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The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron):With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the G8.The Government decided to hold the G8 in Northern Ireland to demonstrate the strength of this part of the United Kingdom. We wanted to show the success of the peace process, the openness for business and investment, and the potential for tourism and growth. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the First and Deputy First Ministers for all they did to help with the conference, I congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland and all those responsible for delivering a safe and successful G8, and I thank everyone in Northern Ireland for giving everyone such a warm welcome. Northern Ireland put on its best face and the whole world could see what a great place it is.We set a clear agenda for this summit: to boost jobs and growth, with more open trade, fairer taxes and greater transparency—what I have called the three Ts. I also added a fourth T—combating terrorism. We reached important agreements, including on support to the Libyan Government and ending ransom payments for kidnap by terrorists. Despite our fundamental differences, we also made good progress, agreeing a way forward on working together to help the Syrian people achieve the change they want. Let me take each of these points in turn.
We started with the issues that matter most to our people—jobs, growth and mending our economies. First, we agreed that each country needs to press on with sorting out its public finances. Dealing with our debts and securing growth are not alternatives. The former is an essential step in achieving the latter. In fact, the communiqué that we agreed unanimously reflects all three parts of the plan for growth that we have in Britain—not just fiscal sustainability, but active monetary policy to unlock the finance that businesses and families need, and structural reforms to increase our competitiveness so that our young people can get into work and succeed in the global race.
The UK’s G8 also launched a bold new pro-business agenda to drive a dramatic increase in trade and to get to grips with the problems of tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance and corporate secrecy. This was a distinctive British agenda to shape the way the world economy works for the benefit of everyone. We believe in free trade, private enterprise and low taxes as the best route to growth, but that is only sustainable if ambitious trade deals are agreed, the taxes owed are paid and companies play by the rules. This agenda has now, I believe, been written into the DNA of G8 and G20 summits for many years to come.
On trade, we started the summit with the launch of negotiations on the EU-US trade deal. As has recently been said, this could add as much as £100 billion to the EU economy, £80 billion to the US and £85 billion for the rest of the world. We should be clear about what these numbers mean: more jobs, more choice and lower prices in our shops, and the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, launched at our G8.
On tax, the Lough Erne declaration that leaders signed yesterday sets out simple, clear commitments: tax authorities around the world should automatically share information so that those who want to evade taxes will have nowhere to hide; companies should know who really owns them; and tax collectors and law enforcers should be able to obtain this information easily, for example through central registries, so that people cannot escape taxes by using complicated and fake structures. In a world where business has moved from the offline and the national to the online and the international but the tax system has not caught up, we are commissioning the OECD to develop a new international tax tool that will expose discrepancies between where multinationals earn their profits and where they pay their taxes.
The declaration also makes it clear that all that action has to help developing countries too, by sharing tax information and building their capability to collect taxes. Crucially for developing countries, we agreed that oil, gas and mining companies should report what they pay to Governments and that Governments should publish what they receive so that natural resources are a blessing, not a curse. Charities and other non-governmental organisations have rightly campaigned for years for action on these issues, and for the first time they have been raised to the top of the agenda and brought together in one document.
The agreements on tax made at the summit are significant, but it is also worth noting what has happened on this front since I put the issue to the top of the agenda. On 1 January there was no single international standard for automatic exchange of information. Now there is such a standard, and over 30 jurisdictions have already signed up, with more to follow. After years of delay, the European Union has agreed to progress the sharing of tax information between member states. The UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies have signed up to the multilateral convention on information exchange and agreed automatic exchange of information with the UK and action plans for beneficial ownership. Taken together, all the actions agreed with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies will provide over £1 billion in revenue to the Exchequer, helping to keep taxes down for hard-working families here in Britain.
People around the world also wanted to know whether the G8 would take action to tackle malnutrition and ensure that there is enough food for everyone. The pledges at our nutrition and hunger summit earlier this month will save 20 million children from stunting by 2020. Crucially, our G8 also took action on some of the causes of these problems. That is why the work we did on land, extractive industries, tax and transparency is so important.
