With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the most recent European Council – which covered Ukraine, the Eurozone, terrorism and extremism.
On extremism, let me first address the case of the 3 British schoolgirls from East London leaving their families and attempting to travel to Syria.
All of us have been horrified by the way that British teenagers appear to have been radicalised and duped by this poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism while at home on the internet in their bedrooms. They appear to have been induced to join a terrorist group that carries out the most hideous violence and believes girls should be married at 9 and women should not leave the home. Their families are understandably heartbroken – and we must do all we can to help.
Mr Speaker, we should be clear that this is not just an issue for our police and border controls. Everyone has a role to play in preventing our young people being radicalised – whether that is schools, colleges, universities, families, religious leaders and local communities. And that is why we have included a duty on all public bodies to prevent people being radicalised as part of our Counter-Terrorism and Security Act.
But of course stopping people traveling to join ISIL is vital.
When people are known risks, whatever their age, they go on our Border Warnings Index and we can intervene to prevent travel and seize their passports. But what this incident has highlighted is the concerning situation where unaccompanied teenagers like these – who are not a known risk – can board a flight to Turkey without necessarily being asked any questions by the airline.
We need new arrangements with airlines to ensure that these at-risk children are properly identified and questioned - and the Home Secretary and Transport Secretary will be working with the airlines to bring this about. Whenever there are concerns, police at the border should be alerted so they can use the new temporary passport seizure powers to stop people travelling.
Second, given reports that one of the girls was following as many as 70 extremists online, this case underlines the importance – and this was covered at the EU too – of the work we are doing with social media companies.
We have made progress with these companies who are working with the police and Home Office to take down extremist content online. And at the EU council we agreed to do this across the European Union.
But we also need greater co-operation over contacts between extremists and those who could be radicalised. Internet companies have a social responsibility. And we expect them to live up to it.
Third, we need to continue to press for our police and security services to have access to Passenger Name Records for as many routes as possible in and out of Britain. And we need this to happen right across the European Union, which was the subject of most substantive discussion at the European Council. These records provide not just passenger names – but also details about how tickets were bought and the bank accounts used and who people are travelling with, offering vital information to help us identify in advance when people are travelling on high risk routes and helps us to identify terrorists.
I raised this explicitly with my Turkish counterpart in December and we will continue to press to get this vital information wherever we need it.
Until recently – in spite of British efforts to get this issue prioritised – discussions on these Passenger Name Records in the EU had been stuck. But, following the terrible attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, it was agreed at the European Council that EU legislators should urgently adopt a “strong and effective” European Passenger Name Records directive.
That was probably the most important outcome of this council.
What I would say is, Mr Speaker, we have to fix this.
It would be absurd to have this exchange of information between individual EU Member States and countries outside the EU but not amongst ourselves.
Most of the people travelling to Syria do not go there directly, they often take many different routes within the EU before even getting to Turkey and so we need this information badly.
The Council also agreed that law enforcement and judicial authorities must step up their information sharing and operational co-operation, and that there should be greater co-operation in the fight against illicit trafficking of firearms.
Turning to the situation in Ukraine, I met President Poroshenko ahead of the European Council.
He thanked Britain for the role we have played in ensuring a robust international response at every stage of Russia’s illegal aggression. We were the first to call for Russia to be expelled from the G8. We have been the strongest proponent of sanctions, and a vital ally in keeping the EU and US united.
President Poroshenko welcomed the diplomatic efforts that had been made leading up to the Minsk agreements. But he agreed that it was essential to judge success not by the words people say but by the actions they take on the ground.
And Mr Speaker, we should be clear about what’s happened in the 10 days since the European Council met. Far from changing course, Russia’s totally unjustifiable and illegal actions in Eastern Ukraine have reached a new level; with the separatists’ blatant breach of the ceasefire to take control of Debaltseve, made possible only with the supply of Russian fighters and equipment on a very large scale.
Mr Speaker, it is clear what now needs to happen. The ceasefire must be respected in full by both sides. Heavy weapons need to be drawn back, as promised. People have to do the things they have signed up to.
And Mr Speaker, all eyes should now be on Russia and the separatists. Russia must be in no doubt that any attempts by the separatists to expand their territory – whether towards Mariupol or elsewhere – will be met with further significant EU and US sanctions.
Russia must change course now – or the economic pain it endures will only increase. In the coming days I will be speaking to fellow G7 leaders to agree how we can together ensure that the Minsk agreements do indeed bring an end to this crisis.
We are also looking urgently at what further support we can provide to bolster the OSCE mission. And the International Development Secretary is today committing an additional £15 million to support the humanitarian effort.
However, at this moment the most important thing we can do is show Russia that the EU and America remain united in being ready to impose an ever-increasing cost on Russia if the government does not take this opportunity to change course decisively.
Mr Speaker, turning finally to the Eurozone.
Immediately before the Council started, I met the new Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.
With him, and then again at the Council, I urged all those involved to end the standoff between Greece and the Eurozone over its support programme. And we welcome the provisional agreement subsequently reached last Friday evening. Britain is not in the Eurozone. And we are not going to join the Eurozone. But we do need the Eurozone to work effectively.
The problems facing Greece and the Eurozone continue to pose a risk to the world economy and to our recovery at home. That is why we have stepped up our Eurozone contingency planning. And prior to the Council I held a meeting in Downing Street with all the key senior officials to go through those plans and ensure that vital work continues apace.
This crisis is not over.
Protecting our economy from these wider risks in the Eurozone also means sticking to this government’s long-term economic plan.
It is more important than ever that we send a clear message to the world that Britain is not going to waver on dealing with its debts and that we retain the confidence of business – the creators of jobs and growth in our economy.
We must continue to scrap red tape, cut taxes, build world-class skills and support exports to emerging markets. And we must continue our investment in infrastructure.
Today’s figures show that in 2014 the UK received a record level of lending from the European Investment Bank to support the infrastructure projects in our National Infrastructure Plan.
Mr Speaker, today we have the lowest inflation rate in our modern history; we have the highest number of people in work ever and we have the biggest January surplus in our public finances for 7 years – putting us on track to meet our borrowing target for the year.
Put simply, we have a great opportunity to secure the prosperity of our nation for generations to come. We must not put that in jeopardy. We must seize that chance by sticking to this government’s long-term economic plan.
And I commend this statement to the House.