Representations heard in Public

Questions 1 - 14



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Backbench Business

on Tuesday 28 October 2014

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr David Amess

Mr David Anderson

Bob Blackman

Oliver Colvile

Mr Nigel Evans

John Hemming

Pete Wishart

Grahame M. Morris, David Ward and Alex Cunningham made representations.

Q1 Chair: Welcome back, Grahame. You are here about the e-petition on Israel and Palestine. If, in your bid, you could in particular distinguish for us the difference between what is in the e-petition and the debate that was held a mere two weeks ago in the Chamber, that would be great.

Grahame M. Morris: I will be as concise as I can be. I am grateful that you have agreed to accept the bid. As you mentioned, it comes on the back of an e-petition that has 124,478 signatures at last count. That e-petition came about because of the huge protests across the UK following the incursion and war in Gaza. The Israel-Palestine issue is clearly important for millions of people here in the UK and it is an important issue for the UK Parliament, but to my knowledge, we have not had a full debate on the issue since I was elected.

You asked me to differentiate between this bid and the recent debate we had on 13 October. If you recall, the recent debate was on one specific aspect: the recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel. This is a more general debate. If members of the Committee will recall, the CFI-LFI bids that were made last Session were essentially to have a general debate on a non-votable motion. This bid has come about after the summer war in Gaza. There is a great deal to debate-the status quo on the ground has changed significantly and is changing rapidly; the Kerry peace talks are long over. It would be timely to debate the subject.

As I said, the 13 October debate gained great credit for the Backbench Business Committee. It was incredibly well attended, and Members from all parties took part, including some very senior former Ministers and Foreign Ministers and experts in the field. It gained a great deal of credit for the UK Parliament and was extensively reported overseas. I think it has had an influence on world events, but that debate did not include the Gaza war or the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which are all vitally important issues that the public would like to see addressed in Parliament, as would many MPs.

Similarly, because of the very high level of interest-there were 46 speakers in the previous debate-more than 30 MPs from all parties have indicated that they would like to sponsor the motion and speak in the debate. In fact, a number of others came too late. If we were able to have the main Chamber on a general debate without a votable motion, we would have no problem at all filling the Chamber and having a lively, passionate and interesting debate.

Chair: Thank you.

Q2 Mr Anderson: You are right about the differences between the debates in terms of the formal debate last time being about recognition, but you know that it effectively became a general debate in all but name, because all the points you have raised were raised then. I am in not in any way undermining how important this is; it is more about us being an administrative body with a limited amount of time to allocate. What can be added that was not raised on that day? I have read the petition. There is nothing wrong with it, but it says that we should all work to try to cause the Government to take note of the issue. The Government’s response shows that they have done that. Whether or not we are happy with the Government’s response on recognition-I think a lot of us are not-they did respond positively in condemning what was going on in Gaza and so on. Simply for us, purely on the limited time aspect, what will be different?

Grahame M. Morris: I take issue with your suggestion that all those points were covered. The debate was on a specific issue and people much cleverer, wiser and more experienced than me talked about the principles of recognition, particular protocols that were applied and the arguments for and against. We are talking here about the general situation, the occupation and the consequences of the incursion into Gaza. It would be a much more general debate.

Mr Ward: With due respect, David, I remember the number of times during the debate that Members restricted themselves-pulled themselves up-and said, "I know we’re not here to discuss this," whether it was do to with the settlements or negotiations. They said, "This is about this issue and I’ll return to it." Many of us who took part in the debate felt constrained and wanted to broaden the issues being discussed, but were brought back by the focus of the single issue that we were discussing. That was restricting for many Members who wanted to discuss the wider issues.

Q3 John Hemming: The point about this Committee is that it always has more things to debate than there is time for. One of the great advantages of an e-petition is that it can open up Westminster Hall on a Monday for three hours. Would you accept that if it was offered?

Grahame M. Morris: I don’t think so. I am grateful that the Backbench Business Committee allowed us to use the main Chamber, as it is an enormous stage to debate powerful issues. I am aware that some very specialised subjects have been debated in the main Chamber and have attracted a much lower level of interest and active participation from Members. I do not think that we would have that problem, because this is such an important issue, which has a major influence not only in the UK, but across Europe and the world. It would be advantageous to have it in the main Chamber.

Q4 John Hemming: But what if that causes quite considerable delay in terms of how you debate?

Grahame M. Morris: We would rather have it in the main Chamber.

Q5 Chair: Given that you had six hours, which is very unusual for us to allocate, and because it is the same subject-

Grahame M. Morris: There were three statements before and we only had three hours.

