do a grave injustice to those who are trying to promote values that we would recognise. The Syrian National Coalition has endorsed the values of democracy, pluralism and the rule of law. [Interruption.] There is laughter behind me. I am surprised that Members think that this is funny.

The Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian army are implicated in crimes. Those should be investigated and we should put intense pressure on the coalition to clean up its act and ensure that its fighters respect civilian populations. We must do our best to make these people, who are clearly no angels, behave in a way that would make us proud to support them. To simply ignore them and assume that the conflict will end up as a Sunni-Shi’a battle between the Assad regime and jihadis could be an historic mistake.

As I have said, the most important thing is that we do everything we can to support the Geneva process and a regional, political solution. That has to involve Russia because it is critical to the process. It will inevitably draw in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, although I am not sure whether it is practical to have those two countries at the Geneva peace conference because it might end up as more of a Sunni-Shi’a fight than it was before. We have not only a political and diplomatic duty, but a moral obligation to ensure that the peace process works. Provided that they have not been annihilated in the meantime, present as partners in that peace process must be those who are fighting for freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

8.27 pm

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Although this debate is somewhat retrospective, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) pointed out, it raises important questions about our current and prospective roles in the conflict in Syria.

I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter). I have spent seven years travelling to Syria and have had the opportunity to meet Bashar Assad and other members of the regime several times. The tragedy that is unfolding for the silent middle in Syria is terrible to behold. It is a beautiful country that is being dismembered day by day. We must think very carefully about our next steps.

What is the situation today? On one side is the Assad regime, which is responsible, as we have heard, for more than 80,000 deaths, more than 1 million refugees and more than 4 million internally displaced people. The regime has 300,000 soldiers plus the dreaded Shabiha, 16,000 pieces of heavy artillery and an air force. It has

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the Russians on its side, who are providing hardware such as S300s, Yakhont surface-to-ship missiles and the most robust air defence system in the middle east other than Israel’s, as well as military advisers who are increasing in number day by day. It also has the Iranians on its side, who are providing the Revolutionary Guard and strategic advice, and it has Hezbollah on its side. It has electronic intelligence, money and arms provided by the Iranians, and it even has the Shabiha being formed into a national defence brigade by the Iranians, who are giving direction.

What does the opposition side have? Simply, it has two groups that are highly fragmented—the FSA, which has about 30,000 people, led by General Idris, who essentially have just small arms at their disposal; and on the other side, as many colleagues have said, the Salafis, who have about 3,000 to 5,000 people and are themselves fragmented. We have heard about Jabhat al-Nusra, but there is also Liwa al-Islam, Liwa Saqour and Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham, among other Islamist groups that are fighting there.

So we have an asymmetric war in which Bashar Assad has no incentive whatever to negotiate seriously. What are our options? They are fourfold. One is a containment strategy that would prevent the conflict from spreading, but unfortunately it would merely lead to more death. Another is a no-fly zone, as proposed by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). That would indeed tip the balance, but it would put the lives of our Air Force pilots at risk, and I do not believe that after Iraq and Afghanistan, the military establishment in this country has any appetite for that.

The third option is lifting the arms embargo, which I believe would put pressure on Bashar Assad. However, as the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said—I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) will also make this point when he gets his opportunity to speak—there is a risk that arms may fall into the wrong hands. However, the signal that we would send by lifting the arms embargo would put pressure on the regime.

The final option is a radical diplomatic engagement strategy. In that regard, we have two opportunities before us. One is the fact that the UK holds the presidency of the UN Security Council next month, and the other is that there are Iranian elections next month, which may provide an opportunity for us to press the reset button regarding engagement with Iran. As the hon. Member for Islington North said, we need to engage with all parties—the Gulf states, Turkey, the EU and the US as well as Syria, Russia and Iran.

Time is running out. We must show Bashar Assad at Geneva that he is at the last chance saloon. I encourage the Foreign Secretary to exert pressure through a two-pronged strategy of radical diplomatic engagement with all parties and a real threat of lethal support to the FSA. Only then will there be a real prospect of ending the tragedy unfolding in Syria.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. We have two more speakers. If each takes five minutes and no more, we will have a few minutes for the Minister at the end. I call Robert Halfon.

