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With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council, which focused on the migration crisis affecting continental Europe.
Mr Speaker, the single biggest cause has of course been the war in Syria and the brutality of the Asad regime. But we have also seen huge growth in people coming to Southern Europe from Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Africa, all facilitated by the rapid growth of criminal networks of people smugglers.
There are over 8,000 migrants still arriving in Greece every week. And there are signs that the numbers using the central Mediterranean route are on the rise again. So far 10,000 have come this year.
Of course, because of our special status in the European Union, Britain is not part of the Schengen open border arrangements – and we’re not going to be joining.
We have our own border controls. And they apply to everyone trying to enter our country – including EU citizens.
So people cannot travel through Greece or Italy onward to continental Europe and into Britain. And that will not change.
But it is in our national interest to help our European partners deal effectively with this enormous and destabilising challenge.
We have argued for a consistent and clear approach right from the start. Ending the conflict in Syria. Supporting the refugees in the region. Securing European borders. Taking refugees directly from the camps and the neighbouring countries but not from Europe. Cracking down on people smuggling gangs.
This approach – of focusing on the problem upstream – has now been universally accepted in Europe. And at this Council it was taken forwards with a comprehensive plan for the first time.
As part of this plan, the Council agreed to stop migrants from leaving Turkey in the first place to intercept those that do leave, while they are at sea, turning back their boats, and to return back to Turkey those that make it to Greece.
There can be no guarantee of success, but if this plan is properly and fully implemented, in my view it will be the best chance to make a difference.
For the first time we have a plan that breaks the business model of the people smugglers, by breaking the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement.
Mr Speaker, I want to be clear about what Britain is doing – and what we are not doing – as a result of this plan. What we are doing is contributing our expertise and our skilled officials to help with the large-scale operation now under way.
Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Mounts Bay and Border Force vessels are alreadypatrolling the Aegean. British asylum experts and interpreters are already working in Greece to help them process individual cases.
At the Council I said that Britain stands ready to do even more to support these efforts.
Above all, what is needed – and what we have been pushing for – is a detailed plan to implement this agreement and to ensure that all the offers of support that are coming from around Europe are properly co-ordinated.
And our share of the additional EU money which will go to helping refugees in Turkey under this agreement will come from our existing aid budget.
But Mr Speaker, let me also be clear what we are not doing.
First, we are not giving visa-free access for Turks coming to the UK.
Schengen countries are giving visa-free access to Turks. But because we are not part of Schengen, we are not bound by their decision.
We have made our own decision which is to maintain our own borders. And we will not be giving that visa-free access.
Second, visa-free access to Schengen countries will not mean a back-door route to Britain.
As the House knows, visa-free access only means the right to visit. It does not mean a right to work. It does not mean a right to settle.
Just because for instance British citizens can enjoy visa-free travel for holidays to America, that does not mean they can work, let alone settle there. Neither will this give Turkish citizens those rights in the EU.
Third, we will not be taking more refugees as a result of this deal.
A number of Syrians who are in camps in Turkey will be resettled into the Schengen countries of the EU. But again that does not apply to Britain.
We have already got our resettlement programme and we are delivering on it.
We said we would resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over this Parliament, taking them directly from the camps. And that is what we are doing.
We promised 1,000 resettled here in time for last Christmas. And that is what we delivered.
The other 27 EU countries agreed to 2 schemes.
One to relocate 160,000 people within the EU, but by the time of last December’s Council, only 208 had been relocated.
The second to have a voluntary resettlement scheme for 22,500 from outside the EU, but by the end of last year, just 483 refugees had been resettled.
We said what we would do – and we are doing it.
And Mr Speaker, Britain has given more money to support Syrians fleeing the war, and the countries hosting them, than any other European country.
Indeed we are doing more than any country in the world other than the United States – spending over £1 billion so far, with another £1.3 billion pledged.
We are fulfilling our moral responsibility.
Mr Speaker, turning to the central Mediterranean, the EU naval operation we established last summer has had some success – with over 90 vessels destroyed and more than 50 smugglers arrested.
HMS Enterprise is taking part, and we will continue her deployment through the summer.
What is desperately needed is a government in Libya with whom we can work so we can co-operate with the Libyan coastguard, in Libyan waters, to turn back the boats and stop the smugglers there too.
There is now a new prime minister, and a government whom we have recognised as the sole legitimate authority in Libya.
These are very early days but we must do what we can to try and make this work.
And that is why at this Council I brought together leaders from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Malta, to ensure that we are all ready to provide as much support as possible.
Mr Speaker, turning to other matters at the Council, I took the opportunity to deal with a long-standing issue we have had about the VAT rate on sanitary products.
We have some EU wide VAT rules in order to make the single market work.
But the system has been far too inflexible – and this causes understandable frustration.
We said we would get this changed – and that is exactly what we’ve done.
The Council conclusions confirm that the European Commission will produce a proposal in the next few days to allow countries to extend the number of zero rates for VAT, including on sanitary products.
This is an important breakthrough.
It means that Britain will be able to have a zero rate for sanitary products – meaning the end of the tampon tax.
And on this basis, the government will be accepting both the amendments put down to the Finance Bill tomorrow night.
Mr Speaker, my Rt Hon Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green spent almost a decade campaigning for welfare reform and spent the last 6 years implementing these policies in government.
In that time we have seen nearly half a million fewer children living in workless households, over 1 million fewer people on out of work benefits and nearly 2.4 million more people in work.
And in spite of having to take difficult decisions on the deficit child poverty, inequality and pensioner poverty are all down.
My Rt Hon Friend contributed an enormous amount to the work of this government and he can be proud of what he achieved.
And Mr Speaker, let me say this.
This government will continue to give the highest priority to improving the life chances of the poorest in our country.
We will continue to reform our schools.
We will continue to fund childcare and create the jobs.
We will carry on cutting taxes for the lowest paid – in the last Parliament we took 4 million of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether and our further rises to the personal allowance will exempt millions more.
Combined with this we will go on with our plans to rebuild sink estates tohelp those with mental health conditions to extend our troubled families programme to reform our prisons and to tackle discrimination for those whose life chances suffer because of the colour of their skin.
And Mr Speaker in 2 weeks’ time we will introduce the first ever National Living Wage – giving a pay rise to the poorest people in our country.
All of this is driven by a deeply held conviction that everyone in Britain should have the chance to make the most of their lives.
And Mr Speaker, let me add: none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the actions of this government – and the work of my Rt Hon Friend the Chancellor – in turning our economy around.
We can only improve life chances if our economy is secure and strong.
Without sound public finances you end up having to raise taxes or make even deeper cuts in spending.
You don’t get more opportunity, you get less.
And it’s working people who suffer.
So we must continue to cut the deficit, control the cost of welfare, and live within our means.
We must not burden our children and grandchildren with debts we didn’t have the courage to pay off ourselves.
Securing our economy, extending opportunity: We will continue with this approach in full because we are a modern, compassionate, one nation Conservative government.
And I commend this statement to the House.