Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

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Responding to the Prime Minister's Statement on the refugee crisis and counter-terrorism

Today, in the House of Commons, I delivered a response to the Prime Minister’s statement on the refugee crisis in Europe and recent counter-terrorism action.  This is now the worst humanitarian crisis to reach European shores since the Second World War and its impact is being felt right across our country. The full text of my response is available below:

3.44 pm

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and I shall start by asking about the refugee crisis. When a country decides how to respond to the plight of others from outside, it is a moment when a nation becomes clear about who it is and what it stands for. This is one such defining moment. Is our national priority to keep people out at all costs or to give sanctuary to those fleeing from their homes? Is being British to be narrow, inward looking and fearful of the outside world or is it about being strong, confident and proud to reach out to those seeking refuge on our shores? It must be the latter.

We should not be talking about refugees as being “a burden” on us. Among the Syrian children we take in now will be the future consultants at our hospital bedsides, the entrepreneurs who will build our economy, the professors in our universities and those who will be among the strongest upholders of British values, because that has been the story of refugees to this country—whether it be the Jewish children of the Kindertransport, the Asian families driven out of east Africa 20 years later or the Sierra Leoneans fleeing a brutal civil war. The Prime Minister said last week that it will not help to take more refugees because it will not solve the problem in Syria, but that was a false choice. Helping those Jewish children was not part of our efforts to end the second world war; helping the east African families did not bring down the brutal dictatorships in east Africa, but it was the right thing to do.

I shall not take up any more time rehearsing the criticisms of the Government’s response to date, but I want to ask the Prime Minister about what is going to be done now. He said that this country will now accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the course of this Parliament. How many will it be this year? The crisis is immediate so does that mean there will be only 4,000 this year? We need more information on that. Will the Prime Minister now urgently convene local authority leaders from around the country to hear from them what they are prepared and able to do to settle the refugees into their areas and how much further they can go? Many local authorities are keen to step forward and play their part—and that is greatly to their credit. They will need additional resources, particularly at a time when they are undergoing unprecedented cuts. The Government have said that they are planning to use the international aid budget for this purpose. Is that compliant with our commitment to 0.7%, and why does the Prime Minister not use the reserves for this purpose?

It is not just a matter of immediate resettlement; there is also integration. Will the Prime Minister establish and publish a proper integration plan? The refugee 

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crisis is not an issue only for local government or the Home Office; it is an issue for the Department for Transport, the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and for the devolved authorities of Scotland and Wales. What discussions has the Prime Minister had with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales on this issue, and will he convene Cobra to establish a cross-governmental plan?

Desperate conditions in the refugee camps are what drive many of those who risk their lives trying to bring their families to Europe. We strongly support our aid already provided to the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but it remains a concern that the Prime Minister is not co-ordinating his response more broadly with other European countries or with the UN. Will he reconsider his refusal to take any refugees from the southern European countries where most refugees have arrived? Fifty thousand have come to Greece in the course of just one month, and these refugees, too, need help.

It is clear that Europe has been overwhelmed and is without a plan so will the Prime Minister call for an emergency summit of EU leaders? We have a lot to learn from those countries that have already embarked on the process of resettling refugees, so will he join me in thanking Dame Glenis Willmott, MEP, for ensuring that this will be debated in the European Parliament this Wednesday?

Let me turn to the Government’s action on counter-terrorism. No one should be in any doubt about the scale of the threat posed by ISIL. We have witnessed its brutal torture and murder of British citizens abroad, and the sickening attacks that it has inspired and is seeking to organise here at home. The security services and our armed forces do immensely important work to keep us safe—a task that is difficult and dangerous—and we thank them for what they do.

I thank the Prime Minister for briefing the shadow Foreign Secretary and me this morning, when for the first time we learned of the specific operation of 21 August of which he has just informed the House. The Prime Minister has told the House today that in order to protect the safety of our citizens here at home, the Government have authorised the targeting and killing of a man—a British citizen—in Syria, a country where our military force is not authorised. Will he confirm that this is the first occasion in modern times on which that has been done?

The Prime Minister said in his statement that a meeting of senior members of the National Security Council had agreed that should the right opportunity arise, the military should take action, and that the Attorney General, who was at the meeting, had confirmed that there was a “legal basis for action”. The Prime Minister has said that the action was legally justifiable under the doctrine of national self-defence, because the man was planning and directing armed attacks in the United Kingdom, there was no other way of stopping him, and the action was necessary and proportionate. Bearing in mind that the sufficiency of evidence in relation to each of those points is crucial to the justification for that action, why did the Attorney General not authorise the specific action, rather than merely confirming that “there was a legal basis” for it? Was the Attorney General’s advice given or confirmed in writing, and will 

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it be published? The Prime Minister said in his statement that the Defence Secretary had authorised the operation. Why was it not the Prime Minister himself who authorised it?

I want to ask the Prime Minister about the specific target of this attack. Inasmuch as he can disclose it to the House, will he say what it was about this individual and his actions that singled them out from all that had gone before? Did he represent an ongoing threat, or was the threat based on a specific act that he was plotting? Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether this action by our military was an isolated action, or is he saying that the Government are likely to repeat action of this sort in the future? Above all, will he agree with me that there is a need for independent scrutiny of what the Government have done? May I ask him to request that the counter-terrorism reviewer and the Intelligence and Security Committee investigate this action and, in particular, consider the sufficiency of the evidence?

We are already engaged in the use of force against ISIL in Iraq, and it is vital for the United Kingdom to continue to play its part in international efforts to combat ISIL across the region. The Prime Minister said in his statement that if he proposed joining coalition strikes in Syria, he would return to the House for a vote of authorisation. May I reiterate the position as set out by the shadow Defence Secretary and me on 2 July? ISIL brutalises people, it murders people, and it is horrifically oppressive. We will carefully consider any proposals that the Government present in relation to military action in Syria, but we all need to be clear about what difference any action would make to our objective of defeating ISIL, and about the nature of such action, its objectives, and the legal basis. Potential action must command the support of other nations in the region, including Iraq and the coalition that is already taking action in Syria.

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