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8.32 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to raise three points. First, I welcome the renewal of restrictive measures against Syria and any amendments that increase pressure on the Assad regime, but I fear that they do not go far enough. Secondly, the Government and the EU need to take further action against groups, particularly Hezbollah, that support the Syrian regime. Thirdly, this is not about intervention but about muscular enlightenment, and we must act now. I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) said that the Government’s actions were fuelling the conflict, because they have taken every diplomatic course, yet 80,000 people have been killed in the past three years.

I strongly support the McCain plan, which states that we need to work together as an international community to protect civilians by suppressing Assad’s air defences. The advantages of following that policy are plentiful. It would give us safe space where essential humanitarian aid could be given out, especially medical supplies, food and water, and a valuable area where the anti-Assad forces could train and become a more effective fighting force.

We talk about the problem with arming the opposition, but the fact is that because we have done nothing over the past two years—I am talking not about our country but about the free world—the Islamists have inevitably filled the vacuum. We must not forget that organisations such as Hezbollah are arming the Islamist groups, which is why we have to identify the correct opposition groups that believe in a more democratic and free Syria. I believe that we can do that.

I mentioned chemical weapons in my intervention on the Minister, and we must find out which companies have supplied the Assad regime with chemical materials. We know that up to 500 companies supplied Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons that allowed him to attack Halabja, and I hope that the Government will look into the issue. We must proscribe Hezbollah—not just the armed wing but the political wing—because of its activities in supporting the Assad regime and the suppression of the people.

No. 10 Downing street said in April 2013 that there is “growing evidence” that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) said that we need evidence for that, but we have seen it on BBC television. I do not want to go back 25 years and let another Halabja happen, and it looks like that is coming. We must take action now.

Richard Ottaway rose

Robert Halfon: I will not give way because my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) wants to speak. We have done everything possible diplomatically, and it is right that we take further action in supporting the right opposition groups, creating safe havens, and showing people that we want to stop mass genocide.

8.35 pm

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that Syria is a melting pot for a proxy war that is being fought out

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either directly or indirectly at various levels, whether it is Sunni versus Shi’a Muslims; the west versus China or Russia; concerned minorities within the country, such as Alawites and Christians, against what could follow; or Iran versus Saudi Arabia. It is a crossing point for conflict, and I urge the Minister and the coalition Government to think carefully before they pour more arms into a conflict that could not only escalate the violence within the civil war, but lead to an escalation of an arms race beyond Syria’s borders which, at the end of the day, could be a mistake of historic proportions.

History is very important. Our track record of arming groups or individuals is not good, no matter what anybody says. We armed the mujaheddin, and there is a fair chance that a good number of those weapons were used against us. We armed Saddam Hussein and supported him in his war against Iran—again, some of those weapons were probably pointed at us. History is important because it teaches us that if we support, arm and intervene in regimes, civil wars and conflicts, often what we are trying to remove or put right becomes embedded even further.

Look at our efforts since the second world war to take on communist regimes around the world—in Korea, China or Vietnam. Despite western interventions, those regimes are essentially still in place. If our goal is to create a sort of stability and liberal democracy of our making, we have only to look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where democracy is not flourishing, despite the high cost in lives and treasure. It is flourishing in north Africa and other regions of the middle east where the west has played a much more minor role.

I urge the Government to think carefully before going down the road of arming the rebels. The Minister was right to say that that is not the narrow debate we are having tonight, but he must accept that we are debating an EU Council decision made on 28 February which is up for renewal—or certainly revisiting—on 1 June, and he cannot deny that the Government have been flying kites on this issue. We are therefore right to raise it on the Floor of the House tonight, particularly given that the decision will be revisited shortly—on 1 June, I understand.

I ask the Minister to consider one or two other points. We do not know much about the rebel forces, but we do know that some are linked to al-Qaeda and some have committed atrocities. Tracking and tracing weaponry that we put into Syria because we would deal only with the moderate elements is beyond the capability of any western Government, unless we had troops on the ground to monitor the situation more closely, and I am sure the Minister will not suggest that course of action.

