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Westminster Hall

Thursday 14 March 2013

[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]

FCO: Human Rights Work

[Relevant documents: The FCO’s human rights work in 2011, Third Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 116, and the Government response, Cm 8506.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swire.)

1.30 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I am pleased to open this debate on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report on the human rights work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are lucky to live in a functioning, flourishing democracy, underpinned by the rule of law. Sometimes, we are accused of going too far in our quest to protect the sanctity of human rights, particularly those of criminals who seek refuge on British shores, but it is a price that we pay for freedom and a fair society. The question is whether we have a moral duty to export the values and rights that we hold so dear. Of course we do, but perhaps not at the expense of our national interests. Matching the UK’s support for human rights and democratic values with its pursuit of trade, security, energy and strategic interests is central to much of the Foreign Office’s work.

In addressing the conflict between interests and values, a good starting point is the Prime Minister’s speech to the Kuwait national Parliament in February 2011:

“For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice.”

A careful balance needs to be struck between our interests and our values, and the Committee’s report on the Foreign Office’s human rights work in 2011 explored that. In general, we found that the Foreign Office, which I congratulate on its report, was doing a lot of excellent work, at times under difficult circumstances, but we believe that Ministers should be bolder in acknowledging contradictions between the UK’s interests overseas and its human rights values. Such contradictions are a theme that recurs constantly in inquiries by the Foreign Affairs Committee. A good example is our report on the Arab spring; some witnesses thought that a conflict between the two could not always be avoided.

Giving evidence in the current inquiry into Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Sir Tom Phillips, a former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the Committee only a couple of weeks ago about working with the grain of particular societies in Saudi Arabia to advance UK values. He added, significantly:

“I never interpreted the working-with-the-grain mantra as meaning that one should not be clear when necessary about our principles on any particular issue.”

Throughout our human rights inquiry, the issue surfaced again in relation to Bahrain and Burma.

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The Committee’s human rights report concluded that, in pursuing interests alongside values, the UK runs the risk of operating double standards. It urged the Government to be more transparent and to set out the contradictions in the public domain. The Government rejected our recommendation, but I invite the Minister to consider whether the approach that we proposed would in fact be more open and realistic. Could it expose the Government to less criticism in the long run, without sacrificing our principles?

The Committee noted that nearly two thirds of the FCO’s report was taken up with commentary on human rights in countries of concern. The section on countries of concern is a valuable source of information, but it has difficulties, such as certain controversial omissions and vague criteria, although I note that the Government response says that the FCO will report fully on the criteria in its next report. We warned that the list of countries of concern would lose credibility if political and strategic factors were allowed to colour decisions on designation. Such decisions, we said, should be based purely on the assessment of human rights standards and should stand up to objective comparison.

Bahrain is a case in which we questioned the Foreign Office’s judgment. At least 35 people died and 2,000 were arrested following repression in early 2011. The report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, although substantial and respected, is being implemented slowly, and there is still much to be done. I am keen to keep an open mind on the issue, as we are still in the midst of our inquiry into the UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and have yet to hear their Governments’ side of the argument. However, the injustices in Bahrain in February and March 2011 were undeniable, and the events in Bahrain did not seem any less serious than those in other countries that were listed as countries of concern. I know that the Foreign Office is not persuaded—it says that Bahrain has a better record than many countries in the region—but it is only fair to give notice to the Minister that one of the first things that Committee members will do when the FCO publishes this year’s report is to turn the pages to see whether Bahrain has been designated a country of concern, as we believe it should be.

Deportation with assurances was another area highlighted in the Committee’s report. Countries receiving deportees from the UK give assurances that their human rights will be respected on their return. Arrangements are already in place with Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Algeria and Morocco. As a Committee, we are aware of the widespread criticism that promises by Governments with a chequered record of treatment of detainees are, to quote one of our witnesses, not worth the paper that they are written on. The case of Abu Qatada, which has provoked great anger and frustration in recent weeks, is a prime example. I welcome the Government’s response that David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism, will conduct a one-off review of the policy on deportation with assurances and that the conclusions will be made public. However, the Committee asks the Foreign Office to provide more information on the arrangements for monitoring detention conditions. The Foreign Office agreed in its response to provide details of the monitoring bodies and the arrangements for following up monitoring. When will that information be provided?

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We also concluded that the DWA arrangements are of such significance in Parliament that greater accountability is warranted. We suggested that the text of the memorandum of understanding underlying the arrangements should be laid before Parliament and that Members should have 14 days to object. The Government rejected the recommendation, pointing out that memorandums of understanding are not legally binding, but I hint to the Minister that the FCO missed the point slightly. We are talking about agreements of considerable political significance and concern to Members throughout the House. I urge him and his Foreign Office colleagues to rethink.

There is some debate about whether pressure should be applied in public or in private. We devoted a section of our report to the FCO’s use of public pressure such as sanctions, boycotts and the like, but sometimes private pressure is the way forward. Sir Tom Phillips, the former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told us that he strongly advocated private pressure for reform on human rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia, though he did not rule out public pressure.

It is generally accepted that there are occasions on which public pressure, particularly concerted multilateral action, can be valuable in indicating widespread disapproval of a foreign state’s human rights practices; whether or not it works is another matter. It would not be difficult to argue that the EU sanctions on Iran have been effective in contributing to the current parlous state of the country’s economy, but it would be harder to make that argument for the sanctions imposed on Burma by the EU.

The EU agreed last April to a partial suspension of its sanctions against Burma, for one year. The Committee was satisfied that enough progress had been made towards reform in Burma to justify that. We believe, however, that there is still some way to go. By current estimates, there are still some 200 political prisoners in Burma. We urge the FCO to press for better access for independent observers to Rakhine state, where violence against the Rohingya minority reached a peak last year.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council will need to agree whether to extend the partial suspension of sanctions next month. We would be grateful to the Minister if he told us what the FCO’s preferred outcome is for those discussions. If he is in favour of continuing the partial suspension, will the UK make that conditional on further commitments to reform by the Burmese Government? Will he clarify his statement in answer to a parliamentary question in February, when he said that, if unanimity at the EU Foreign Affairs Council cannot be reached,

“sanctions will fall away in their entirety”?—[Official Report, 28 February 2013; Vol. 559, c. 668W.]

On denying entry visas on human rights grounds, hon. Members will be familiar with the tragic case of Sergei Magnitsky—a lawyer who died in pre-trial detention in Russia in November 2009, following the denial of medical treatment. No one has yet been convicted of any offence in relation to his death. In passing, I register my dismay at the decision of the Russian authorities to proceed with the posthumous prosecution of Mr Magnitsky for defrauding the state. I hope that the Foreign Office will make it clear to the Russians that that is a vindictive and callous action, which we condemn.

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The UK can refuse to grant a visa for a non-European economic area national to enter the UK if there is

“independent, reliable and credible evidence that an individual has committed human rights abuses”.

The Government have come under pressure to deny UK entry visas to those people thought to have played a part in Mr Magnitsky’s death. Perhaps the Government have already done exactly that, but we do not know, because the Government’s policy is not to routinely publicise the identity of those who are banned from entering the UK. We concluded that there was value in publicising the names of those who were denied entry to the UK on human rights grounds, if that power was used sparingly.

The Government response confirmed that they could disclose the names of those denied entry “when justified”. That is all very well, but how often do the Government feel that publication is justified? It seems to me that it is very rarely, and I wonder whether the Government are missing an opportunity to draw attention to our determination to uphold high standards of human rights by shaming those who blatantly disregard them.

As we have touched on the subject of Russia’s questionable human rights record, I also draw attention to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, who fell out with the Kremlin after challenging official corruption. He is currently serving his 10th year in a prison cell, on grounds that are distinctly flaky and based on a trial that did not comply with the standards that we would recognise in the west.

In conclusion, I reaffirm our praise for the FCO’s work on this highly sensitive and morally complex area. The FCO is working in the real world, and the Committee’s job is to support it as a critical friend. We hope that some of our recommendations will help the FCO to strike a better balance, so that its global influence and credibility grow stronger. We live in an age of 24/7 news, where intelligence can be disseminated worldwide at the click of a button. We also have the unprecedented emancipation of previously suppressed peoples, and they might be suspicious of the motives of foreign countries meddling in their affairs. It would therefore be a naive Foreign Office that imagines that it can pretend to act solely in the interest of human rights, when it has its own citizens and national interests to protect.

1.44 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to be called early, Mr Havard. I begin by taking up the question on Russia, which my friend the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) left us with. The chairman of the Duma international relations committee, Alexei Pushkov, was on “Newsnight” yesterday, and I am sure the Minister will have been shown a transcript of what he had to say. He said—I am paraphrasing, because I do not have a transcript—that Blair and Brown were hostile to Russia and raised questions on human rights and other matters, but that David Cameron’s attitude was different and the British Government have a new approach. Will the Minister clarify the Government’s position, given that there have been discussions with the Russian Foreign Minister and Defence Minister in London in the past week?

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Is there a new approach that downgrades human rights concerns about events in Russia and ignores the murder by polonium on the streets of London of a man with connections with Russia and the UK? We also have outstanding issues, which date back to the harassment of our ambassador in Moscow, and I understand that harassment of British diplomats is ongoing. There are also issues relating to the British Council. To coin a phrase, has there been a reset of relations with Russia, such that human rights and concerns of a bilateral nature are no longer on the agenda, or is Mr Pushkov mistaken? I hope he is, but it would be interesting to hear from the Government whether that is the case.

The second thing I will talk about is Sri Lanka. I have a long-standing constituency interest in Sri Lanka, because many of my constituents fled from the terrible violence of the Sri Lanka civil war. I also have many constituents who came to Britain several decades ago and did not flee from that war. They are happily settled in the UK and have a different narrative to tell. I am increasingly concerned that there is a policy to remove people back to Sri Lanka following the civil war’s end when we do not have the necessary guarantees about the human rights situation and the treatment of those individuals on their return. In our Select Committee report on the matter, we referred to concerns of that kind, as well as to the policy and relationship of the FCO and the UK Border Agency on decisions about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and the forced removal of Tamil people living in the UK. The Government have recently had to respond to a freedom of information request from an organisation called Freedom from Torture, which I understand raised some further concerns.

When the Select Committee raised the issue, we were told that there are no credible allegations on the torture of individuals who have been returned to Sri Lanka. We were also told that the Government do not yet have substantiated evidence that people who have been returned have been mistreated. We asked about the processes they go through, how they check, who they speak to and how they gather information. A substantial section of the Government response refers in passing to those issues, but I will not quote it now. Do the Government still believe that there are no credible allegations? Are there still no substantiated cases where there is evidence of mistreatment?

I understand that in response to a freedom of information request, which was issued on 6 February this year, it was suggested that a number of people who had been forcibly returned to Sri Lanka have been subsequently given asylum, or at least a leave to remain of some kind, in this country. How many of those are Tamils who were returned due to concerns about their mistreatment? I have been told—I do not know whether it is correct—that there are either 13 or 15 people in that category. It would be helpful to know how many of those allegations of torture were found to be credible, because that information is not in the public domain.

Given that we have concerns about what is happening in Sri Lanka—about the treatment of opposition figures and journalists, and about the very large military presence in the north of the island—is our Government’s position still the same, as regards the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is supposed to be held this year in Colombo? Some other Commonwealth countries —no doubt this will be debated later this afternoon—have said that they will not send their Prime Ministers or

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leaders at a higher level. Canada has made its position on that clear. Is it still the British Government’s position that it is too early to judge? If so, what criteria will need to be met before our Prime Minister attends that Commonwealth meeting?

