My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) reminded us of the reality of everyday life for the many less well-off people across Wales who are being badly hit by changes to tax credits and welfare reform. I should like to place on record the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has made the Labour position clear on these matters. It is that there have always been different levels
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for housing benefit according to regional factors, and it is that part that would vary regionally, not the disability element or any other part of the welfare reforms. My right hon. Friend made that quite clear in the media and at the Dispatch Box during the debate on those issues.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke of the importance of small businesses in Wales, and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) praised the benefits of mindfulness. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire reminded us of the beauty of Pembrokeshire, only to be upstaged immediately by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the contribution of local companies to the UK economy, which is extremely important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn referred to the need for clear policies on energy, and I shall return to that matter shortly. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made the case for devolving Welsh language broadcasting. Sadly, the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) spent a great deal of time criticising a report, when his constituents would probably have been more interested if he had taken up the very real issue of rocketing prices at the petrol pump, particularly in rural Wales.
If we are to see the economy in Wales flourish, we need economic policies from the UK Government that will stimulate growth. We need fiscal policies that will strike the right balance between paying down the deficit and getting the economy going. We need taxation policies that do not squeeze lower and middle income households so hard that they have no money to put back into the Welsh economy and struggle even to pay the most essential household bills.
I was dismayed to hear the Secretary of State reiterate at Welsh questions yesterday that she was in favour of sticking to plan A. I am sorry to have to point out to her that her Government’s plan A is hurting but not working. Sometimes I wonder what planet she is living on. She only has to walk down any high street in Wales to see shops closing and the economy on its knees. The latest high-profile victim is Peacocks. We certainly welcome its takeover by the Edinburgh Woollen Mill and the jobs that that has secured, but 3,000 jobs will still be lost and more than 200 shops will close, including both the Peacocks stores in Llanelli.
No matter what initiatives the Welsh Government undertake—I point out two in particular: the excellent Jobs Growth Wales programme aimed at creating 4,000 jobs a year, with an emphasis on the private sector; and help for business in the form of some £55 million in grants and loans—UK economic policy is enormously important in helping or hindering the success of those initiatives. When it comes to inward investment to Wales from overseas, I certainly agree that there should be the closest possible collaboration between the Welsh Government and other relevant bodies such as UK Trade & Investment to avoid duplication and increase Wales’s outreach overseas.
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We are not going to get anywhere, however, unless we have a UK Government providing the right economic and business climate to make the UK a preferred destination for investment in business and manufacturing. When Labour was in government, an additional 1.1 million new businesses were created. By the time we left office in 2010, the World Bank ranked the UK as the best country in Europe for ease of doing business and fourth best in the world, ahead of the US. While there is always room for improvement and we should seek to streamline wasteful bureaucracy, time-consuming duplication and form filling, to use cutting red tape as the main strategy for driving economic recovery, as this Government seem to be trying to do—and, indeed, as the Under-Secretary for Wales said yesterday at Welsh questions—is addressing the wrong problem. That is to avoid the two very real issues of creating the right economic conditions to foster growth and creating the right political climate—that is, the certainty about policy that is needed to encourage long-term investment in manufacturing and jobs.
The Government’s attitude to business and industry matters—it matters very much to Wales. What business and industry need more than anything are certainty and confidence that the UK Government will not move the goalposts. It is extremely disturbing that this Conservative-Lib Dem Government have created so much uncertainty about their commitment to green policies that the UK has slipped from third to 13th in the world for investment in green growth.
The Secretary of State and her Cabinet colleagues need to restore business confidence and create a climate of certainty before they damage any more industries or frighten off any more potential investors. We have seen how the UK Government’s catastrophic imposition of sudden changes to the feed-in tariffs for solar panels is already putting hundreds of jobs at risk in Wales. Here was a scheme that gave a real boost to private industry in Wales—a scheme that was unlocking capital and attracting people to use their savings or borrow money to invest in solar panels. By investing that £10,000 or £20,000, they were providing private sector jobs in the Welsh economy. What other scheme do the Government have to unlock capital in that way and use it to stimulate growth in the local economy?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn mentioned, before the election Labour set up a £60 million fund to attract investment in offshore wind power. In 2010, the current Prime Minister promised to continue the policy, but nearly two years later just £1.2 million has been awarded and many companies are looking elsewhere to invest. Indeed, big investors in wind energy, such as General Electric, Vestas, Gamesa and Mitsubishi, are threatening to take millions of pounds worth of green jobs abroad because they are losing patience with this Government. They do not know where they stand, and they now seriously doubt the Tory Government’s commitment to renewables.
The UK has some of the best wind resource in the world. Indeed, the UK is the windiest country in the EU, and we have our fair share of it in Wales, but the signals coming from the UK Government are confused, hesitant and lukewarm. When companies are making big decisions about where to build energy installations or set up factories to manufacture the components, they need to know what Government policies are, what returns they can expect and what the financial incentives are—they
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need a climate of certainty. I urge the Secretary of State and her Cabinet colleagues to provide clear policies to attract green investment.