There can be little doubt that the more weapons we put into a conflict, the more the violence escalates. The idea that we can put weapons into a civil war and not inflate or escalate the violence beggars belief. Of course putting more weapons in will increase the violence. That is why Oxfam and a number of charities that have people on the ground have come out publicly in the past week or two to say, “Do not do it. Do not go down that road, because bad things will happen.” There is already

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a humanitarian crisis in Syria. Pouring more weapons into the conflict cannot do any good; it can only escalate the violence within the country.

In the minute I have left, I urge the Government instead to focus on diplomacy. Diplomacy has not yet run its course. We have the conference suggested by the Russians, which we should pursue to the very end. We should also do what we can on the humanitarian side, where more can be done. Hon. Members have made a number of suggestions that we should explore, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) made the point that we could do more from a humanitarian point of view.

One last time, I urge the Government to refrain from exploring the view that we should arm the rebels. Syria is the crossing point of a conflict that arming the rebels could escalate. We could be very sorry for what follows.

8.41 pm

Alistair Burt: I thank all colleagues for their contributions to this short debate. We have covered a lot of ground, and I appreciate how colleagues have handled it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) reminded me of the line from “Argo”, which could have been used in a number of other films. There are no good choices. They are all bad choices. What we are trying to do is make the best of a very difficult situation. Virtually every colleague understood the complexity and difficulty of the situation, and that, after two years of unrelenting killing by the regime, we are left with very difficult choices.

I will do my best to cover a number of points made in the debate, but colleagues will appreciate that I might be unable to cover every point made. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) raised a number of questions. If she looks back on my responses to interventions, she will see a number of the answers, such as on the balance of weaponry and diversion. I understand the issues and try to do my best to deal with them.

The Government are seeking consensus with our EU partners. The sanctions stand or fall by consensus. Clearly, the Government are determined to try to get consensus within the EU. If consensus is not possible and the sanctions fall, we would be prepared to introduce domestic sanctions to cover the gap, but our intention and determination is to do things by consensus.

I have sought to reiterate to the House that our policy remains to seek a political solution. A number of speakers were anticipating a point that we have not reached. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, that is not illegitimate in this debate, but I firmly counsel colleagues that questions about whether we should arm people are not on the table. He and other colleagues cannot believe for a second that the risks and the dangers, such as diversion, are not top among the concerns of colleagues in the Foreign Office and throughout the Government. As a number of speakers said, however, the situation is already dire. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and other colleagues spoke of what is already happening and my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) and others spoke of the humanitarian situation. Changing the EU arms embargo will not suddenly make the situation worse. It is already horrendous. We are trying to do something different.

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The purpose of seeking to lift the arms embargo is to give the flexibility to which my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and for Braintree (Mr Newmark) referred. Lifting the embargo gives flexibility, assists the moderates against the extremists, assists the politicians against those who wish to see solely a military solution, and gives flexibility in circumstances we do not know. Unless it is lifted, the process of lifting it in difficult circumstances would be almost impossible. Decisions after that will be of enormous complexity and difficulty, and the Government are well seized of that.

I cannot stress often enough to the House the importance the Government place on the current political process, and its urgency. That is foremost in all our minds. Colleagues across the House have spoken about the impossibility of the military situation, and that is why it is so important that the Foreign Secretary is backed wholeheartedly in the efforts that he and others are making to achieve peace.

Finally, on the point about coming to the House, it is important to repeat the remarks the Foreign Secretary made yesterday:

“men, women and children…suffering virtually every kind of weapon that man has ever invented being dropped on them while most of the world denies them the means to defend themselves. If we come to a choice about that, it is a very important foreign policy and moral choice, which of course should be discussed fully in this House.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 909.]

He drew attention both to the urgency of the situation, what is happening at the moment, and his determination to have the matter fully discussed.

8.46 pm

One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No. 16(1)).

Question agreed to.


That this House takes note of EU Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP amending Decision 2012/739/CFSP concerning restrictive measures against Syria; takes note of the deteriorating situation in Syria that has led to the deaths of more than 70,000 people at the hands of the Assad regime; and supports the decision of Her Majesty’s Government to agree with Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP.

Business without Debate

delegated legislation

Mr Speaker: With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 6 to 8 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)).