Turing to the fourth T—terrorism—we agreed a tough, patient and intelligent approach: confronting the terrorists, defeating the poisonous ideology that sustains them and tackling the weak and failing states in which they thrive. The G8 leaders reached a groundbreaking agreement on ransom payments for kidnap by terrorists. In the last three years alone ransom payments have given al-Qaeda and its allies tens of millions of dollars. These payments have to stop and this G8 agreed that they will.
We also discussed plans to begin direct talks with the Taliban. Britain has long supported a peace process in Afghanistan to work alongside our tough security response, so we welcome this step forward.
We also discussed support to Libya. I believe that we should be proud of the role we played in ridding Libya of Colonel Gaddafi, but we need to help that country secure its future. So we held a separate meeting with the Libyan Prime Minister, which included President Obama, and European nations have already offered to train 7,000 troops to help Prime Minister Zeidan disarm and integrate the militias and bring security to the whole country. More contributions will follow from others. Let me be clear that the Libyan Government have asked for this and will pay for it.
Finally, let me turn to Syria. It is no secret that there are very different views around the G8 table, but I was determined that we should use the opportunity of this summit to overcome some of these differences and agree a way forward to help the Syrian people achieve the change that they want. This did not happen during just one night in Lough Erne; the talks between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have been vital.
In the weeks before the summit, I flew to Sochi and Washington, and I met again President Putin and President Obama in the hours before the summit began. These conversations were open, honest and frank, but we were all agreed on what must be the core principle of the international approach to this crisis. There is no military victory to be won and all our efforts must be focused on the ultimate goal of a political solution.
Together with our G8 partners, we agreed almost $1.5 billion of new money for humanitarian support. This is an unprecedented commitment from Lough Erne for Syria and her neighbours. We agreed to back a Geneva II process that delivers a transitional governing body with, crucially, full Executive authority. So a core requirement for success that had been called into doubt in recent weeks has now been reasserted unanimously, with the full authority of the G8.
We pledged to learn the lessons of Iraq by making sure that the key institutions of the state are maintained throughout the transition and that there is no vacuum. This sends a clear message to those loyalists looking for an alternative to Assad. The G8 also unequivocally condemned any use of chemical weapons and, following an extensive debate, we reached for the first time a united position, including Russia, that the regime must immediately allow unrestricted access for UN inspectors to establish the full facts on the use of chemical weapons by regime forces, or indeed by anyone else. All these agreements are absolutely fundamental to saving lives and securing the political transition that we all want to see.
Let us be clear on what is happening in Syria and what we are trying to achieve. We are faced with a dramatically escalating humanitarian disaster with more than 90,000 dead and almost 6 million people having had to flee their homes. There is a radicalisation of terrorists and extremists who will pose a direct threat to the security of the region and also the world. There is a growing risk to the peace and stability of Syria’s neighbours and the long-standing international prohibition on chemical weapons is being breached by a dictator who is brutalising his people.
None of this constitutes an argument for plunging in recklessly. We will not do so, and we will not take any major actions without first coming to this House. But we cannot simply ignore this continuing slaughter. Of course it is right to point out that there are extremists among the Opposition. There are, and I am clear: they pose a threat not just to Syria but to all of us. The G8 agreed that they should be defeated and expelled from their havens in Syria.
I also understand those who fear that whatever we try to do could make things worse, not better. Of course we must think carefully before any course of action, but we must not accept what President Assad wants us to believe—that the only alternative to his brutal action against Syria is extremism and terrorism. There are millions of ordinary Syrians who want to take control of their own future, a future without Assad. That is why I made sure that the G8 agreed that the way through the crisis is to help Syrians forge a new Government who are neither Sunni, nor Alawite, nor Shi’a.
We are committed to using diplomacy to end this war with a political solution. This is not easy, but the essential first step must be to get agreement between the main international powers with influence on Syria. That is what we have done at the G8 in Lough Erne. We must now work to turn these commitments into action, and I commend this statement to the House.
Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab):I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s statement. Let me start by commending him on holding the summit in Northern Ireland. Fifteen years ago, holding a G8 summit in Enniskillen would have been unthinkable. Peace has transformed Enniskillen, and the location of this summit alone is testament to what can be achieved through politics and dialogue. It is a credit to all the people of Northern Ireland.Let me take the G8 issues in turn. On hunger and nutrition, it is completely unacceptable that there is enough food in the world for everyone, yet 1 billion people still go hungry and 2.3 million children die every year from malnutrition. I therefore welcome the agreements and commitments made during the hunger summit. The task must now be to ensure that these commitments will be delivered. Does the Prime Minister agree that we are right to stick by our pledge of 0.7% aid as a proportion of national income and does he further agree with me that we should be using all the moral force that we gain from that position to urge others to follow suit?On trade, we welcome and support the launch of negotiations on a free trade agreement between Europe and the United States. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will tell all his colleagues, including the Cabinet, that this is a timely reminder of the importance for jobs and prosperity of staying in the European Union?
On tax havens, the Prime Minister said that one of his goals was to make sure that there will be public registries of who owns companies and trusts. What blocked getting agreement on that at the G8? Will he clarify whether the agreement reached by rich countries on information sharing, which he mentioned in his statement, will from the outset apply to developing countries? As the IF campaign has said,
“a summit focussed on transparency can’t justify keeping this information secret”
from poorer countries.
Let me turn to the devastating situation in Syria. It was right for the Prime Minister to prioritise this crisis and make it the focus of this week’s talks. We welcome the announcements of additional humanitarian relief, in particular the doubling of UK aid. However, as the Prime Minister has said, the answer to this humanitarian crisis is a political solution. All of us recognise the scale of the challenge of bringing together an international community that has been deeply divided on this issue, and there are no easy options.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that it was
“a strong and purposeful statement on Syria”.
Although we welcome the centrepiece of that statement being a commitment to the Geneva II conference, will the Prime Minister explain why there was no agreement on its starting date? It is being reported that the conference is now being pushed to July or even later in August. Based on his discussions this week, could he now tell us when he expects the conference to take place?
On the substance of Geneva II, the Prime Minister has spoken today about the importance of the agreement in Enniskillen on a transitional governing body with full Executive authority, based on the maintenance of key institutions of the state and an inclusive political settlement. Does he accept, however, that every one of those commitments featured in the Geneva I communiqué back in June 2012? The Prime Minister spoke of this G8 providing a moment of clarity on Syria, but will he set out how in concrete terms yesterday’s statement moves us closer to a political settlement?
On arming the rebels, the Prime Minister now says that it is not his policy to do so. Given that the Geneva conference has already been delayed, is he able to envisage any circumstances in which he would seek to arm the rebels before the conference takes place?
Given the limited nature or the progress achieved this week, does the Prime Minister still maintain that focusing so much time and effort in the days and weeks preceding the summit on lifting the EU arms embargo was the right way to spend political capital and energy?
The reality is that we did not witness the long-hoped-for breakthrough on Syria at the G8 summit, and we need to be candid about that. None of us should doubt the difficulties of the choices that confront this Government and all Governments around the world. The Prime Minister knows that, on the steps agreed this week to tackle terrorism and on the issues of Afghanistan and, indeed, Libya, I have given him my full support. May I urge him in the months ahead, however, to proceed with the greatest possible clarity on his strategy and purpose and to seek to build the greatest possible consensus across this House?
