International Development Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Leigh: I am grateful for the Minister's serious and careful response. Is he saying that in these counties UNFPA is using our money to campaign against the coercive programme and is exerting a real influence? Is it going out and campaigning against the programme rather than ignoring it?

Hilary Benn: I have already referred to UNFPA's negotiation of an arrangement to start work in the 47 counties, to the attached conditions, and to the clear statement that, if the people responsible for these practices are not called to account and punished, it will not operate, so I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question. UNFPA has set itself a clear objective of seeking to engage in order to change practices that we all find deeply objectionable. If I recall correctly, even the hon. Gentleman acknowledged at the start of his speech that we might have had some influence. The Government believe that the programme has had an effect. The hon. Gentleman also quoted the US State Department as saying that success had been mixed, so there must have been positives as well as negatives. It is worth quoting the independent review committee on the fact that progress had been made. It said:

    ``This view was reinforced by officials at the US Embassy in Beijing, who noted that UNFPA was definitely a positive force in moving China away from precisely the kinds of practices and abuses alleged by PRI. By this measure, they said, the UNFPA programme has been extremely successful.''

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I must return to my earlier point. The Minister referred extensively to the report in the Library and I am grateful to my colleagues for furnishing me with a copy. The independent report commissioned by UNFPA was funded by UNFPA, yet it takes a dismal view of organisations that seek to justify their actions by commissioning and paying for reports on those actions. As I said earlier, independent scrutiny of UNFPA would make me feel far more comfortable about its activities. A self-confessed report about its activities is tainted by its involvement in them.

Hilary Benn: None could disagree with my hon. Friend on the principle of independent scrutiny. However, UNFPA would have been open to understandable criticism if, having received the allegations, it did not, as a responsible body, immediately take steps to investigate. If I understand correctly, the allegations were made in October and, judging by the dates on the cover of the report, UNFPA sent a team to investigate at the end of October. The report stands or falls by what it says. UNFPA encourages scrutiny; the Chinese authorities encourage scrutiny. Anyone can take up the offer to look at what is happening and form an independent view. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. Nobody underestimates the difficulty of bringing about change. Change and reform take time, but there is evidence of progress.

The amendment could be interpreted in different ways. An exchange between the hon. Member for Gainsborough and the hon. Member for New Forest, East teased out some of the difficulties. If it were accepted, the amendment would undermine our perfectly proper support for the work of UNFPA and IPPF to promote reform in China. Under one interpretation of the amendment, their work elsewhere in the world would be at continual risk of being ruled unlawful. The Committee is being asked to prohibit concepts as broad as directly or indirectly assisting or directly or indirectly facilitating certain activities; that would make it all too easy for a legal case to be made against any form of engagement. The Bill must not lay the Secretary of State open to challenge. The Government and the bodies that we are discussing engage with those countries and pursue our policies precisely because we wish to persuade them of the need for reform.

Mr. Leigh: This is where we get to the part of the Minister's speech, which is drafted by the civil servants, that rubbishes the wording of the amendment. I know that that is what Ministers have to do. I knew that Ministers would not accept the amendment, which was drafted by amateurs. We cannot get it right. However, there is a serious point behind the amendment. Can the Minister assure me that he will continue to take the matters seriously? Although the amendment will not end up as legislation, will he use the power of his office and the work of his officials to monitor UNFPA closely and put pressure on it? Will he seek independent scrutiny and really find out what is going on? He has the resources to do so; we do not.

Hilary Benn: The Minister may be expected to rubbish amendments, but that is not the spirit in which I approach the task—I did not take the hon. Gentleman to mean that it was. However, since we can consider only the wording before us, it is worth briefly going through some of the difficulties that it would create. It is hard on the one hand to engage genuinely in encouraging reform and on the other to have legislation on the statute book that would impede reform. That is in the context of the Government having, as I set out at the beginning of my speech, made it crystal clear that we unequivocally condemn coercive fertility control and that we do not and will not fund it. It is inconceivable to think of circumstances in which a future Secretary of State would do so. If that happened—as it could only under the most extreme interpretation of the powers available in the Bill—it would be susceptible to challenge in the courts, which might be expected to take account not only of the wording in the Bill but of the UK's commitments as signatories to the European convention on human rights.

I hope that the hon. Member for Gainsborough recognises from the content and spirit of my remarks that we take seriously the opposition that we have expressed to coercive practices. We wish to continue to work with UNFPA in promoting reform and in doing what it has explicitly said that it seeks to do. It, too, resolutely opposes coercive practices; the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that he was not accusing it of doing otherwise.

I hope that members of the Committee agree that the best way of reducing and then eliminating such practices in the long term is to continue to engage with reform in China, with all the difficulties and problems that that brings. It is right and proper that we continue to support the work undertaken by the UNFPA and the IPPF.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I chose to wait to hear what the Minister had to say before speaking. I believe that it is important for me to do so because the discussions have demonstrated that there are different views on all sides. I consider this very much free vote territory. I hope that the Minister feels that it was a good decision to encourage my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough to voice his concerns in the Committee. He feels deeply on the matter and his concerns are to some extent shared by some Labour Members.

We thought long and hard about how to facilitate the airing of such important views. As I am sure the Minister recalls, I asked on Second Reading for a Special Standing Committee in which we could hear the evidence. The hon. Member for Crosby underlined how special such a committee would be. Without it, any discussion at this stage in the Bill is a compromise. I hope that the Minister will understand that and try to facilitate the hearing of evidence.

I strongly urge the Minister to consider how proper hearings can be undertaken in the House. Hon. Members of all parties believe that it is important to investigate the matter properly, as acceptance or rejection of the points made often hinge on second-hand evidence. The truth is more likely to come out in an extended inquiry into the matter.

11 am

Last month, the US-based Population Research Institute sent a team to China to observe the so-called voluntary programme and interviewed women and officials in the very counties where UNFPA is active. The institute found the statements to be misleading, because although the quotas were said to have been removed, the policy persisted. That is one illustration of the confusion that surrounds the issue and the need for genuine investigation that would inform Parliament. The US Congress has held its own hearings, but because British taxpayers' money is involved, it would be right for Parliament to hold a similar in-depth inquiry. I reiterate that request to the Minister, whom I thank for the spirit in which he replied. The tone on both sides of the House reveals how keenly we know that the issue touches on free vote territory.

Mr. Leigh: I am grateful to hon. Members for taking part in the debate. It is important that the House has the chance to discuss the matter in detail. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, and especially grateful to the Minister for the seriousness with which he has approached the task. He is a good and skilful Minister who has made an effort to respond to some of my concerns. We cannot now, with the resources available to the Committee, take the process much further. We have given it an airing, but there is a dispute about what is going on in Sihui county. One research institute, whose findings have been criticised, is critical of the United Nations programmes in the county. It says that it has evidence to show that little or no progress is being made; however, the Minister advanced evidence that suggests the opposite. The hon. Member for Crosby made a powerful point: what is needed is independent evidence from an organisation that is not involved in the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is right; we shall have to return to the issue, which I suspect will be raised again on Report. If it is—I apologise to the Minister for saying that it might be—we may have a clear idea of the evidence. We have had a useful debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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