Financial Assistance to Industry

That this House authorises the Secretary of State to undertake to pay, and to pay by way of financial assistance under section 8 of the Industrial Development Act 1982, in respect of Beechbrook Capital as part of the Business Finance Partnership, sums exceeding £10 million and up to a cumulative total of £20 million.


That the draft Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 (Consequential Amendments to Part 1 of the Education and Skills Act 2008) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 14 March, in the previous Session of Parliament, be approved.

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That the draft Duty to Participate in Education or Training (Alternative Ways of Working) Regulations 2013, which were laid before this House on 14 March, in the previous Session of Parliament, be approved.—(Mr Syms.)

Question agreed to.

welsh grand committee



(1) the matter of the Government’s Legislative Programme as outlined in the Queen’s Speech as it relates to Wales be referred to the Welsh Grand Committee for its consideration;

(2) the Committee shall meet at Westminster on Wednesday 12 June at 9.30 am and 2.00 pm to consider the matter referred to it under paragraph (1) above; and

(3) the Chair shall interrupt proceedings at the afternoon sitting not later than two hours after their commencement at that sitting.—(Mr Syms.)

Financial assistance to industry


That the Motions in the name of Secretary Vince Cable relating to Financial Assistance to Industry in respect of investments to support lending to small and medium-sized enterprises and in respect of early stage venture capital funds investing in small and medium-sized enterprises shall be treated as if they related to an instrument subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees) in respect of which notice has been given that the instruments be approved.—(Mr Syms.)


Objections to a Free School (Edgware)

8.47 pm

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): I rise to present a petition on behalf of residents of Hendon, and specifically on behalf of the Broadfields Estate residents association.

The petition states:

The Petition of Residents of Hendon,

Declares that the Petitioners oppose the Avanti House School development on Broadfields, Edgware; further that the petitioners note that Avanti House School have identified land between Hartland Drive and Broadfields Primary School for a new school which would accommodate 1680 pupils and that sport pitches are planned to be placed on green belt land; further that the petitioners do not believe that the area can accommodate this and the proposed school will not actually serve the Broadfields area or even the Borough of Barnet; further that pupils would arrive by cars and buses adding to already congested roads and that the north part of Broadfields is surrounded by green belt land and access is possible via only two roads meaning the area is only able to handle residential traffic. This development threatens to cause traffic chaos and ruin the lives of our local community.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government not to support the relocation of Avanti House School to the Broadfields site in Edgware, and draw attention to this petition and to a second submitted to Barnet council, containing 1,002 signatures.

And the Petitioners remain, as in duty bound, will ever pray.


Closure of Rhyl Crown Post Office

8.48 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I wish to present the following petition to Parliament on behalf of the residents of Rhyl and the Vale of Clwyd, who are totally opposed to the proposal by Post Office Ltd to

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franchise Rhyl Crown Post Office. They believe that the proposal will severely damage the provision of services in Rhyl, especially to the elderly, and they call on Post Office Ltd to withdraw its proposal and to retain Rhyl Crown Post Office.

The petition states:

The Petition of those concerned about the proposed closure of Rhyl Crown Post Office,

Declares that Rhyl Crown Post Office should remain within the Crown Network and not become a franchise. The Petitioners believe that the proposal for a franchise will severely damage the provision of services in Rhyl.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Minister of State for Business and Enterprise to protect much-loved public services.

And the Petitioners remain, as in duty bound, will ever pray.


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Planning (Mottingham)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

8.50 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is a pleasure to raise this issue in the Chamber, and I am delighted to see several hon. Members still here as we approach closing time—an appropriate metaphor, perhaps, given the subject of this debate.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): Not for the Porcupine.

Robert Neill: No, I hope not for the Porcupine.

I want briefly to set out what seems to be the particularly worrying pattern of behaviour that the proposal to demolish the Porcupine public house in Mottingham in my constituency highlights. It is obviously of great concern to residents of Mottingham, which, it is worth saying, is not an amorphous part of London suburbia, but a genuine village with a real sense of identity, and the Porcupine pub is a central part of that village community. It is also worrying because the behaviour of the two substantial companies involved has potential impacts beyond this case.