Finally, I want to raise a general point about the need for human rights issues to be at the centre of the approach to such matters internationally. I was concerned when the UK Border Agency and the Home Office started to have a lead role on some of these issues. Potentially, there is a downgrading of the concerns that are expressed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other organisations that look at those matters worldwide. If the approach in Government is that policy priority is given to economic benefits—or other matters, but that human rights issues are subservient—and if we have a policy that is driven by the desire to keep down the number of foreign nationals coming to the UK, that raises concerns about how we will deal with people who are at risk of persecution, torture, and even their lives, because other criteria are being given priority by the Government. I hope that that is not the case, and I will be grateful to hear the Government’s response.

1.52 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am pleased to follow the present Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), and his predecessor, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). I very much endorse the comments of my hon. Friend, when he said that the Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between the Government pursuing their legitimate commercial interests, on one hand, and also standing up fearlessly for human rights on the other. The same point and representations have been made by the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which I chair, and the Government would do well to acknowledge that inherent conflict, rather than expressing a position of trying to pretend that no such conflict exists.

I say to the Minister that I shall raise a number of points, and I entirely understand that he may not have the time or information to reply to them immediately at the end of the debate. I will be very glad to receive replies subsequently in writing, if he so wishes.

I want to start with China, which remains a one-party, totalitarian, police state. Rightly and necessarily, it continues to feature in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s list of countries of concern with regards to human rights. As the FCO’s human rights report reminds us, when there were calls in China for a “Jasmine Revolution” to follow the Arab spring:

“Public order and security bodies detained and harassed lawyers, bloggers, human rights campaigners and other activists, without allowing them recourse to their legal rights.”

Very considerable numbers of human rights activists are in jail, including, of course, the immensely courageous Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, who is still in prison serving an intolerable sentence for the so-called, catch-all offence of “subversion”.

I want to raise a particular aspect of human rights in the context of China, and it concerns the Government’s policy on arms exports. China is rightly subject to an

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arms embargo. However, in the latest figures published by the Government on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website, for the third quarter of 2012, the Government have stated that they approved arms export licences for components for military electronic equipment; equipment for the use of military communications equipment; military communications equipment; military electronic equipment; and technology for military communications equipment. Will the Minister explain how it is that when the British Government have signed up to the EU arms embargo on China, they are still none the less approving military arms export licences to China for the type of equipment that, on the face of it, could be used for internal repression and the violation of human rights?

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South and the hon. Member for Ilford South, I want to discuss Russia, which is rightly listed as a country of concern by the FCO. From my perspective and that of most, if not all, in the House, under President Putin, human rights in Russia are going backwards, not forwards—particularly in the area of the freedom to express, the freedom to criticise and the right of peaceful protest. The laws that are now being put through the Duma, which is controlled effectively by those who support President Putin, are particularly concerning. The laws include, for example, fines for unsanctioned demonstrations and measures to oblige NGOs to register as “foreign agents”.

I noted with interest and concern what the mould-breaking former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said about the new Putin laws in a recent BBC interview:

“The common thread running through all of them is an attack on the rights of citizens.”

In the face of those new laws being passed and an increasingly hostile environment to basic human rights in Russia, will the Minister, in his reply, give us any assurance that the British Government will do all they can to protect British nationals in Russia, and, in particular, locally employed staff of organisations such as the British embassy, the British Council and those who are working for international human rights NGOs in Russia?

The country that probably has the worst human rights record in the world—indeed, this is stated in the Foreign Office’s human rights report—is North Korea. The previous Labour Government took what I considered to be an entirely justified step—we were one of the first European countries to do so—to re-establish a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang in order to give us the possibility to exercise some degree of leverage on human rights issues, among other things, in the capital, and also to provide a point of contact for human rights and humanitarian NGOs working in North Korea. With the arrival of Kim Jong-un as the “supreme leader” of North Korea—that is how he styles himself—we have in recent weeks and days seen an alarming escalation of hostile actions and statements. We have seen a ballistic missile test. We have seen a nuclear explosion. We have seen the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea claiming nullification of the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953. We have seen the cutting of the hotline to Seoul. Very recently, a public statement was made that North Korea was ready for “all-out war”.

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In light of the dismal and concerning developments that I have set out, are the British diplomatic staff reporting a reduction in their ability to further the human rights agenda and objectives of the British Government in North Korea? Can the Minister assure us that the Government will do all that they can to support our embassy and NGOs in North Korea in the extraordinarily important and difficult human rights and humanitarian work that they do?

I now come, with considerable regret but absolutely no apology, to an area that I think that I have raised in every one of these debates since they were first initiated—Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As with my previous contributions, I emphatically do not do so in any one-sided or partial manner. The Hamas rocket attacks into Israel—I have been to the communities in Israel where those rockets have landed—are wholly unacceptable and totally intolerable. Indeed, I regard Hamas as a disgrace to the Palestinian cause and a very serious impediment to the Palestinian wish to achieve proper democratic progress towards an independent and viable Palestinian state.

That said, the Israeli Government cannot escape the criticism that they encounter, both within Israel to some extent and more widely internationally, for the relentless and continuing violation of basic Palestinian rights. I consider the FCO to be entirely correct in including Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a country of concern in its human rights report.

Mike Gapes: Does my friend agree with me that the formation of a Government in Israel today is a chance for a renewed emphasis on and impetus for the restarting of negotiations that will lead to the two-state solution that is the only viable way to deal with this conflict?

Sir John Stanley: I agree with my friend that that is an opportunity, but to be wholly frank and honest, I have grave doubts about whether it will be seized, because I fear that since the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, there simply has not been a majority in the Knesset that is really willing to embrace the concept of creating a separate, independent, viable Palestinian state.

In recent years, we have seen the Israeli Government ending the movement of Palestinians between Gaza and Israel, turning Gaza into one of the biggest prisons, de facto, in the world. We have seen the relentless and continuing removal of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem, with the clear political objective of preventing East Jerusalem from ever becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. We see the continuation of the intolerable violation of Palestinian human rights on the west bank. To expose that, we need go no further than the Israeli NGO—I stress that it is an Israeli NGO—B’Tselem in its last annual report. It said:

“In the West Bank, two and a half million Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation while settlers live in enclaves of Israeli law within the same territory. Individual acts of violence by extremist settlers periodically capture the headlines, and discriminatory and inadequate law enforcement is indeed a concern. However, the major human rights violations result from the settlements themselves: their extensive exploitation of land and water, the massive military presence to protect them, the road network paved to serve them and the invasive route of the Separation Barrier, which was largely dictated by the settlements.”

Having made many visits to the British consulate-general in Jerusalem, I am well aware of the sterling and excellent work that is done by the Foreign Office from the consulate-

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general in trying to support and uphold Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories. However, in my view, a step change will be needed in the Israeli Government’s policy towards the Palestinians and towards the occupied territories if we are to see a genuine improvement in human rights. Does the Minister see any such prospect? From where I sit, and having seen the human rights deterioration taking place over so many years, I fear that we are moving to a position in which Gaza continues for the foreseeable future as one gigantic prison, East Jerusalem becomes an area where house after house belonging to a Palestinian family is taken over by the Israelis and, sadly, the west bank loses the possibility of becoming the core of an independent Palestinian state and becomes what I can only describe as a middle-eastern version of a Bantustan. Perhaps I am being too gloomy. I hope that I am, but I fear that I am not, given the progress of events.

I now come to a different part of the world and a different human right. I want to raise the case of Colonel Kumar Lama, a Nepalese citizen who came temporarily to the UK and who has now been arrested in the UK on the grounds of allegations of torture, committed not in Britain but in Nepal and committed not against British nationals but against Nepalese nationals. I wish to inform the House that although I have no registered interest to declare, I am the chairman of the all-party Britain-Nepal group.

I am raising this issue not because I want to take any position or make any comment on Colonel Lama’s specific case, but because it calls into question some very important human rights policy issues for the Government. In his letter to me this week, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said that the arrest of Colonel Lama has been carried out to fulfil the UK’s obligations under the UN convention against torture. I cannot believe that Colonel Lama’s case is an isolated one. I cannot believe that Colonel Lama is the only foreign national in the UK against whom allegations have been made of torture committed against non-British nationals in foreign countries. Surely there must be scores and possibly even hundreds of others in the same category, so the key policy issue that I have to put to the Minister is this. Will he now confirm that, in the light of the Colonel Lama case, the British prosecuting authorities and the police will now arrest, in fulfilment of the UK Government’s obligations under the UN convention against torture, all other foreign nationals in Britain against whom there are allegations of torture committed against non-British nationals in foreign countries? That is the central policy question the Colonel Lama case raises. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

The key human right of freedom of expression embraces, in my view, freedom of speech, a free media and freedom to demonstrate peacefully. Freedom of expression is becoming ever more important in this electronic age, which gives Governments who are so minded greater and greater ability to suppress human rights and human rights activists. It enables Governments to combine unprecedented access to information acquired electronically with an unprecedented ability to carry out surveillance electronically.

I shall turn from freedom of expression generally to developments in that key human right in the Commonwealth. I am glad to say that we seem to have

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achieved a breakthrough on freedom of expression as far as Commonwealth countries are concerned. The first declaration of Commonwealth principles, made in Singapore in 1971 and followed by a repeated declaration of the principles 20 years later in the 1991 Harare declaration, was a major step forward in human rights for the Commonwealth, but in neither the Singapore declaration nor the Harare declaration were Commonwealth countries able to agree on including freedom of expression as a key Commonwealth principle and human right.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Like the right hon. Gentleman, I welcome the Commonwealth declaration, which is a good step forward, but there must be concerns about the treatment of lesbian and gay people, in Uganda and Malawi for example. Although the Governments appear to be able to sign the declaration, it remains to be seen whether that signature will translate into any change in attitude, policy or law in either country.

Sir John Stanley: The hon. Gentleman is correct. In some countries to which he refers, national law conspicuously contradicts the Commonwealth charter that has just been announced.

I am glad to say that we now seem to have had a significant breakthrough as far as Commonwealth countries are concerned. In the text of the Commonwealth charter, which the Foreign Secretary has just laid before the House as a Command Paper, we were all glad to see, for the first time, a statement that freedom of expression is an essential Commonwealth principle. I must say that the wording of the paragraph is not entirely as I would have wished. It contains no reference to the right of peaceful demonstration or protest and instead of referring to “a free media” refers to “a free and responsible media,” which will of course provide grounds for countries that regard any form of criticism of the Government of the day as irresponsible to snuff out freedom of expression. We have made a significant step forward however. Freedom of expression is now within the Commonwealth charter—something we have never achieved before.

In conclusion, I wish to add my congratulations to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on producing this substantial report—all 388 pages, all well worth the publication cost. I have said before, but I want to put on record again, that we owe the initiative entirely to the late Robin Cook, who began these particular FCO annual reports. I consider it imperative that the FCO continues to produce these annual human rights reports—and produces them in hard copy, please. It is equally imperative that they should be scrutinised annually by the Foreign Affairs Committee and that the Committee’s scrutiny comes annually before the House.

Mr Dai Havard (in the Chair): Before I call the other speakers, may I advise hon. Members of the time? I would like to give the two Front Benchers and Mr Ottaway a few minutes to respond and I have two speakers on my list, so it would be helpful if, between the two of you, you kept to eight to 10 minutes, with interventions.