Q6 Chair: But you were allocated an entire day, which is very unusual for us to so. We will discuss that with you. Because it is an e-petition, it automatically allows access to Westminster Hall, and we will start running out of time soon because we are running into a general election. We will discuss the venue for that debate.

Alex Cunningham: Many of us did not get to speak in the debate because it was so over-subscribed. Towards the end, we simply could not get the opportunity. I think the last speakers got three minutes and most people were restricted to five, so we didn’t really get a chance to express the things that we wanted to.

John Hemming: Westminster Hall is Parliament. It happens to be Committee Room 10, I think, at moment, but it is Parliament. Debates in Westminster Hall have had a lot of attention in the past. I have done a couple that have had masses of attention outside of Parliament.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming back.

Mr Jack Straw and Mr Richard Bacon made representations.

Q7 Chair: We now have Jack Straw. You have been to us several times before, haven’t you?

Mr Straw: I have been to you once before. That was in support of a request for a debate that John Baron secured on Iran in February 2012, the last occasion on which the issue of Iran was debated, and it attracted wide support. Richard Bacon and I are here in our capacities as co-chairmen of the all-party parliamentary group on Iran, and obviously take a close interest in it. You will see that we have 20 Members-there are a few more-many of whom are pretty senior, who support this application for a debate. We wish it to take place in the Chamber because it is a matter of such importance.

The timing is this: we want the debate to try to influence British foreign policy. The deadline for the negotiations on the nuclear dossier between the so-called P5+1 and Iran is 24 November because that is the anniversary of the interim deal that was struck in Geneva last year. It is not clear whether there will be a deal. Knowing the Iranians as I do-I used to negotiate with some of the same people-it will go right to the wire. As it gets to the wire, there will be increasing pressure on the United States Administration for there not to be a deal, except on terms that would be completely unacceptable to anybody, and similarly on the British Government from the same source.

Not everybody who wants a debate on this shares the view that Richard and I have, but we all think the issue should be aired. It runs into wider questions of relations with Iran. Richard can say a word about the embassies, but, for example, on trade with Iran, we are the only country in the P5+1 that has a policy-a quite explicit policy-of not supporting any trade with Iran. So our trade with Iran has plummeted from around £800 million in 2007-08 to £125 million-last year’s exports. The United States, which has apparently taken the toughest line on Iran, including on sanctions, has not allowed that to get in the way of encouraging exports where they are permitted under sanctions, and those have increased; in fact, their exports are now running at twice the level of ours. There are some other very important questions, but the timing is sensitive because of the 24 November deadline.

Mr Bacon: There is a very important commercial and economic angle to discuss. Just 10 days ago, a gas field was reopened in the North Sea. The Rhum field has been closed for four years because, although it is run by BP, the entity that owns it is partly owned by the national oil company of Iran. The field is responsible for 45% of British gas production, but it has been closed at a time when we need as much energy production as we can get.

In addition to what Jack Straw says, it is also true that many other European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France and Sweden, are looking towards greater commercial ties and are negotiating to this end, whereas, to come to my main point, we do not even have embassies yet. A plan to open them on 28 August was sufficiently advanced that the Iranians got as far as buying plane tickets, but the plan was cancelled at the very last moment, we understand-we know-at the behest of the Foreign Office and the Home Office, not of the Iranians.

We think these issues need airing. At a time when there is an epochal civil war going on between the Shi’a and the Sunni, the Iranians are one of the proxy powers in the civil war, and we do not have embassies open. So there is a huge agenda to discuss. It is two and a half years since Parliament has looked at this, and we think the time is right.

Q8 Bob Blackman: There are two issues. One is that you have the mid-term elections in the United States and what the impact will be on timing. I would like your view on that. The other, as you rightly say, is that negotiating with the Iranians is a challenge. If you have this debate, Government Ministers will be flagging up their policy and, to a certain extent, their negotiating position before they negotiate. I wonder whether you could tell us whether, in your experience, that is the right thing to do, just to guide us on whether to grant the debate.

Mr Straw: Important though I think the Chamber of the House of Commons is, I do not think a Back-Bench debate on a non-votable motion will feature at all in the US mid-term elections.

Q9 Bob Blackman: I am talking about the effect of the mid-terms on US strategy.

Mr Straw: One of the reasons why the Obama Administration chose 24 November last year was that it would be beyond the second Tuesday of November this year. There is hostility in Congress, from not only Republicans, but members of the Democratic party who are encouraged by American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to, bluntly, follow the line of Prime Minister Netanyahu. What the Obama Administration has done is to skirt round those problems-after all, it is an executive presidency. Kerry certainly wants a deal, and Obama wants a deal. Obama owes the Netanyahu Government nothing. Obama also needs a foreign policy win, so all those factors are important.