Perhaps I can put that into some context. There has been an inn on the site of the Porcupine public house since 1688. It is not, I accept, locally or statutorily listed, but it is steeped in history. There has always been a pub there in the middle of the village, and it is virtually the one remaining bit of community space left in the village, so it is of real significance to the people of the Mottingham area. It has a long local history. I am told that Tom Cribb, the 19th century world bare-knuckle boxing champion, trained in the Porcupine inn and that it has been called that since the days when a spiked machine was used to crush oats and barley in alehouses, so it has a long heritage and, as I say, is dearly loved by people in the Mottingham area. We have seen, however, a shabby and underhand means of closing this public house against the community’s wishes.

I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) here to respond to the debate and I want to thank him personally for the trouble that he took to come down to Mottingham, visit the site and meet some of its residents—more of that in a moment. First, however, I want to thank some other people, because the campaign to save the Porcupine public house has seen many people doing a lot of hard work. It is worth mentioning Liz Keable and all the other committee officers of the Mottingham residents association, who have worked very hard; Emily Bailey, who started an online petition that has gathered more than 1,600 signatures; the local councillors, including my Conservative colleagues Charles Rideout and Roger Charsley, who represent the Mottingham ward of the London borough of Bromley, and Councillor John Hills, who represents the adjoining ward in the neighbouring London borough of Greenwich, just the other side of the road from the public house; hundreds of residents who have written in and e-mailed to support the campaign; and the 250-plus people who turned out when the Minister came to visit last week. I also wish to say

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special thank you to David Bingley, who started the campaign. Sadly, his ongoing hospital treatment means that he cannot be here to watch the debate from the Gallery, but I know he will be watching from his hospital bed, and I am sure that you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I say that we thank him for his efforts and wish him a speedy recovery.

That is the history of this public house and the strength of feeling surrounding it. The Porcupine was knocked down once before, in 1922, and on that occasion the brewery provided a temporary pub for people to use while it was rebuilt, but I am afraid that a very different attitude has been adopted now. In essence, the owner of the Porcupine pub, Enterprise Inns, has in my judgment deliberately let the pub run down and then sought to dispose of it for development. I am afraid Enterprise Inns has a bad track record in that regard. It is becoming frankly notorious for such behaviour. Its four annual reports show an alarming decline in the total number of pubs it operates, from 7,399 in September 2009 down to 5,902 in September 2012. Enterprise Inns seems to have a deliberate policy of running down its estate. It is quite clear from its annual report that, having disposed of more than 400 pubs in the last year, Enterprise Inns is disposing of assets to pay down debt. It is a company that, frankly, has not had good trading results. To my mind, it seems to be behaving more like a property company than a brewing company.

What Enterprise Inns has done in this case adds insult to injury. Not only did it dispose of the site, but it did so without giving any notice to the population. The site was never advertised. There was no sign that this public house was going to be closed. It closed literally overnight, having been sold through a commercial deal to Lidl supermarket, with no notice given to anyone. Lidl UK now proposes to demolish the public house and erect a non-descript supermarket on the site. It is reprehensible that this pattern of conduct by Enterprise Inns seems to be designed to circumvent the Government’s work to give greater protection to public houses. The Government have taken important steps, by creating the ability to list places such as the Porcupine as assets of community value and by giving greater protections in the national planning policy framework.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the campaign that he is running with the local community. As he knows, the Porcupine in Mottingham village is just across the road from my constituency, so my constituents are concerned, too. He has the full support of those who are trying to save the Dutch House pub in my constituency. This is very much about a local community coming together to save both community assets. Does he agree that this case is a test for the NPPF? We should be listening to local people, as against huge businesses such as McDonald’s, Lidl and Enterprise Inns.

Robert Neill: I am grateful to hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I welcome his support for the campaign, and I agree.

Enterprise Inns has a debt of £296 million and is running down its estate to pay it off. It does not seem to be interested in running its pubs, as they can be run, as going concerns. The community in Mottingham was denied the opportunity to make an application to have

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the Porcupine listed as an asset of community value in advance, because it was given no notice. By the time the pub closed, it had already changed hands and Lidl had already moved in and boarded it up. Ironically, it did so with a hoarding that was beyond the size permitted under the planning regulations—a breach of development control, which says something about Lidl’s attitude. When my hon. Friend the Minister responds, I should be grateful if he considered what more we might do about the behaviour of Enterprise Inns in seeking to circumvent the legislation that the House put in place to protect such assets.