2.16 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Havard. I am pleased to take part in the debate.

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I shall take as my starting point the end of the speech by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on how the late Robin Cook, as Foreign Secretary, introduced the concept of an annual human rights report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In return, the Foreign Affairs Committee must monitor it and put forward proposals, and then we get a debate in Westminster Hall, which seems to be a poor return for the amount of work put in by both the FCO and the Committee, particularly as the debate is limited to an hour and a half. I reiterate what I said last year, and I have said every year about the debates: the debate should be for at least three hours, in the main Chamber on a Thursday afternoon or another appropriate time—possibly in Government time. If we are to be taken seriously as a country concerned with human rights and with the influence that we can bring to bear on human rights around the world, we have to take ourselves seriously. Although I respect all hon. Members taking part in the debate, it needs to be given greater prominence. I am sure the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), would agree, because it would mean that he could speak in the main Chamber, rather than here.

Richard Ottaway: I am inscrutable.

Jeremy Corbyn: He is utterly inscrutable. He and I had an interesting debate in Cambridge two weeks ago, and he was less inscrutable then.

I wanted to raise many issues, but I shall try to be brief to take on the points you made, Mr Havard, about the length of the debate. We should consider the fact that the parliamentary process of human rights monitoring is complex. We have the Human Rights Act 1998, which applies to UK law. I am a strong supporter of it and our participation in the European convention on human rights and the European Court Of Human Rights. You, Mr Havard, chair the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which the 1998 Act set up. I welcome the Joint Committee and its work. It has been a valuable way to monitor what has gone on, but I remain to be persuaded that, with all the other responsibilities the Foreign Affairs Committee has, it would not be better to have an international human rights Committee of the UK Parliament to deal with international human rights issues and to put forward the strong cases that many Members make on many occasions about human rights issues around the world.

Things have moved on, in that Britain is a signatory to the International Criminal Court and our courts have pronounced a universal jurisdiction for human rights offenders and potential war criminals where there is prima facie evidence against them. That was a huge step forward. We have spent a lot of time raising human rights in Chile and the need to put General Pinochet and others on trial for what they did there, so I welcome the universal jurisdiction declaration. Much less welcome however is that Parliament has reduced its applicability by limiting the arrest warrant to an application by the Director of Public Prosecutions rather than an application from an individual citizen to Westminster magistrates court. That has not done our reputation much good.

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When the Minister responds to the debate—obviously there are many issues and I guess he will not be able to reply to all of them—I would be grateful if he could answer this narrative issue. I welcome the way in which our representatives at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which I quite often attend on behalf of a non-governmental organisation, regularly and effectively take up the issue of the death penalty; they are to be commended on that. It is quite noticeable that on every single report that comes up from a country that retains the death penalty, the UK representative gets up and objects to its use in that jurisdiction; I absolutely welcome that.

I am interested in taking international human rights and human rights law further. The International Criminal Court is an enormous step forward—there is no question about that—but the non-participation of certain countries in it, particularly the United States, obviously weakens it. Since the first world war, the US has had mixed feelings about involvement in any international organisation. What pressure was the Minister able to bring to bear on the United States regarding its participation, or indeed on the many other countries that still need to participate?

I am an officer of the all-party group on human rights, and a vast number of human rights abuse issues are brought to our attention. We try to take them up in the best way we can with our very limited resources. I want to bring up a general issue, but I will first deal with some specific countries.

I notice how rapidly human rights issues can change. In the “Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report”, one country that has not been listed for particular attention is Bangladesh. Yesterday, there was a demonstration outside this building concerning the current wave of attacks on minorities and the conduct of the war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh. Amnesty International reported last week:

“A wave of violent attacks against Bangladesh’s minority Hindu community shows the urgent need for authorities to provide them with better protection…Over the past week, individuals taking part in strikes called for by Islamic parties have vandalised more than 40 Hindu temples across Bangladesh.”

The report goes on to describe the attacks against religious minorities. To the credit of those who attended the small demonstration yesterday in Parliament square, there were representatives from Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim organisations. They wanted to see the retention of the secular constitution in Bangladesh and to question the conduct of the war crimes tribunal.

I have no problem whatever with any country deciding to investigate what were the most abominable abuses of human rights and the war crimes committed during the independence war of 1971. However, the case would be strengthened if international observers were specifically appointed to attend all the sessions, to give it a degree of support and approval, which was done in war crimes tribunals in other parts of the world. It is not to say that the war crimes tribunal is a bad thing—I think it is a good thing—but observer presence should be strengthened.

While I understand the deep anger that many people feel and the terrible sense of loss that many have suffered, I cannot, under any circumstance, support the death penalty for anything; indeed, that is now a narrative of our policies. I hope that we will make that clear, and also make it clear that the mobs that are attacking minority communities or anyone who is not seen to approve what

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they want are totally unacceptable. We should be saying that clearly to the Bangladeshi Government. I do not blame the Bangladeshi Government for the activities of the mobs, because those activities are largely directed against the Government, but all Governments have a responsibility to protect minorities and people in what is an extremely difficult situation. There is a large Bangladeshi community in this country.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling rightly drew attention to the situation in Palestine. I was in Gaza three weeks ago, on a delegation with colleagues from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties, organised by Interpal. The issue of human rights and the treatment of prisoners are very current. Issues such as Palestinian parliamentarians still being held in prison, the frequent use of executive detention and the hunger strikes that have taken place, and continue to take place, among the prisoners are not going to go away.

Effectively, 1.7 million people are in a prison called Gaza, with very limited access to Israel and no access whatever, as far as I can see, to the west bank through Israel. The population is imprisoned unless Egypt can be persuaded to open the Rafah crossing fully, which would in turn make Gaza part of Egypt rather than part of Palestine. That may well be the intention of some, but we must be firm that the continued corralling of people in Gaza is an abuse of their human rights on a collective scale.

There is something tragic in talking to brilliant young people in Gaza. Some 55% of the population are university graduates—the best educated population in the whole region—but unemployment is at 70%. Their life chances and career possibilities are limited. It is a cauldron, of course, that explodes from time to time, and unless the fundamental issues are addressed, that cauldron will continue to explode.

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said about Sri Lanka and the treatment of Tamil people. I hope that the Government will continue to put all the pressure they can on the Sri Lankan Government. Above all, I hope that the embassy and particularly the Home Office will follow up cases in which someone is forcibly removed to another jurisdiction.

My final general points are about thematic issues. Dalit people in India and many other countries suffer a collective abuse of human rights because of a perverted view of Hinduism. Hundreds of millions of people suffer from that. We have an opportunity to support what the House of Lords has done and defend its amendment to our legislation that would mean that it will be illegal to discriminate by caste and descent in this country. That is illegal in the Indian constitution, but collective discrimination takes place on a massive scale. While the Department for International Development has done well in targeting aid programmes, which ensures that that does not happen in any project that we fund, we must be as tough as possible with the Indian Government and other Governments in whose territory discrimination by caste and descent takes place.

Around the world, there are individual and collective abuses of the human rights of people in the circumstances that we have outlined. There is also an appalling lack of human rights, dignity and access to democracy for large numbers of desperately poor migrants around the world. They are the people who are exploited in big cities and who die when they try to cross the Mediterranean, get

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to the Canary islands in the Atlantic or travel through Mexico to get to the United States, where they hope to gain some kind of economic salvation. We must address the collective human rights issues of millions of people around the world who suffer the most appalling privations and often death while trying to find a place of economic and political sanctuary. It is up to us to be more alert and aware of the causes. That is surely what being in a democratic Parliament is about.

Mr Dai Havard (in the Chair): I must correct Mr Corbyn: it is not my Committee. The good work is down to Dr Hywel Francis who is the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, not me. It is probably because we are both Welsh that we have a great interest in human rights.

2.29 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and the Committee on securing this debate; it is important that we have it. Perhaps it would be better done at a more popular time of the week and on the Floor of the House, as it raises important issues regarding human rights and other Government policies and Departments that affect human rights around the world. That is one of the themes I will pick up on today.

I first want to congratulate the coalition Government, of whom the Liberal Democrats form a part, on how they have been prepared to take up human rights issues. There are easy targets in the human rights report—such as North Korea, Sudan and Iran—but, significantly, it also covers countries that are potentially embarrassing for the UK to talk about, because of their economic importance. Such countries raise the kind of conflicts talked about by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), between our diplomatic and perceived economic interests, and the importance of speaking out about human rights.

It is therefore important that Saudi Arabia is mentioned in the report, that China is covered in detail and that such very sensitive areas as Israel and the Palestinian territories are also included. It is notable that the Foreign Secretary has been increasingly robust and assertive in his comments on Israel. He has talked about Israel not just generally, but specifically in relation to the settlements. He has also spoken about the potential for the European Union to take further steps in its relationship with Israel—that is very beneficial economically—and the consequences that might flow from Israel simply not abiding by the international community’s expectations about respecting Palestinian human rights. My right hon. Friend remarked on the complete unacceptability of targeting Israeli civilians by organisations such as Hamas, and those remarks were obviously very well made.

I want to get across to the Minister my theme about human rights in respect of other Departments in addition to the FCO. The FCO has a very proud record of speaking out on human rights and of raising human rights even when it is difficult to do so. However, many interrelated areas—such as trade, security and energy—involve other Departments.

The arms trade has been mentioned. The coalition was quite right to revoke a whole series of 170 or more arms licences across north Africa and the middle east. The licences were inherited from the Labour Government,

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as we have sometimes pointed out, but even the coalition did not act on them quickly. It was only the Arab awakening that highlighted the importance of revoking those licences, because arms were being supplied to almost every regime, of whatever record on human rights, right across north Africa and the middle east, including Syria, Libya and other dictatorial regimes then in place.

In that respect, it is important to highlight the arms trade treaty negotiations that will soon resume in New York. The Minister who represents us at those talks, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has a very strong record of arguing for a robust treaty. However, we must not allow the qualms expressed by the United States last year at those negotiations to scupper that important global process and the progress that is being made towards a robust arms trade treaty. Last year, when the American election was imminent, its position was understandable, but we must not allow domestic American politics to jeopardise a massively significant international initiative that I hope will help to protect human rights all over the world and save millions of lives.

On security policy, the well-established building security overseas strategy, which has been mentioned, is an area of co-operation between the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and FCO. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister how the strategy is developing. We have heard less about it in recent months than we did earlier in the coalition Government, but if anything, it has become more important.

For example, it would have been much better if the UK, and perhaps the French, had put pressure on the Malian Government many years ago more clearly to recognise the human rights of the Tuareg and of other peoples in the north of Mali, and had not provided the breeding ground first for the civil war and then for the incursion by foreign al-Qaeda fighters and others. That has made the situation in Mali so much more difficult to resolve now, so that it has had to involve military intervention. The building security overseas strategy ought to look at the whole of the middle east and north Africa region and other countries round the world to see where we can use human rights to prevent instability arising in the first place and prevent even a discussion of military intervention.

Energy policy also has an impact. We think of it as completely unrelated to human rights, but if, for example, we decide to accept European biofuel targets, that will impact on the likelihood of illegal incursions into rain forest areas in countries such as Brazil. In turn, that will impact on the human rights—particularly, the collective rights to the land—of tribal peoples around the world who have very few people to speak out for them. On that front, I lobbied the Government very hard to sign or ratify International Labour Organisation convention 169, which helps to defend tribal peoples’ rights around the world. I very much regret that the Government decided not to sign or ratify it, and I very much hope that the decision will be reconsidered.