The Prime Minister:First of all, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about holding the conference in Northern Ireland. That was not without its difficulties and questions were asked, but not only was it a very successful and very well-managed and well-run conference—I pay tribute to everyone who was involved in it—but I think it was also one of the most peaceful G8s in terms of demonstrations. It was rumoured that one of the six tents in the place where all the tents were going to be put up belonged to some Dutch folk who happened to be on holiday. I also read this morning that one of the hopeful shopkeepers in Enniskillen had stocked up on vegan meals only to find that the protesters did not turn up in large enough numbers, so he now has a large supply going spare. It is a remarkable part of our country and it was good to bring the G8 to County Fermanagh.I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said on the aid pledge. It is right that Britain has made and kept its promises, and we use that to bring others up to the mark. Of course, the G8 always publishes an accountability report. A lot of these communiqués are impenetrable, but this is very simple and straightforward on who has promised what and whether they have kept that promise. We should go on publishing those reports. I say to any sceptics that for every pound they pay in tax, only 1p of it goes to overseas aid. I think that that is a good investment in the future of the world.I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the trade issue. It is good that we have made a start on EU-US trade and disappointing that we have not completed the Canada negotiations. He mentioned the single market. Of course, it is of benefit to Britain that we are in the single market as a trading nation and able to take part in deals with other parts of the world.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of public registries of beneficial ownership and asked why we had not achieved public registries everywhere. For many G8 Governments and leaders, this is a new issue at the top of the agenda. I am absolutely convinced that central registries of ownership are vital if we are to cut out corruption and corrupt payments from developing countries, and if we are to get to the bottom of tax evasion. We put that on the agenda, and every G8 country has agreed to an action plan, and some have committed to immediate registries. We must keep pushing on that agenda because it is so vital. We will consult on whether our registry should be public—I look forward to the consultation getting going—but no one should underestimate the importance of having a registry so that the tax authorities can get to grips with those problems.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about tax information change—yes, it will be open to poorer countries, but we must help them to take part and carry on with the programmes we have to help poorer countries to collect their taxes.
On Syria, the date of a conference was discussed, but the decision was taken that the most important thing is to get the substance right on the role of the transitional authority, its powers and such like, rather than set too quick a date, which might set us up to fail. Obviously, there is a real sense of urgency and we all want to see it happen in the weeks ahead.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the differences between Geneva I and the position we are now in. I would make two points to him on that. The Russians were backing off the idea of a transitional authority with full Executive powers, but have now fully reaffirmed it. That is important because no one wants to take part in negotiations that are for negotiations’ sake—they must be about something—and a transitional authority will not work unless it has full Executive power, including over the armed forces. As I said in my statement, the language and approach on chemical weapons is new, as is the language on humanitarian aid. Those new things were achieved at the G8.
I appreciate the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has tried to provide consensus on issues of foreign policy—we should always try to do that, and I hope we can re-forge that consensus in the months ahead—but the point I would make to him is this: I think that lifting the arms embargo in the EU was right. It sent a powerful signal that there is not a moral equivalence between Assad on the one hand and the official opposition, who want a democratic Syria, on the other. That has helped to add to the pressure. There is a huge danger that people will fall into the trap of believing Assad’s argument, which is that the only alternative to him is terrorism and extremism. We should stand for something else in the House and in this country—we should stand up for people who want democracy, freedom and the sorts of things we take for granted right here.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):I welcome the G8 pledges on Syria and fairer taxes worldwide, and particularly the Prime Minister’s closing remarks at the summit when he said:“If Britain weren’t in the EU you would not directly benefit from an EU/US trade deal”.Is it right that Europe means jobs?
The Prime Minister:The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Point 7 of the declaration states:“Land transactions should be transparent, respecting the property rights of local communities.”That is the commitment, and we now need to engage with Governments beyond the G8 and businesses to ensure that it is put in place.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab):May I congratulate the Prime Minister on proving once again the remarkable persuasive powers of parliamentary questions? As recently as 25 February, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) told me in response to a question on the Crown dependencies that“the Government currently has no plans to require disclosure of the beneficial ownership of UK property.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2013; Vol. 559, c. 301W.]Now they do. Will he further prove his flexibility in this area by persuading his right hon. Friend Lord Blencathra to end his work as a lobbyist for the Cayman Islands?
Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab):The activities of companies engaged in secret mining deals and salting profits away in tax havens are, in the words of Kofi Annan,“like taking food off the table for the poor”in Africa. What specific commitments has the G8 made to ensure mandatory country-by-country reporting of what companies pay in tax?