Greg Mulholland: The all-party save the pub group is entirely behind my hon. Friend’s community campaign and will offer him any support we can. The simple answer—I hope we will hear this from the Minister—is twofold. First, as my hon. Friend will know, the great news is that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is consulting on finally dealing with the property scam that is the pubco model, which includes Enterprise Inns. I hope that we will hear later this year that that will be dealt with. Secondly, I hope that we will start to get it through to the community pubs Minister—my hon. Friend and I had debates when he used to be the community pubs Minister—that although the provisions in the Localism Act 2011 are positive, we cannot accept a planning framework that allows such behaviour. We must have a change, so that pubs cannot become supermarkets behind communities’ backs and without any consultation with those communities. That cannot be right.

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman would almost have had time to consume a pint in the course of his intervention.

Robert Neill: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and I am grateful to him for his intervention. You will know of the importance that all communities attach to their local public house, Mr Speaker, and this behaviour is particularly reprehensible. It has denied people the opportunity to step in, unlike what has happened at other places nearby, such as the Baring Hall public house near Grove Park station, where notice was given and the community was able to get the asset listed. That opportunity was denied in the case of the Porcupine as a result of the underhand behaviour of Enterprise Inns.

The situation has been made worse by the behaviour of Lidl. It is becoming apparent that the company’s business model is one of acquiring public house sites and turning them into supermarkets in a secretive and predatory fashion—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) says that this is about collusion, and I have to say that a lot of people in Mottingham would agree.

As I have said, the situation has been made worse by Lidl’s behaviour. Representatives of the company came to a public meeting organised by the Mottingham residents association and, to put it charitably, gave misleading information about the status of the planning application. They claimed that they already had permission to demolish the public house, when in fact they had not even made an application. Since then, although they claim that they wish to consult the community, they have done no more than board up the public house. They want to

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demolish it so that, in effect, the pass will have been sold and it will be impossible to rebuild a pub on the site, but I am pleased to say that Bromley council will have to consider a section 31 application. I am sure that it will deal with such an application in an appropriate fashion. My hon. Friend the Minister cannot prejudge planning cases, but I would simply observe that I believe that there are very strong planning grounds for deciding that this is not an appropriate place for a supermarket.

Lidl’s poor behaviour did not stop there, however. Until I secured this debate—as well as earning a rebuke from you, Mr Speaker, for making an intervention on the matter at business questions that was perhaps a little less crisp than I try to be—Lidl had refused to engage at senior level with me or any other elected representative. Lidl is a privately owned, German-based company, and it is now buying up pubs around London and turning them into supermarkets. Ironically, there is a Lidl just 10 minutes away from this site, in Eltham, as well as branches of Marks & Spencer, the Co-op and Sainsbury’s within easy reach of it.

I find it extraordinary that, having misled residents over the status of the application, Lidl took no steps to correct that. It put in an application, then forgot to pay the fee for about seven days, which says something about the company. When I sought a meeting with a Lidl board director, the company refused to give my office the names of its directors. We had to go to Companies House to find out who they were. It refused to give me the names, and refused to meet me until it heard about the publicity generated by this debate. That is a contemptuous way in which to treat the public.

There are two messages for people in all this. First, they should know how Lidl is behaving in this case. Secondly, the Campaign for Real Ale is actively promoting its “List your Local” campaign, and my message to anyone with a pub owned by Enterprise Inns in their community is that they should get it listed as an asset of community value now, because they cannot trust Enterprise Inns not to sell it from under them without telling them. That is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. As things are, a demolition application has now been submitted and will have to be considered by Bromley council. I am happy that it will take whatever steps are appropriate, but this case demonstrates an attitude that is damaging for the community in that area.