In the closing minutes of my speech, I want to second and welcome some of the comments made by other Members. Those made by my right hon. Friend the

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Member for Tonbridge and Malling about China are very important. The issue is significant not only in relation to human rights within China’s borders—where those borders lie is arguable; it is now accepted that Tibet is part of China, but the ongoing human rights situation there is very serious—but in relation to the influence, support and friendship that China has given to some quite odious regimes over the years, from Burma to North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe. If China is to become a responsible member of the family of nations, I am afraid that it really needs a responsible record on human rights around the world. Unfortunately, the current example in Syria shows that it is another country to add to the list, alongside Russia. Both Russia and China need to step up to the plate and to support the international community in taking on the murderous Assad regime.

I welcome the comments made by the Select Committee in its report, particularly on the need for a more open and objective approach to the definition of countries of concern, and the points about Bahrain were well made.

The Committee was right to raise the issue of the removal and deportation processes. High-profile cases, such as the case of Abu Qatada, have coloured the whole public debate. We must not return people to countries where they are at risk of torture and there is a risk that human rights are abused. In a way, it was important that it was not the dreaded European Court of Human Rights, but the British Special Immigration Appeals Commission, that eventually kept Abu Qatada in the country. That case is still to be resolved, and we should probably not discuss its details in this Chamber. It is important, however, that our approach to such issues is not dictated by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, but by a real concern for human rights.

Finally, it is important to have a robust arms trade treaty, and Britain should play a strong part in that. We should not only preach and produce reports about human rights, but act in international forums in a way that reinforces human rights. That is sometimes a difficult balance to strike. It was difficult for Robin Cook, with his ethical foreign policy. It was probably quite difficult for the former right hon. Member for Midlothian, the proud Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, all the way back in 1876, with his Midlothian campaign, when he was the first politician to make human rights absolutely central to British politics. I am very proud to stand in that tradition. I am also proud to support the coalition Government when they have raised human rights, but they must act as well as speak.

2.39 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I join in the congratulations to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and to Committee members for bringing their report to Westminster Hall today. However, I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about the need to spend much longer debating it. We had the same problem last year, and we could easily spend a whole day on it in the main Chamber to do justice to the issues raised. I hope that that matter will be considered next year.

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Both the Chair of the Select Committee and the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), have brought their considerable experience to bear in their speeches. If we look around the Chamber today, we will see that the entire political spectrum is covered, and yet we are all committed to pursuing the issue of human rights and trying to ensure that the UK gives the matter greater priority. That is the one thing that has come through in all the speeches we have heard this afternoon.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling used his expertise to talk about North Korea and Russia, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). Last year, I went to Moscow to observe two days of the trial of Pussy Riot, which is an issue that is quite dear to my heart. This year is the 10th anniversary of Khodorkovsky’s arrest, and the two band members were held in the same glass box that was used to contain him when he came to court. From the people I met on that visit and from the numerous events that I have been involved in since calling for the release of the two remaining members of Pussy Riot who are still being held in penal colonies, it is clear that the human rights situation in Russia has deteriorated significantly. Human Rights Watch said recently that 2012 saw the worst crackdown since the fall of the Soviet Union. It will be interesting to see how that is addressed in next year’s report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South mentioned the deportation issue in Sri Lanka. I am also speaking in the next debate about Commonwealth day, so I will be covering that issue then as well. His points were well made. We need to revisit the issue of who we are deporting to Sri Lanka and the situation that they might face there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) discussed in some detail the matter of Israel and Palestine. I will not refer to it here, as it is a topic that is discussed in quite some depth elsewhere. For example, in Foreign Office questions last week, about half of the questions on the Order Paper were about Israel and Palestine. None the less, let me echo the concerns that have been expressed, especially about the failure of international law to make any progress. It is all very well to condemn the human rights situation, the illegal settlements, the route of the wall and, of course, the abuses on the other side, but there is always this sense of déjà vu; what can the Foreign Office do to address those issues, make some progress and try to ameliorate the situation for the many people who suffer human rights abuses?

Let me turn now to the detail of the report. Last year’s report noted the Foreign Office’s decision to omit Bahrain from the list of countries of concern in its 2010 human rights report, which was described as a “glaring omission” by Human Rights Watch. The Government’s response last year argued that many of the most serious events in Bahrain fell outside the 2010 period covered by the report, but that they undertook to ensure that next year’s report—the one we are discussing now—would address them. None the less, Bahrain is still not included as a country of concern, and the Committee has once again concluded that it should have been.

The FCO’s report included a case study of Bahrain, but Human Rights Watch has described it as “very weak”. Will the Minister elaborate on the reasons for

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including Bahrain as a case study rather than as a country of concern, and tell us who was involved in taking that decision?

Will the Minister commit to introducing more transparency and clear criteria for the designation of countries of concern, especially as Human Rights Watch has described the current rationale as “vague and unconvincing”? I also echo the questions that were posed about the Bahrain grand prix. It was a matter that we discussed in some detail last year. There seemed to be a lack of clear guidance as to whether it was appropriate for the 2012 grand prix to go ahead. Will the Minister advise us on the FCO’s position on the 2013 grand prix?

Boycotts are also mentioned in the report. As some Members have said, they can be a blunt instrument if they are used in a seemingly arbitrary way. As the Select Committee reported:

“It is difficult to discern any consistency of logic”

in the Government’s approach last year. Indeed, with the Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine, the Minister seemed to suggest that the Government would keep the attendance under review. It was said that if the England team progressed to the later stages of the tournament, the Government might be prepared to attend, but they would boycott the earlier stages, which seemed rather inconsistent and gave the impression that the Government were willing to attend if they received good PR and a nice photo opportunity back at home but were not too bothered about the earlier stages of the game.

Conflicting interests were a prominent concern in the Select Committee report as they were in the 2010 report. The Committee said:

“It is inevitable that the UK will have strategic, commercial or security-related interests which have the potential to conflict with its human rights values.”

The previous Minister with responsibility for human rights, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), advised that the Government saw no inherent contradiction between the Government’s pursuit of commercial interests overseas and the promotion of human rights, and the Government’s official response this year stated again that they “do not agree” with the Committee’s assessment.

It is troubling if the Government are not alive to the danger that their pursuit of financial investment from some countries could compromise or overshadow their message on human rights. Does the Minister at least acknowledge that there is the potential for conflict, and will he set out the Foreign Office’s strategy for managing that and ensuring transparency so that the Government’s human rights work is not compromised?

Only last month, there were reports that the Cabinet was split over how robust the UK should be on China’s human rights record given the country’s economic importance. Yesterday, along with other Members, I met a couple of constituents from Tibet, who were here to lobby us about continued human rights abuses in their country. I had to say that I strongly suspected that the matter of Tibet was not a priority for Ministers when they visit China, and I said that it should be.

The Prime Minister’s answers to my parliamentary questions suggest that he did not discuss the use of the death penalty during his recent visit to India.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I did.

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Kerry McCarthy: I was about to mention the fact that the Minister did, but the Prime Minister did not, despite India’s recent resumption of the use of the death penalty, and the abolition of the death penalty being included among the priorities of the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group. As the Minister has just advised me from a sedentary position—I was going to mention it anyway—he discussed the death penalty with representatives in India, but if

“the promotion and protection of human rights”

really is at the heart of UK foreign policy, as the Foreign Secretary states in his foreword to the 2011 report, does the Minister not think that that should be the case at every level of Government and that it should not be given to—if the Minister will forgive me for saying so—a junior Minister in the Department rather than the Secretary of State to raise such issues?

Similarly, when I asked the Prime Minister about what discussion there was of human rights when he visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia, he would say only that

“no subject is off limits”.—[Official Report, 13 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 143W.]

That rather gave the impression that human rights had not been discussed in detail with the Government. Will the Minister advise us on whether human rights were discussed and, given that Saudi Arabia is listed as a country of concern, will he tell us what the Government’s policy is on ministerial and prime ministerial visits to countries of concern, and whether there is clear guidance about whether and when human rights should be included on that list?

The Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia brings me neatly on to the arms trade. It is deeply concerning that the Committee found that the Minister with responsibility for human rights was not even aware let alone consulted about which countries appeared both on the FCO’s list of countries of concern and as one of the priority markets for arms exports for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Will the Minister assure us that in future there will be more co-ordination between the two Departments, and can he outline the FCO’s guidance on arms exports to countries of concern? With the imminence of the UN conference on the arms trade treaty, will he assure us that the UK will be the champion of a strong treaty and not a broker for a weak one?

Given the short time we have left, I will leave my comments on Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth day debate. None the less, I echo the concerns that have been raised about the human rights situation there.

I was in Burma over the weekend and had the fantastic opportunity to attend the first-ever conference of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. It had been banned for 25 years from holding a party conference. It gives one such hope to visit a country where there has been progress on both human rights and democracy. We hope that in 2015, there will be democratic elections which will see Aung San Suu Kyi become President of Burma. I wanted to mention my visit because it shows that improvements can happen. Last year, the EU took the decision to suspend sanctions. Given what I have observed of the situation in Burma, I think that that was the correct decision and indeed it is something that the NLD supported as well.

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Finally, it was troubling that the Government were so reticent in providing information on the number of staff working full-time on human rights. I know that the Foreign Affairs Committee eventually ascertained that there are 14 staff working across the 28 countries of concern and four case-studies countries. Does the Minister have any plans to increase that number?

To conclude, I welcome the Government’s continuing commitment to their annual human rights report and, as I have already said, I hope that next year we can have a fuller and more public discussion of the 2012 report in the main Chamber.

Mr Dai Havard (in the Chair): May I ask you, Minister, to give Mr Ottaway a couple of minutes at the end of the debate?

Richard Ottaway indicated dissent.

Mr Dai Havard (in the Chair): Mr Ottaway is indicating that he does not need more time.

Richard Ottaway: I give my time to the Minister.

Mr Dai Havard (in the Chair): Excellent. Thank you very much for that. I call the Minister.

2.50 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): Mr Havard, I welcome the opportunity to set out in this debate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s work on human rights. I begin by thanking the Foreign Affairs Committee for its positive and constructive engagement with us on our human rights work. I am delighted to speak for the Government today on behalf of Baroness Warsi, the Minister with responsibility for human rights.

Given the slight shortage of time, I am rather inclined to support the idea that we should debate these matters for longer and I will simply be unable to respond to all hon. Members who have spoken. I have made a note of hon. Members’ questions—they are extremely good questions—and I will try to answer them, but if I do not I will commit to writing my replies.

At the outset of the debate, there was some discussion and some concern about the UK’s overseas interests and our human rights agenda, as if they were in some way contradictory. I do not really share some of the cynicism that was expressed, because the promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of our foreign policy. Britain stands for democratic freedoms, universal human rights and the rule of law. We believe that individual demands for a better life can only be truly satisfied in open and democratic societies, and that it is peaceful, open economies that allow trade and investment to flourish.

I turn first to the 2011 report that we are debating, and our work in that year, and then I will move on to human rights developments during the course of 2012.

In response to the Committee’s feedback on the 2010 report, we made a number of changes to the 2011 report. We featured an in-depth look at the Arab spring and a chapter on our human rights priorities, and we reintroduced case studies to highlight issues of

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concern in countries whose overall record did not merit their inclusion in the countries of concern list.