On the negotiation, I always found it helpful to go into a negotiation when an interest was being taken in the House of Commons, whatever that interest was. I would not dream of expecting Ministers to disclose their full negotiating hand. The metrics of the final outcome will be quite complicated in relation to how many centrifuges, in what circumstances and with what level of intrusive inspection. That is not the kind of detail that I would intend to go into. But to know that the British House of Commons is, at it were, behind the possibility of an outcome and to explore what would happen if there isn’t an outcome to the negotiations can only be helpful to the Government.

Q10 Mr Evans: I am minded to support your application today. I think I have known you both long enough to know that while you are both co-chairmen of the all-party Iran group, you are not apologists for everything that goes on in that regime by any stretch of the imagination. Personally, it is one of the few countries in the world I would never go to simply because of the way that they treat gays. It is quite appalling. You both know therefore that UK foreign policy towards Iran would be a much broader subject matter than the things you have spoken about today and also the importance of Iran in the policy towards Syria, for instance, and the region there would be vitally important.

Mr Straw: I am well aware of their human rights record, including their attitude towards gays and lesbians and the very high number of people they execute. The point I would make is that at the moment there is a power struggle going on in Iran between the forces of light, if you like, led by President Rouhani and many others but with people like Rafsanjani in the background, versus key elements in the judiciary-the judiciary is separate from the Executive and is self-willed; it is they who call the shots on things like attitudes towards gays and lesbians and executions-and the Majlis, the Parliament, which was elected a year before President Rouhani and also has a conservative majority in it. Just as errors by the Bush Administration, such as their ludicrous naming of President Khatami as part of the axis of evil-when he had reached out to the Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, compared with the attitude that Saddam Hussein had taken which was to celebrate the atrocities-American attitudes led almost directly to the marginalisation of the reformers and the election of Ahmadinejad and those bleak eight years. So, again, how the West, particularly the US, comports itself in these negotiations and whether it empowers Rouhani or not, has a significant bearing on the lives of ordinary people in this region, including gays and lesbians. That is the connection here, Nigel, and one more reason why I think it is important.

Mr Bacon: I agree with all of that. I would only add by way of endorsement the geostrategic importance of this in the light of what is going on in Syria and Iraq and the fact that Iran has been such an important player in relation to Syria-we are not going to get the progress that we need in the Middle East without Iran-all point towards this country establishing better diplomatic relations so that these issues can be pursued further. On the subject of gays and lesbians, there are many countries in the world, including Russia, Zimbabwe and others where gays and lesbians have been appallingly treated. There are very brave people in those countries trying to do something about it. The same is true in Iran.

Q11 Mr Amess: Jack, from one Essex man to another, I am mildly amused that you feel that the debate will have an influence on Government policy. I am not sure that when you were Foreign Secretary and we had these debates, other than the speeches which coincided with your views, it had any influence on you. I feel exactly the same will happen with Philip Hammond. But that is by the side. Is Mr Galloway in any sense involved with this bid?

Mr Straw: No, not as far as I am aware.

Mr Bacon: No. Not that I am aware.

Mr Amess: I meant it in a nice sense.

Mr Straw: I know you did. Well as one Essex bloke to another, what happened in the House of Commons did make a difference to me. It does not lead you to swing in the wind, but to use an old phrase, this is part of the dialectical process of politics-you will understand that, Natascha, and so will Pete and David.

Chair: Thank you.

Mr Straw: This is genuinely part of a dialectical process. It depends on how many people come and it depends on who says what, but as with the Palestine debate, if a quantum mass of Members are supporting one side rather than the other and it is drawn on an all-party basis, as this debate will be-that was what was striking before-it does make a difference, because Government is not a monolith either, even on foreign policy, so these things automatically do make a difference.

Q12 Chair: In fact, your debate on prisoner voting rights, with David Davis, very early on in the Parliament had a significant-

Mr Straw: It certainly did. That was obviously on a votable motion, Chairman, and we are not seeking that, but it would make a difference, absolutely.

Q13 Bob Blackman: Briefly, I have heard your explanation, but if we are not able to allocate time and therefore it slips beyond 24th November, is your application still live?

Mr Straw: Yes, we would still like a debate. As it happens, Richard and I were looking at our diaries; he can’t make the 13th and I can’t make the 20th, so we would then be beyond that date.

Q14 Chair: The 13th is the beginning of recess anyway, so really, in terms of it being before the 24th, it would really have to be 6th November or beyond.

Mr Straw: The timing would obviously be better if it were before 24th November, for reasons I have explained. That is why we sought it at this moment.

Chair: That is great, thank you. We will be deciding now what we are scheduling on 6th November, so we will let you know either way later this afternoon.

Prepared 4th November 2014