This is not the only occasion on which Lidl has behaved in this way. In Warlingham, it destroyed the former Good Companions public house. It knocked it down, but it has yet to submit an application to redevelop the site. It demolished a former police station in Dartford as soon as it acquired it, and the residents of Dartford have had to live with a derelict site for the subsequent 15 months. That is predatory behaviour. It is unacceptable and unbecoming of a public company. I hope that the directors on the board of Lidl will realise the reputational damage that their conduct is doing. I say that more in hope than in expectation, but we can at least use the engine of publicity to flag up their behaviour and that of Enterprise Inns. The Minister might be aware that an application has now been submitted for the Porcupine public house to be listed as an asset of community value, and I hope that it will give it some protection in due course.

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Clive Efford: The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way to me again. My constituents added their names to that application and were told that because they lived in neither the ward nor the borough, they could not have their application registered as an asset, despite the fact that it is happening in the middle of their village, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. They are very disappointed and asked me to express their view here tonight.

Robert Neill: I understand that, and it is an issue that we may need to think about, particularly given that the local authority boundaries in some urban areas do not necessarily follow the community ties with an area. I hope that even though Bromley council is not statutorily obliged to do so, it will none the less be aware of the strength of feeling from across the other side of Mottingham.

The other option is to consider an article 4 direction, and I understand that an application to Bromley council for such a direction has been made. The one thing that we need to bear in mind is that there is sometimes a tendency for owners of properties that are subject to an article 4 direction to make excessive claims on compensation in an endeavour to deter local authorities from using the article 4 powers. That happened with the Baring Hall hotel in Grove park, where I understand a claim for compensation of about £1 million was initially made, but has now been significantly reduced. There is, of course, an onus on the owner who seeks compensation for article 4 actually to prove loss. I wonder whether the Minister can say more about the guidance that we can give to local authorities, so that they are not intimidated against using article 4 directions by the behaviour of large, well-funded commercial organisations.

I hope that I have now had the chance to ventilate on a subject that is hugely important to my constituents. I end by saying that the porcupine is a seemingly harmless animal until provoked. Well, the residents of Mottingham have been thoroughly and justifiably provoked by the threat to their Porcupine. I hope that this debate has given us the chance to flag up what amounts to troubling behaviour not just for residents of Mottingham, but for anyone concerned about protecting valued local pubs across the country.

9.7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on securing this important debate. It is important to the people of Mottingham and the Porcupine pub, but it also gives us a chance—as we have heard from the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), the chairman of the all-party parliamentary save the pub group and from the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), the member for the Dutch House—to outline some of the rules affecting pubs and their acquisition by some of the companies mentioned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is aware that on 29 April, Lidl UK submitted a part 31 notification to the London borough of Bromley council of its intention to demolish the Porcupine pub. I know that my hon. Friend has expressed his concerns directly

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to the council about the implications of the notification, so that his views and those of his constituents can rightly be taken into account when the council considers the case, which it has to do before 28 May. I also know that local residents recently submitted, as my hon. Friend has said, a request to the council for an article 4 direction for the removal of permitted development rights for both demolition and change of use on the site, which I am advised is still being considered by the council. The council will need to notify the Secretary of State if and when a direction has been drafted.

As my hon. Friend has outlined, the Porcupine pub ceased trading in March and the site was sold to Lidl UK at around the same time. It is still the case that no formal planning application has been submitted to the council regarding the proposals. I know that my hon. Friend knows from his time in the Department for Communities and Local Government that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of the notification or the proposed article 4 direction, or indeed on the possible success or otherwise of any planning application for the erection of a retail unit on the site, as I would not wish to prejudice the Secretary of State’s position, should any of these matters come before him. I nevertheless note one of my hon. Friend’s closing comments about the value of guidelines for councils’ use of article 4 directions, which might provide councillors with greater knowledge.

When I visited the Porcupine with my hon. Friend, councillors asked me about the article 4 direction and about the compensation issue. I think that we need to look into just how guarded council officers are being about the advice that they are giving members about the risk of compensation. We need to ensure that there is a proper understanding of the risk and that it is not overstated, so that councils do not overestimate it and fail to take an opportunity that could be used in many cases to protect pubs under article 4.

I know that my hon. Friend is well versed in the planning system, to which he has referred in detail this evening. However, for the record, I will explain the position relating to, in particular, part 31 notifications and article 4.