In terms of achievements in 2011, the UK made a significant contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. I shall limit myself to mentioning just three countries in particular. On Libya, we were instrumental in negotiating UN Security Council resolutions that paved the way for NATO action to protect civilians threatened by Gaddafi’s forces. Across the middle east and north Africa, the £110 million Arab partnership fund helped us to build more open and free societies on key issues such as empowering women, and promoting democracy and the rule of law. In Burma, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary witnessed at first hand the positive changes that have taken place in the country when he became the first British Foreign Secretary to visit Burma since 1955. I subsequently visited Burma in December last year, and was able to visit Rakhine state, which is a subject of great interest to the House.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Swire: I will take just one intervention; I ask other Members to let me make some progress.

Jeremy Corbyn: I will make a very brief intervention. We obviously welcome all the democratic changes in Burma, but in his discussions in Burma did the Minister express any concern about the treatment of Muslim minorities and other minorities in the country at the present time?

Mr Swire: Yes, I can confirm that I have been doing a lot of work on that issue. I was the first Minister from Europe to go to Rakhine; I went to Sittwe and five different camps, and ever since then I have been raising the issue of the Rohingya people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, asked a number of questions about Burma, including about the sanctions against Burma. The EU Foreign Affairs Council will review the sanctions against Burma in April. We have always said that the outcome of that review will depend on the progress that the Burmese Government have made against the benchmarks set out in the council’s conclusions of 12 January, including the need for meaningful progress on reconciliation with armed ethnic groups.

My hon. Friend also asked about political prisoners in Burma, which is another issue I have raised repeatedly with the Burmese. Independent experts estimate that there remain about 240 political prisoners in Burma, and we welcomed the announcement by the Burmese Government that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to all jails and prisoners. We also welcomed President Thein Sein’s announcement on 7 February that the prisoner review mechanism will contain civil society leaders and Members of Parliament. We really want to see that happen.

On the issue of Rakhine, which was mentioned earlier, I have just told the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about my work there.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) raised the issue of Russia and the whole question of Mr Magnitsky. Yesterday both

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my Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe met the Russians and raised these issues with them repeatedly. As is well known—my right hon. Friend will know it if he has read the papers today—the Foreign Secretary met Russia’s Foreign Secretary Lavrov yesterday, and we will continue to raise these issues and bring those responsible for Sergei Magnitsky’s death to account. We also raised concern over the new measures restricting freedom of expression and putting pressure on civil society. It is worth saying that we fund a number of projects to support Russian civil society, and we continue to meet and provide support to those who are subject to harassment. I give an assurance that we will continue to do all we can to protect British nationals and our staff in Russia, as my right hon. Friend asked us to do.

Mike Gapes: On the issue of Russia, will the Minister give way?

Mr Swire: I must continue. All right, I will give way.

Mike Gapes: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Can he just say on the record that the remarks by the chairman of the Russian Duma’s international relations committee on “Newsnight” yesterday were wrong?

Mr Swire: I did not see those remarks, so I will go and study them and then get back to the hon. Gentleman.

The 2011 report also highlighted the progress that we have made against our six specific human rights priorities. These priorities are: torture prevention; the death penalty; women’s rights; freedom of religion or belief; freedom of expression online; and business and human rights. In 2011, we saw significant strengthening of our focus on torture prevention through the publication of torture and mistreatment reporting guidance and the strategy for the prevention of torture, which we understand is the first such national strategy in the world.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling raised the issue of Colonel Lama of Nepal. As the Minister with responsibility for Nepal, I know about the particular incident and I just say that the Government are very mindful of our obligations under the UN convention against torture, and every case will of course be subject to the due process of the law.

In 2011, we also reviewed our death penalty strategy, and we continue to pursue abolition, restriction, or—at the least—adherence to international minimum standards. The long-term trend is positive and we judge that the number of countries now carrying out executions has dropped by half since the mid-1990s.

Since publication of the 2011 report, the Foreign Secretary has launched the preventing sexual violence initiative to strengthen and co-ordinate international efforts to prevent and respond to atrocities involving sexual violence, and to break down the culture of impunity around such crimes. As I speak, the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting is in its final sessions and we hope for a more positive outcome this year. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development and other ministerial colleagues have been active in lobbying for a strong set of agreed conclusions. Incidentally, I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s campaigning work to end female genital mutilation.

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As the Minister with responsibility for human rights, Baroness Warsi has made freedom of religion or belief a personal priority. She hosted a cross-regional meeting of Ministers in London in January to build political momentum to combat discrimination against people based on their religion or belief. We also remain a strong supporter of freedom of opinion and expression, not least on the internet. We speak out on countries that oppose or abuse this right, pressing them to uphold their international obligations. As the Committee knows, we played a leading role in supporting the development of the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, which were endorsed by the UN in June 2011. We have developed a strategy to implement and promote those principles.

In February 2012, we published our updated national action plan on UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which highlighted work in Afghanistan, Iraq and the middle east, as well as in the UK’s own security operations. We became the first country to publish human rights guidance for our overseas security and justice sector work, and we reviewed and improved our already robust arms export controls.

In April last year, the Foreign Secretary announced an additional £1.5 million in funding for human rights projects, with particular emphasis on the countries of concern covered in the 2011 report. We have also made changes to the ways in which we bring in external expertise, which I think was one of the recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to inform and challenge our policy formulation.

The Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group has met twice yearly since it was first established in December 2010. This group of experts has brought valuable challenges to us on many human rights issues. We consulted the group on criteria for deciding the countries of concern for the 2012 report. We intend to report fully on the methodology used in the coming report. The report will be published in April and we look forward to the Committee’s response. I hope that the report will be published in hard copy too; I shall ensure that the comments by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling are taken on board.

We should never be complacent about human rights. No matter what progress is made, there remain huge challenges all over the world. We shall remain steadfast in support of human rights and democracy in the middle east and north Africa as difficult transitions take place. The Arab partnership initiative will help us to do that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, the hon. Member for Islington North and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South raised a number of issues involving Bahrain. I am well aware of the Committee’s interest in Bahrain and the middle east. We welcome the national consensus dialogue that has begun and encourage all parties to remain engaged. However, the ongoing tensions are of concern, particularly the events around the 14 February anniversary. We condemn violent acts by any side, which will only hinder efforts towards reform and reconciliation. We remain supportive of the reforms underway and encourage Bahrain’s Government to show renewed energy in implementing them.

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We will continue to focus on countries where we have not seen any improvement in human rights and democracy, such as Iran, where the regime continues to violate human rights with impunity.

Hon. Members mentioned North Korea, and we are concerned about the situation there. We take every opportunity to try and influence North Korea’s Government and work to improve the lives of vulnerable groups. However, given the lack of progress, we will co-sponsor a resolution in the current session of the Human Rights Council to recommend that the UN establishes a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses there.

We share the Committee’s concern, particularly that of the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), about human rights in Sri Lanka—we might discuss that in the debate following this one—not least relating to disappearances, political violence, free expression and judicial independence. More needs to be done, particularly on political settlement, accountability and reconciliation. It is worth putting on the record again that the Government have yet to make a decision about attending this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. We look to Sri Lanka, as with any other CHOGM host, to show its commitment to upholding the Commonwealth’s values. All Commonwealth member states have agreed the Commonwealth charter setting out these values, which was signed by Her Majesty the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth, earlier this week. I look forward to debating these and other issues later this afternoon.

We acknowledge the Committee’s strong interest in deportations with assurances. We firmly believe that we should be able to deport foreign nationals who are engaged in terrorist-related activities, but we will not deport someone if there are substantial grounds for believing they will face a real risk of torture in their home country, or where the death penalty will be applied. We recognise the considerable interest in the House in our DWA arrangements. Although there is no statutory requirement to lay memorandums of understanding before the House, the Government will, of course, continue to notify Parliament by written ministerial statement when new MOUs are signed and to place copies in the Library.

Both Syria and the Sahel, mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), remain high on the Government’s agenda. We condemn the ongoing human rights violations and abuse in Syria in the strongest terms. We call on all sides to put an immediate end to the violence, to respect international humanitarian and human rights laws, and to pursue a genuine Syrian-led political transition. We will continue to do all we can to help bring to account those responsible for human rights violations and abuses. The International Criminal Court should play a role in this.

We are encouraging partners in the Sahel region to build their capacity to tackle terrorism in a human rights-compliant manner. Allegations of human rights violations by members of the Malian armed forces are of concern. In line with Security Council resolution 2085, those responsible for violations and abuses must be held accountable. The UK has pledged 40 trainers for the EU training mission to the Malian armed forces, three of whom are civilians who will provide human rights training.

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This has been a constructive debate. I have left a number of issues that I would dearly love to address, not least the situation in Israel and with the Palestinian authority, and the hope we all have in President Obama’s visit there shortly. However, there is a time limit in this debate. If any questions remain unanswered, I will be happy to write to hon. Members who asked them.

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Backbench Business

Commonwealth Day

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: The role and future of the Commonwealth, Fourth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 114, and the Government response, Cm 8521.]

3.4 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): In this debate I can think of no more pre-eminent parliamentarian to lead us off than Sir Alan Haselhurst.

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): Mr Hollobone, I am grateful to you for calling me to speak in that generous manner. I am not sure that I can quite live up to that billing, but I appreciate the opportunity to address you in the Chair. I am also grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing, at a congested time in the parliamentary programme, that we could have a debate on the Commonwealth.

It has been my initiative, as chairperson of the international executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to try to encourage universally throughout the Commonwealth a debate on a wide canvas, not necessarily to any rigid format, but to allow issues connected with the Commonwealth to be raised, as much as anything else just to hoist the flag and show that there is membership of the Commonwealth in each of the legislatures, that it ought not to be forgotten and that there should be a regular review of some issues affecting it. It is a rather good week, apart from being the week in which Commonwealth day occurs, because the new charter has been signed by Her Majesty the Queen. That in itself is a notable event, which we are right to recognise in this House.

It might be asked, what really is the Commonwealth? To even pose the question is a reminder that many people are unaware of the existence of the Commonwealth in their daily lives. That is worrying in respect of the Commonwealth concept having meaning and if people are to understand its breadth and the opportunities it provides. It is, importantly, a voluntary association. Nobody has to be a member of the Commonwealth. The modern Commonwealth is not a British Commonwealth; it is the Commonwealth of nations, in which there should, indeed, be parity of esteem. It is an example of countries slowly edging together, towards wider circles of understanding and co-operation, beginning to see that there are opportunities that were perhaps not recognised 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

The Commonwealth embraces one third of the world’s population, and half of the population of the Commonwealth is under 25. We should be particularly concerned about that young section. Just as we tend to accept the world as it is at the moment we are born, so the Commonwealth can pass over the heads of many young people, weighed down, perhaps, by what they see as immediate issues around them, rather than realising that they are also part of this greater entity. The Commonwealth must have meaning for them. That is why there is particular importance in the promulgation of the charter, affirming the commitment of the

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Commonwealth to the principles enshrined at Harare, Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago, and focusing on respect for human rights and equality for all, the rule of law and good governance.

It is correct that we should ask all members of the Commonwealth continually to assess themselves, and be assessed, against those values, but some degree of tolerance has to be allowed. There is never going to be a rigid standard to which at all times all nations are going to conform, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, looking at our systems of government, it could be argued that none of us are perfect. It is not too clever for British politicians to say to their partners in the Commonwealth, “You should be doing more about the representation of women in your Parliament”, when we in this country have not attained the levels that we would like to have achieved.

We cannot always expect the laws in certain other Commonwealth countries to conform to where we are; we have changed our minds on some issues, and the laws in our country have developed. We need to be careful about the extent to which we scold other countries for not marching in step with us. What is needed is a process of persuasion—sometimes rather slow persuasion—to move countries towards what might be seen as full conformity with the values of the charter.

In concluding the wider debate that preceded this one, the Minister mentioned the upcoming Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka. I visited that country for last year’s Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference. I had the privilege of giving a lecture in the series commemorating the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka’s former Foreign Minister. He was a contemporary of mine at university, whom I admired then and whom I grew to admire even more during his legal and political career. In my lecture, I laid down views as to what our friends in Sri Lanka needed to do to give confidence to their partners in the Commonwealth and to ensure there was full-hearted support for their hosting of the Heads of Government meeting later this year. It is perhaps worrying that they have not yet demonstrated, to the complete satisfaction of their friends in the Commonwealth, that all is moving in the right direction.

There must, therefore, continue to be persuasion so that countries understand the importance of adhering to the values of the charter. The Commonwealth ministerial action group must take a more active role in chivvying, to ensure that people are not allowed quietly to forget, reject or abrogate the principles behind the charter. The CPA has a valuable role to play in that respect. It is not as effective as it could be. It is divided into nine regions, and a lot of valuable work is done, but more could be done if there was the will and if there were the resources.

What does the CPA do? It concentrates on strengthening parliamentary institutions. One has only to look around to see all sorts of possible improvements. Some Members of the House would say that improvements have to be made in the way Westminster works. We never reach a destination; there is always a desire to see how much more we can improve. However, bigger steps need to be taken in certain other countries. Many of those countries

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will look to this country for guidance, including help from Clerks about procedural matters or creating robust Standing Orders.

Given the churn rate of Members of Parliament in the different jurisdictions, people find themselves elected and then wonder what they have to do next. We can all learn from the interchanges that take place under the CPA’s auspices; we can learn from each other. We might say to someone, “Well, that’s interesting: I have that problem, but I didn’t know you had it as well. How do you tackle it?” There is mutual advantage in such exchanges. Similarly, strengthening parliamentary institutions is a topic for almost never-ending discussion.

There are also the diplomacy aspects. When parliamentarians talk to one another, whether in structured seminars or on their margins, when one meets afterwards for a meal or a drink, we begin to understand each other’s problems and points of view. That is not megaphone diplomacy; it is about quiet discussion and respecting the people we are with. There lies the strength of the interchanges I mentioned. Such things are, no doubt, easily mocked by the press. If someone strays outside their own jurisdiction to visit another, that may be seen as being somehow a diversion from their main duties, but it should not be, because such exchanges are extremely valuable. Strengthening Parliaments across the Commonwealth to improve the quality of governance is the key to their ultimate success in ensuring the prosperity and welfare of their people.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): My right hon. Friend is talking a lot of sense about the interchange and networking opportunities in the Commonwealth. Is he aware that more than 70 organisations are linked inside the Commonwealth? They cover journalists, accountants, actuaries, local government officials and endless others, all of whom have an expanded network within the Commonwealth.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Yes, I am indeed aware of that. However, given that I happen to be the chairperson of the CPA, I thought I would concentrate on the organisation for which I have some responsibility, rather than range over the whole field. Of course I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says, as well as the need for many of the organisations he mentioned to work together. In some cases, what these different interests are trying to do overlaps, so if they co-operate and pool their resources, they can increase their impact and usefulness.

The CPA has the advantage of embracing the small states and the overseas territories, in a way that is not mirrored at Heads of Government level. We also have the separate Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians organisation, but it is not yet strong in all the CPA’s nine regions, and I am seeking to put that right. I am also seeking to have established the principle that the Commonwealth Youth Parliament should meet every year, because it has met just five times over the past 50 or 60 years, which is not enough. Young people expect continuity; they do not want to be picked up every now and then, asked, “Are you interested? Have you got something interesting to say?” and then forgotten about. There needs to be a continuing process whereby young people’s voices are heard at the highest level.

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What is the Commonwealth? It is an extraordinary association of nations. When we celebrate it on Commonwealth day, we are entitled to extol its rich heritage and recognise its enormous reach. In 2013, I should like to see a significant deepening of social, economic, cultural and sporting links between Commonwealth countries—our nations, our citizens and, pre-eminently, our parliamentarians.

The Commonwealth’s theme this year is opportunities through enterprise, and that is opening up a whole new possibility for Commonwealth countries. In the past, their economic relationships were perhaps imbalanced; now there are more opportunities for trade and for taking a common position on trading matters in wider world bodies.

We will let ourselves down if we fail to engage in a continual programme of reform and renewal. An annual check-up such as this, at parliamentary level, is valuable and should continue. There is so much to think about; I have merely scratched the surface in general terms. There is so much to work towards. I fervently believe that all nations in our Commonwealth gain strength from developing their links and deepening their friendships.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. After that excellent start, let me announce how we will proceed with the rest of the debate. I will ask Sir Alan to respond to the debate for a couple of minutes before 4.30 pm. At 3.55 pm, I will call the Opposition spokesman. At no later than 4.10 pm, I will call the Minister. Several people have tried to catch my eye who have not informed the Speaker they wish to speak, but, being the nice chap I am, I will do my best to ensure everybody has a say. Given the numbers wishing to speak, I could impose a time limit, but I am not going to; I am going to rely on your good judgment. However, it would be helpful if you could restrain yourselves and make five-minute speeches; if you go over that, I am afraid somebody will lose out.

3.19 pm

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I have the privilege of serving under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on the Administration Committee and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of leadership, and I think that the whole House would agree that he has provided leadership to the CPA at a worldwide level, in the 18 months since he took chairmanship of the executive committee.

I am conscious of the time and will restrict myself to brief observations on five areas. As has been mentioned, the CPA has a vital parliamentary strengthening role, as do the Commonwealth institutions themselves. The right hon. Gentleman was right to speak of a two-way learning process. The process at the general election was not all it could have been. There were queues in many cities, because of poor administration. In the light of the way many other Commonwealth countries run their elections, we may need to learn from them. There was also noteworthy turnout on a couple of recent occasions. I am wearing my Falkland Islands cufflinks for this debate: I received

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a letter today from the Minister about the 92% turnout in the referendum. If only we could have that in Northamptonshire or Dunfermline, I am sure that we would get similar acclamation. Turnout was similar in recent elections in overseas territories such as the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, at 80-plus per cent, which shows that we have things to learn. I hope that the Government will make a commitment to invite the CPA to send an election observer mission to the UK, as it did in 2010, for the next general election.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the new Government of Malta, which were elected a couple of weeks ago. He will notice that that was a Labour landslide, ending 15 years of conservative rule. I hope that the UK will move a bit faster towards a change of Government.

An issue on which there is cross-party agreement is defence and security co-operation. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), the shadow Defence Secretary, made an excellent speech at the end of last year, building on the comments of the Chief of the Defence Staff about what more the UK can do towards capacity building in defence and security, particularly in north and central Africa. The Chief of the Defence Staff was right to point out that there is a role that we can play; I hope that the Minister will outline the role that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence think we should play in the Commonwealth countries of Africa, to build their capabilities and capacities at an early stage.

As someone who takes a keen interest in the overseas territories, Mr Hollobone, you will be aware that 90% of the biodiversity in the United Kingdom is contained in those territories. There has been something of a debate recently about turtle farming in the Cayman Islands, but there is a much broader issue about how the UK Government assist and support our overseas territories. Will the Minister briefly outline the support being provided to the overseas territories on various challenges not only by the FCO and the Department for International Development, but by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change? Those challenges include—for DECC, for example—hydrocarbons in the Falkland Islands and the management of fishing stocks in the Caribbean.

The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden mentioned that sport is an important part of the Commonwealth, and I am sure that the Minister looks forward to the next Commonwealth games, which Scotland will host next year. I hope that he will take time out from his summer schedule to come and watch Scotland claim many well-deserved gold medals.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I commend the hon. Gentleman’s excellent time keeping, which I hope will serve as an example to all.

3.24 pm

Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for the way that he chairs the CPA and for his excellent opening speech.

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I walked around Parliament square on Monday and was moved to see the flags of the founding members of the Commonwealth movement and of some of the largest and oldest members, and then those of the most recent members, notably Rwanda and Mozambique. That brought home to me the fact that countries want to join this extraordinary organisation.

I welcome the charter. The Commonwealth cannot stand still. Like any organisation, it must move forward. It is excellent that it has now got over some post-colonial hang-ups and guilt, and looks to the future as a truly extraordinary network of like-minded nations with a shared history. For the first time, with the charter, we have a single document setting out the core values and aspirations of the members of the Commonwealth.

One reason why I welcome the enhanced role of the ministerial action group, with the power to respond to violations of core values, is that without stability we cannot have flourishing business. I strongly believe that the trade and investment side of the Commonwealth is crucial. Commonwealth trade is worth £3 trillion—not dollars, but sterling. Indeed, the GDP of Commonwealth countries will overtake that of the EU by 2015. The opportunities are huge, and it is essential that Britain should make the most of them. I believe that we can do that and use some of those shared values—particularly shared legal systems and philosophies on regulatory frameworks—to our advantage. What does the Minister intend to do, along with UK Trade & Investment and other Departments, to make the most of those opportunities in future?

A role that the Commonwealth could pursue with enhanced vigour relates to regional trade integration. Trade Mark East Africa involves mainly Commonwealth countries and has been a great success in breaking down trade barriers between them. Above all, single points of entry between different countries have obviated the need for multiple checks at borders. The same is true also of a tripartite agreement that has been pioneered by the Southern African Development Community.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife mentioned the overseas territories, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, briefly. One of the key aspects of a recent White Paper on the overseas territories was enhanced engagement by other Departments. A unique selling point of that White Paper is that it harnesses the power, influence, knowledge and skills of other Departments to the benefit of those tiny territories, which lack capacity. I suggest that the Commonwealth can also play an important role in that approach. For example, it helped when the Turks and Caicos Islands had to go into special measures and came under direct rule. Thankfully, home rule has now been restored; but in the interim period, Canada put a great deal of effort and investment into the islands and, for example, seconded a police commissioner and deputy police commissioner there. Both those officers made a significant difference.

I want to mention the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is scheduled to take place in Colombo. I feel strongly that the future credibility of the Commonwealth is closely linked to its ability to uphold and protect the values set out in the new charter. We must be completely realistic. In spite of numerous warnings and the announcement of red lines, the conduct

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of the Sri Lankan Government and especially their attitude to accountability still leave a great deal to be desired. There is still a climate of fear and helplessness in the country.

I do not think that it is good enough for the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to say that they will make up their minds about whether Britain will attend the meeting. Her Majesty’s Government should work tirelessly with the secretariat to ensure that certain conditions and benchmarks are laid down for the CHOGM’s going ahead. It would be odd for the head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty, not to attend a CHOGM. In fact, a CHOGM would not be complete without the head of the Commonwealth.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden that the Commonwealth has done some excellent work over the past few years, but a great deal of progress can still be made. I do not want to see that progress undermined by what will be a long drawn-out debate on Governments’ attendance of CHOGM, because we need action, we need benchmarks and we need conditions.

3.30 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the former Minister, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). I completely agree with his remarks on Sri Lanka and the CHOGM. I will not refer to what I said in the previous debate; people can read Hansard tomorrow to see what I said.