The demolition of most buildings is permitted development, which means that specific planning permission is not required. However, that is subject to a requirement to notify the local planning authority concerned through a part 31 notification, so it can decide whether to prescribe the method of demolition and restoration of the site. That often gives a community a brief opportunity to become aware of an issue and do something about it, as has happened in the case of the Porcupine.

As for article 4 directions under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, public houses and shops are classed as separate uses under the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987. That recognises the different land use impacts of their particular uses, and would ordinarily mean that planning permission would be required to change from one class to another. When issues arise, however, local authorities, working with their communities, can restrict the use of permitted development rights by means of an article 4 direction, and, as my hon. Friend said, that is being considered in this case.

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As soon as the direction has been drafted, notice is served locally for 21 days, and the Secretary of State is notified at the same time. Having considered the local consultation responses, the local authority then considers whether to confirm the direction. It can do that by serving a further notice locally and notifying the Secretary of State.

There have been calls in the House recently for the removal of permitted development rights that allow pubs to convert to other uses at a national level. The hon. Member for Leeds North West, representing the save the pub group, has spoken about that on a number of occasions. However, the Government are clear about the fact that localism should be at the heart of planning. We need to avoid any disproportionate restrictions on change of use that might result in more empty buildings, spoiling the local environment and holding back economic development. However, that does not prevent us from doing what we can to protect our community pubs.

As my hon. Friend said, we should encourage communities to ensure that their locals are listed as community assets. CAMRA is running a fantastic campaign, and I urge Members to look at its website, which gives clear and simple directions about how to list a pub. It is good to hear that the people of Mottingham are adopting that route while there is still a building to protect. I sensed the public feeling there the other day, when at least 200 of them turned out. Listing a pub is a simple process. It is necessary to be on the electoral roll, but I noted my hon. Friend’s comments on that requirement, and I will look into it. Only 21 people in the area need to propose the listing, and I encourage people to do it.

Greg Mulholland: Will the Minister give way?

Brandon Lewis: I will give way briefly.

Greg Mulholland: I thank the Minister for listening to what has been said about this issue. However, he is now a CAMRA member—I am delighted about that—and he knows that CAMRA does not agree with him and believes that we need more protection. It is great that he visited the pub, but, having heard the case, does he honestly think that it is in the interests of localism or pubs to retain a national planning framework that allows the conversion of wanted, full, busy, profitable pubs to branches of McDonald’s, supermarkets or flats without the community’s having a say? That is not in the interests of localism. It is undermining what the Minister and I both believe in.

Brandon Lewis: I was about to say something about that. There is sometimes a gap when a company buys a property that was not already listed and does not need to demolish it. The first a resident may know about it is when the boarding goes up advertising whichever company that happens to be. That may be the first indication that Enterprise Inns, or whoever, has sold it off.

As I have said, we do not intend to change planning laws per se, but we do need to ensure that whatever we do is proportionate. The listing of a community asset is a simple, light-touch, but effective way of protecting a pub. However, I accept that there may be an opportunity to take that a step further in order to prevent circumstances in which a resident does not know that a property has been sold or has become a Tesco, a Lidl or a McDonald’s until the store opens or the boarding goes up. I am prepared to look at that, but I must make it clear that,

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as I have outlined, we are not going to make any substantive changes to change of use and general planning that are disproportionate.

I want to stress again that communities that value their pubs should do what they can to have them listed. The Government have done a great deal to help to protect pubs through our work on planning, under the national planning framework, and through providing the ability to list a pub as a community asset. That has had a great impact. We have also helped to protect pubs by developing the Plunkett Foundation so our communities can buy pubs, and we have put funding into Pub is the Hub. There is also the Chancellor’s fantastic move to cut the beer duty escalator and beer duty itself.

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In conclusion, I am not in a position to comment on the specific case of the Porcupine pub, although I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst on the fantastic work he is doing in highlighting what is happening and on the action he has taken. I cannot go any further at present without being prejudicial to the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in the planning system, so I will leave it there, and wish my hon. Friend and the residents of Mottingham well in their endeavours.

Question put and agreed to.

9.15 pm

House adjourned.