It is important that we recognise the enormous potential in the Commonwealth, but, as the report published by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs at the end of last year made clear, the Commonwealth is currently failing to realise that potential. The report also criticised the Government and stated that

“the FCO’s rhetoric about the importance of the Commonwealth is not being matched by its actions.”

I exempt the hon. Member for North West Norfolk and the former Minister in the Lords, Lord Howell, from that criticism, but there is an issue with how the Government, including Departments such as the Department for Education, collectively work with Commonwealth institutions and organisations. More could be done to build on the Commonwealth networks, to which the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), referred in his intervention.

We also criticised the past closure of diplomatic missions, particularly in the Pacific, Swaziland—I have personal experience as a former Voluntary Service Overseas teacher in Swaziland—and Lesotho. There is a question on how seriously our current approach accounts for the fact that we no longer have diplomatic representation in a number of Commonwealth countries. Those countries may be small, but they are politically significant in an organisation that works through consensus.

There is also a question about the BBC World Service, which we referred to in our report. The Chairman of the Select Committee and I visited the World Service’s excellent new facilities this morning.

In the time left to me, I will address the role of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in building capacity and developing democracy. I declare an interest, because the CPA sent me on a

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capacity-building mission to the Maldives in November 2011. Sadly, within three months there was an engineered coup in which the democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, was removed. His successor, President Waheed, embarked on various measures in an assault on democracy, including the harassment and arrest of members of the Opposition. Former President Nasheed had to seek refuge in the Indian high commission, and, having left the high commission, he was recently arrested. That is all part of a ploy to try to stop a truly democratic election from taking place.

That is shocking to me, because my discussions with members of that country’s embryonic democratic institutions in November 2011 convinced me that there was a role, which the FCO facilitated, in helping to build a committee structure, in training and in democracy-building. All that is being set back by the events of the past year and a half. I hope the CPA and the British Government will continue to press for a truly free and fair election in the Maldives and for a democratic outcome that is acceptable, not just to the people of the Maldives, but to the democratic values of the international community.

3.35 pm

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing it.

I will begin by reading the first paragraph of the Commonwealth charter that Her Majesty the Queen signed this week:

“Recognising that in an era of changing economic circumstances and uncertainty, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge in popular demands for democracy, human rights and broadened economic opportunities, the potential of and need for the Commonwealth—as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for co-operation and for promoting development—has never been greater”.

That neatly summarises some of the points that have already been made on the importance of trade and human rights in the Commonwealth and the value of the new charter.

My comments will focus on creating a proper sense of ownership of the Commonwealth in all those countries across the world that belong to it. Often, when listening to debates in this House, people might think that the Commonwealth is something that belongs to Britain. Of course, it is not; it is an organisation, a network, in which we have an important role, but of which we are only one member.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the Commonwealth represents 30% of the world’s population and a huge number of young people—there is a huge amount of dynamism. The Commonwealth also represents a huge proportion of the world’s resources. In the ever smaller and ever more interconnected world in which we live, the Commonwealth has an important role in meeting the world’s need for resources. Companies such as Shell talk about the resource nexus between energy, water and food becoming greater than ever.

Member countries such as Australia and Canada are resource rich, and member countries such as India are immense consumers of the world’s resources and

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have an ever greater role in the world’s economy. We must ensure that all those countries feel ownership of the Commonwealth and accept that they have a part to play in defining its future. As we debate such things, it is important that we encourage Parliaments in those countries to engage with and take ownership of that agenda. I would like to see the Commonwealth charter as the beginning of that process, and not as the end.

In a week in which we have seen another great international organisation, the papacy, pass from the old world to the new, it is a good time to look at Britain’s place in the world and consider where we ought to be trading and to which organisations we should be reaching out. The Commonwealth is undoubtedly one of those organisations.

My late father made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on the importance of Commonwealth trade, and in that speech he said that we should not give up the enormous potential of trade with the world and with the Commonwealth for the “potage” of opportunities in the so-called common market of Europe. Many Conservative colleagues might feel that we have gone too far down that route over the years, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) has pointed out, with the Commonwealth set to overtake the EU in GDP in 2015, it is an important relationship for the future.

I want briefly to touch on a couple of issues that we have not yet heard about in this debate: the importance of collaboration on education across the Commonwealth and the importance of reaching out to students from across the Commonwealth, as the Prime Minister recently did in India, to persuade them to come to study in the UK. In his speech in 1961, my father said that we should seek to create a Harvard Business School for the Commonwealth. If we had such an institution, it would be enormously valuable in the 21st-century world. We should be looking at the opportunities for Britain to reach out, to engage and to play an active role in the Commonwealth, and we should ensure that we are humble about our position. We should feel not that we own that organisation but that we are an active and engaged member along with the other major powers and great nations that form the 21st-century Commonwealth.

3.39 pm

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am happy to serve under you, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for not only his introduction to the debate but his work the year round.

I want to make four brief points; first, to commend the Select Committee report and the Government’s positive response to many of the recommendations. As a Parliament, it is good that we understand that the Commonwealth is a vital part of our foreign affairs, that it consists of our oldest friends and that the club of which we are the oldest member—or, the oldest club of which we are a member—is one that we sustain, encourage, build up and support. I have always been a fan of the Commonwealth, not to the exclusion of support for the European Union or the English-speaking world, but because they are all complementary. It plays to our strengths but, under all Governments, we have never

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given the Commonwealth the priority that it deserves. My first request to the Minister therefore is for the Government, as suggested by the Select Committee report, to look at and beef up our commitment to Commonwealth in all ways and all Departments, to show that we want to be a serious player.

Various areas could be usefully prioritised. In a second, I will come back to one that has already been the subject of a debate, but last week we had a good debate in the main Chamber about the death penalty elsewhere in the world, about the people on death row in India with the return to executions in that country. We could reasonably seek to persuade those Commonwealth countries that still have the death penalty that it is not a necessary part of a law and order policy, which is better without it. To work with our friends in India and other countries would be helpful. We also need to persuade other countries such as Uganda that persecuting homosexuals is not appropriate for a Commonwealth Government. We need to ensure the right support for people of all backgrounds, colours, castes, faiths, sexes and sexuality, irrespective of where in the Commonwealth they come from. I am also keen that we elaborate and clarify our commitment to the educational exchanges which have been touched on for students from Commonwealth countries. We have cut back on Commonwealth student scholarships, which is a short-sighted failure, because building up historic links that have been present for a long time is hugely important.

Secondly, I want to say a word about Sri Lanka. I greatly appreciate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), recently a Minister in the FCO. We cannot be supportive of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting going on in Sri Lanka without a sea change in the attitude of the Sri Lankan Government. I do not have an antipathy to Sinhalese people, a Sinhalese Government or a Sinhalese President but clearly, over the years, the minority communities and in particular the Tamils have been ill served. Tests include the disappearance and assassination of journalists, one of the lowest rated categorisations for press freedom in the world and an inability for foreign countries and agencies such as the UN or the Red Cross to be present in the country freely. Sri Lanka has to change. I know the FCO position and that we are withholding our engagement, but unless there is significant change our response needs to be stronger.

Thirdly, I have had a long interest in Cyprus. I congratulate President Anastasiades on his recent election as the President of Cyprus. There is an opportunity to resolve the half-century of dispute over Cyprus—in effect, since its independence from the United Kingdom. There is good will in the north, in the unrecognised Government of northern Cyprus, and I hope for huge encouragement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Finally, I have a request that the Minister knows is coming: the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, in which I have had a part over the years, has lost its funding from the British Council and needs about £100,000 a year in public support to keep it going. It does great

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work and changes the lives of thousands; I hope that the FCO will find a way to support it continuing into the future.

3.44 pm

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing the debate and on his leadership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Last year, I had the privilege of being part of a delegation he led to Sri Lanka for the 58th conference, at which a commitment was given in the hope that all CPA members would hold a debate annually at around this time of year, so I am glad that we are having the debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) for his role in such matters.

The Commonwealth is an extraordinary and wonderful organisation of which, frankly, we do not make enough. I am delighted to have the charter described in a little detail by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden. In particular, I praise article IX, which recognises the need for sustainable development, and article X, which declares that we need to conserve our natural ecosystems.

The only country that I want to mention specifically is the Maldives, so I am glad that the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) did so as well. I declare my interest, which is as chair of the all-party British-Maldives group. I do not wish to be critical of our Government, whether past or present. President Gayoom, however, had led the Maldives for 30 years, and democracy is not easily developed or won. We gave plenty of support to the elections in 2008, but the idea that that was fine, that democracy was then up and running and that we could move away could not be further from the truth. Without boring the Chamber and going into lots of detail, a number of issues should have been dealt with more robustly, as the hon. Gentleman said. Nevertheless, I meet regularly with the high commissioner, and I am glad that the upcoming elections appear to be on track. At our meeting only two weeks ago, I was reassured that the elections would be fair and free, with former President Nasheed a likely and unhindered participant. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister might reflect on that and, when he has time, write to us in a little more detail. The point I wanted to make is that the Commonwealth should help in every way it possibly can, not only with observers but in the build-up to the elections. Some may say, “Oh, the Maldives, wonderful holiday resort”, but life in the Maldives for many people is not like that. It would be a great shame if we abandoned this fledgling democracy.

I am optimistic about the future of the Commonwealth. I salute the charter, which sets out clearly some important principles to which all Commonwealth nations should adhere and probably already do. That is not to say that there are not huge challenges: many hundreds of millions of Commonwealth subjects still live in poverty; many children do not have access to education; and AIDS is still rife in many member states. I would not claim to have all the answers, but we are much stronger working within the Commonwealth than alone. Our shared cultures and close trading ties are pivotal, and I hope to see a renewed and continually developing Commonwealth emerge over the coming years.

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3.48 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing and leading the debate and on his work at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which he serves with great distinction.

The Commonwealth is an extraordinary organisation and family of nations, bringing together shared values, often a shared language and shared culture, with sporting links and many other dimensions of what I suppose these days we call soft relations or soft power. It is important to emphasise the importance of the Commonwealth as an avenue for the exercise of soft power, in contrast to many much more formalised, rigid and confrontational international arenas. The Commonwealth is enormously important in that.

Some Commonwealth members deserve particular attention; the one probably most at risk in terms of the shared values and international relations is Pakistan. The Commonwealth and the British Government should certainly be doing their utmost to support the traditions of democracy, freedom, peace, security and human rights in that country, while not underestimating the threats posed to it by internal and external forces. The terrible but inspiring case of Malala Yousafzai, who had to struggle first for her education and then for her very life against some of those forces, is instructive. Perhaps it has started to shift some of the political forces within Pakistan. The more that we can celebrate the courage of people such as Malala through the Commonwealth and other arenas, the more that we can support Pakistan in protecting those traditions.

Reference has been made to Sri Lanka as the host of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, must attend the meeting, but her health has been frail lately and it is conceivable that she might be unable to attend. The reasons would be purely innocent, as we understand that her personal commitment to the Commonwealth is strong. If she attends, it will be difficult for the British Government not to attend, because we would not want to embarrass Her Majesty. If she does not attend for other reasons, it might provide an opportunity to reflect on whether Britain should attend the meeting. At the moment, only the Canadian Government are saying that they will not attend, but we must reflect on the situation in Sri Lanka and make a stand if we can.

The Government in Sri Lanka stand accused of war crimes, a politically motivated impeachment process and dismissal of their own chief justice this January. They are also accused of continuing human rights abuses in the form of disappearances, a culture of impunity and a misuse of security laws. In its 2012 annual report, Amnesty said of Sri Lanka:

“The government continued to arbitrarily detain, torture or ill-treat people and subject people to enforced disappearance. It failed to address most instances of impunity for violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The government rejected repeated allegations of war crimes committed by both sides of the conflict that ended in 2009, prompting Amnesty International to reiterate calls for an independent international investigation.”

I am afraid—this is beginning to sound a little critical—that there are other examples of the Commonwealth sometimes not living up to all its values. I accept, as the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden said in his introduction, that we cannot expect every nation to proceed

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in step with us through the democratic reforms and the expansion of human rights that we have experienced, but it is something of a matter of shame that no fewer than 36 of the 58 countries where capital punishment is still lawful are Commonwealth countries and that many of those countries still criminalise homosexuality and have a hostile response to gay rights. When the Prime Minister called for Commonwealth countries to reconsider the criminalisation of homosexuality, some countries responded positively—Malawi began to repeal legislation—but others, such as Uganda, went in the opposite direction. It is important to emphasise the totality of human rights for all Commonwealth citizens.

Zimbabwe is not currently a member of the Commonwealth, but I think that many people would still regard it as part of the family of Commonwealth nations. Again, if the Commonwealth can do anything to support the conduct of the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe, so that they are free and fair, and to support the people there trying to establish Zimbabwe as a thorough democracy once again, that would be valuable.

The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden referred briefly to the Commonwealth ministerial action group. Such groups and the secretary-general’s office need to be a bit more active and assertive in giving the Commonwealth teeth to promote in various countries the shared values expressed brilliantly in the charter. There is room for domestic effort as well. The Foreign Affairs Committee referred to the BBC World Service, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) rightly referred to student visas. Student links are part of what makes soft cultural relationships valuable, and we must reinforce them at all opportunities.

3.54 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling it during the week when we celebrate Commonwealth day. As we have heard, there is much to celebrate, including our trading links with other Commonwealth countries, our cultural links and the number of students who come to study in this country and who go from the UK to other countries. I understand that the trade in goods within the Commonwealth is now worth £250 billion each year. This year’s Commonwealth day theme, “Opportunity through enterprise”, focuses on how the benefits of the Commonwealth can be shared by all members and citizens.

As the Commonwealth Secretariat states:

“Commonwealth Day is an opportunity to promote understanding on global issues, international co-operation and Commonwealth’s organisations, which aim to improve the lives of its citizens.”

It is therefore important that we use the day not only to consider the Commonwealth’s successes but, if we are to improve the lives of its citizens, to consider its shortcomings.

In addition to shared history in many cases, the Commonwealth is bound—it is said—by the shared values of democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all. As we heard from many participants in this debate, that is not always the case. There are

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concerns about human rights and democracy in several Commonwealth countries, and I will touch on those in a moment, but the idea of the Commonwealth as an institution with those shared values was underlined on Monday by the Queen’s signing the Commonwealth charter as Head of the Commonwealth, setting out the shared values and commitments agreed by all Heads of Government. The charter has been widely welcomed, and it includes many important principles. I welcome its focus on democracy, human rights, international peace and security, good governance and the rule of law.

The charter highlights levels of poverty in many Commonwealth countries and the threat of climate change, emphasising the need for sustainable development and the duty to protect the environment. It includes access to health, education, food and shelter, essentials that some Commonwealth citizens can now take for granted but that remain unobtainable for far too many. In many ways, the charter illustrates the diversity, and indeed inequality, within the Commonwealth. It could provide a basis for reducing the inequality while continuing to respect and celebrate the diversity. I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden that we should not enforce exactly the same criteria across the Commonwealth; we should tolerate diversity within the Commonwealth and accept people’s right to their own way of doing things. However, in some areas, we must try to unify the Commonwealth around a certain set of values.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report on the role and future of the Commonwealth noted that

“the moral authority of the Commonwealth has too often been undermined by the repressive actions of member governments.”

I now turn briefly to that issue. Over the weekend, the charter was lauded by some as a landmark development for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality, but the rights of LGBT people and the unacceptable discrimination that they still face were not mentioned in the charter. Gender equality is specifically included, and I certainly agree with the charter’s assertion that

“the advancement of women’s rights and the education of girls are critical preconditions for effective and sustainable development.”

There is also a clause on tolerance, respect and understanding, explicitly covering religious freedom and

“respect and dignity for all human beings”,

but there is no reference to the LGBT community. It has been inferred that clause 2 covers the issue. I certainly endorse the commitment to the universal declaration of human rights and the opposition to all forms of discrimination, but given that the charter goes on to specify

“discrimination…rooted in gender, race, colour, creed and political belief”,

sexuality is a startling omission.

I accept that when charters explicitly cover religious freedom, it often comes into conflict with LGBT rights, but we must address the issue, particularly as 41 Commonwealth countries—three quarters of them—still criminalise homosexuality. There is still the prospect of the anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda, which has caused many people grave concern, and similar legislation in Nigeria could increase the penalties for gay couples or same-sex displays of affection. In Cameroon, 13 people

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were arrested under anti-homosexuality laws between March 2011 and 2012, and in South Africa, a 24-year-old activist was brutally raped and murdered, seemingly because she was gay and a human rights activist campaigning for LGBT rights. Two years later, no one has been arrested.

I do not want to dwell too much on the negative in my remarks. There have been more promising signs, particularly in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, where homosexual acts can be punished with up to 25 years in prison and it is illegal for gay people to enter the country, the Prime Minister reportedly wrote to the Kaleidoscope Trust to confirm that she will act to put an end to all discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. She shares the view that

“the stigmatisation of homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago is a matter which must be addressed on the grounds of human rights and dignity to which every individual is entitled under international law.”

In Jamaica, where there are also anti-homosexuality laws and reports of attacks and harassment of gay people, the Prime Minister has said that no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

With apologies for focusing on the negative, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) raised the issue of the death penalty. It is another area of concern that is touched on in the charter’s clauses on human rights, the rule of law and justice, but it is not explicitly referenced. As the Foreign Affairs Committee has noted, 36 of the 58 countries where capital punishment is lawful are Commonwealth members. Although some of those countries are abolitionist in practice, in that they do not carry out the death penalty, their citizens are still sentenced to death and so remain on death row indefinitely. The UK’s long-standing position is to support the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances. Will the Minister tell us to what extent we have led discussions on the death penalty and LGBT rights within the Commonwealth, with respect to other countries’ rights to determine their own policies?

Finally, I want to touch on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which has been mentioned by several speakers, both in this debate and the earlier one on human rights. I was interested to hear the Minister say that the UK Government’s position on whether we would attend CHOGM was not decided. In a previous debate, I got the impression from one of his colleagues that it was fairly set in stone that the UK would attend and that the UK Government were not prepared to use the fact that CHOGM is approaching in Colombo in November as leverage to try to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to do more on the human rights agenda. The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) suggested that that was an ideal opportunity, and I think the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) mentioned that as well. It is important that we do not just allow Sri Lanka to use the CHOGM to promote the regime and present itself as a wonderful country. It is in some respects a wonderful country—it is an amazing country to visit on holiday—but we should use the intervening period between now and November to put pressure on the Government to make some progress.

As I have said, I apologise if I have dwelt too much on the negative, but it is because I think the Commonwealth has achieved a great deal. I was in Uganda a few years

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ago, just before it was due to host CHOGM. It was interesting that people all over Kampala were not at all interested that the Prime Minister or any other UK politicians were coming to visit; they were interested that the Queen and Prince Charles were coming. All their questions were about that. It was clear to me how important they felt their place within the Commonwealth was and how privileged they felt to be able to host CHOGM that year. CHOGM is immensely valuable for Britain and the other countries that take part, but we should also use it to try to make progress on progressive values and to address the issues of poverty within the Commonwealth, as well environmental issues and all those other issues, otherwise it becomes something to celebrate, but not something that helps to change the world.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Before calling the Minister, I remind him to leave a few minutes at the end for the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) to respond to this most interesting debate.

4.3 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): The Minister will, Mr Hollobone, therefore want to make a degree of progress. I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this important debate and expressing his thoughts on the subject so eloquently, based on the knowledge we all know he has. I highlight his valuable contribution to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

This is the first time the House of Commons has held a debate on the Commonwealth during Commonwealth week, and I hope it will become a precedent. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), the founder of the all-party group for the Commonwealth, is determined that it becomes a regular feature of the parliamentary calendar, and I pay tribute to his success as he stands down as the group’s chairman. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. I will answer the specific questions raised by Members throughout my speech, and if I have enough time at the end, I will try to answer other questions.

I do not want to introduce a partisan element into what has been a wholly unpartisan debate, but perhaps the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) had his tongue slightly in his cheek when he questioned how seriously the Government take the Commonwealth. He talked about the closure of diplomatic missions. As someone who has been going around the world re-opening diplomatic missions after the neglect of the past 13 years, I imagine he was just gently teasing us. The coalition agreement sets out our vision

“to strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values and development.”

That is essential if we are to build a Commonwealth fit for the 21st century. It is right that we take the opportunity provided by Commonwealth day, and, indeed, Commonwealth week, to look at how far the Commonwealth has come in the past year, and where it needs to go next.

In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, I will focus my remarks on the Commonwealth charter. Agreed in the year of the diamond

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jubilee, the charter was signed by Her Majesty the Queen on Commonwealth day. Her Majesty is, of course, a staunch advocate of the work of the Commonwealth, which she heads. The charter’s agreement marked a major milestone in the promotion of democratic values across the Commonwealth. For the first time in its 64-year history, the Commonwealth has a single statement defining the core values for which it stands. They are the values that member nations think are important enough to bring together in one single document; values which affect the lives of millions across the Commonwealth every day.

As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and several others have made clear, it is simply untrue to say that all Commonwealth countries already adhere without exception to every value in the charter. By setting them out and agreeing to aspire to them, however, we are on the road to ensuring that they become common currency across the Commonwealth. I agree with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) when they talked about the role of the charter and what Commonwealth countries can do on LGBT issues. We fundamentally believe that we should do much more and we remain concerned by recent attempts in several Commonwealth states to introduce punitive laws on homosexuality. As is well known, the coalition Government are committed to upholding the rights and freedoms of LGBT people in all circumstances. We are clear that discrimination is never acceptable. It is important that these countries agree and have a goal to aim towards, because the Commonwealth’s future credibility is closely linked to its ability to uphold and protect core democratic values.

In recent years the Commonwealth’s reputation as an organisation based on values has been tarnished by a perceived silence on human rights concerns. We have heard today about concerns on the political will in some Commonwealth countries to uphold the values to which they have committed under the charter. That undermines the credibility of the Commonwealth, which is why we are working to strengthen how the Commonwealth promotes and protects its values. We believe that the commitments in the charter should be upheld, adhered to and kept under constant review. Making the Commonwealth ministerial action group that acts on those concerns stronger and more proactive is crucial. The group responded well to the crisis in Maldives, which I will come to in a minute, and its continued engagement is important.

In common with other international organisations, the Commonwealth must evolve constantly if it is to keep pace with changes in the wider world. That is particularly the case with trade and investment, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). In this year of “Opportunity through Enterprise”—the Commonwealth’s theme in 2013—we must all work to strengthen the Commonwealth’s focus on trade and prosperity.