Moving on to UK Government policy that affects Wales, only a fortnight ago we heard the very worrying news that Britain could lose its treasured triple A rating—the very justification the Chancellor has used for his crippling austerity measures. Why would the UK lose its triple A status? Because this Government have forgotten that in order to pay back the deficit, they also have to think of stimulating growth in the economy to make the money to pay back the deficit. That is where this Government are failing. This Government inherited a growing economy, so it is no wonder that people are asking why we have seen almost no growth for a year and why the Government have had to revise their borrowing up by £158 billion.
We are seeing just what Labour has been warning of since 2010: the Chancellor is cutting too fast and too deep, and by hitting lower and middle income households the hardest, he is hitting the very people who spend their money most immediately back into the Welsh economy just to keep themselves clothed and fed. His policy is not only deeply unfair; it is economic madness. It is already having a direct effect on the Welsh economy, and we have only seen the beginning of the cuts. Let us make no mistake: over the next three years, the Government will—according to House of Commons figures—take £6 billion out of the pockets of people in Wales, and that will include £800 million in tax credits. Tax credits are money that families who are working hard and trying to do the right thing are given to top up their incomes, and they need to spend that money straight away in order to keep their homes warm and their children fed and clothed.
What else is the Chancellor cutting? He is cutting £7 million from health in pregnancy grants, and £113 million from child trust funds, and the freezing of child benefit is equivalent to a cut of £249 million. He is cutting £209 million from disability living allowance, and £43 million from lone parent benefits. All that is coming out of the Welsh economy, as is the £1.5 billion cut that will result from the use of CPI rather than RPI to uprate benefits, and all that is happening against the background of pay freezes—not to mention the more than £2 billion cut represented by the rise in VAT.
What we need now is a real economic stimulus from the UK Government to back up the Welsh Government’s initiatives on jobs and help for industry, and that is what I ask the Secretary of State to provide. I ask her to look at Labour’s five-point plan for stimulating the economy, and to cut VAT, boost jobs and stand up for Wales by doing something that will really help to get the Welsh economy going. People cannot see any help at all coming from the Secretary of State to us. They cannot see the Secretary of State standing up for Wales, and that is what they would like to see.
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mrs Cheryl Gillan):
It gives me great pleasure to stand at the Dispatch Box on St David’s day, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and others on securing the debate. I will not be taking interventions, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) did not take any, and regrettably we have very little time left.
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However, I will offer the hon. Lady, on St David’s day, a lovely bunch of daffodils from Dreams and Wishes, which I hope she will take home and enjoy.
I congratulate everyone who has taken part in the debate, particularly those on the Government Benches. I am exceedingly proud that we have had a 100% turnout —apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who, on behalf of the House of Commons, is on abroad on business with a Select Committee. We have certainly been standing up for Wales. I only regret that that there has been such a thin turnout on the other side, with the honourable exception of Plaid Cymru, which also had a 100% turnout. I also greatly regret that the shadow Secretary of State was not standing up for Wales in the House this afternoon.
This Government are tackling Britain’s problems head on. We recognised that deficit reduction and continuing to ensure economic recovery was the most urgent issue facing Britain, as it still is. After all, it was the Labour party, when it was in government, that left us, the coalition Government, with an interest payment of £120 million a day on the debt that it had racked up. That interest is being paid by every family in the United Kingdom, including families in Wales. We are dealing with those debts, we are securing the long-term stability and low interest rates that are the building blocks for creating prosperity, and we are making Britain competitive once more by reducing tax rates and lifting the deadening cloak of regulation.
The building blocks for recovery are in place, and, as the latest employment figures for Wales show, there are grounds for optimism about the economy, but we all know that this will not be an easy ride. The economic outlook remains very challenging, and the challenges are particularly acute in Wales. But, notwithstanding the naysayers on the Opposition Benches, we in Government are playing our part in making the conditions right for Britain to invest in Wales. We are delivering rail electrification to Wales as part of £1 billion of investment in the Great Western main line. We are investing £60 million in superfast broadband for Wales. We have lowered corporation tax as part of a package of support for business, and have lifted 52,000 lower-paid taxpayers out of income tax altogether. Those major investments demonstrate the way in which Wales benefits from being part of a strong United Kingdom, to which many Members referred. The right hon. Member for Torfaen confirmed that. Although we may not agree on some things, we certainly agree on Wales’s place in the United Kingdom.
Many Members referred to the relationship between the UK Government and the Welsh Government. Responsibility for the Welsh economy is shared between London and Cardiff. Our Government are getting the macro-economic conditions right, but the Welsh Government must also rise to the challenge. We must work to steer a clear course for economic resurgence in Wales through co-operation. The Welsh Government must meet the challenge set by this House’s Welsh Affairs Committee to work in closer collaboration, especially with UK Trade & Investment, to attract inward investment into Wales. Several Members made that point. We need the Welsh Government to grasp the nettle of public sector reform by taking off the blinkers of political dogma and upping the pace of reform. That point was also frequently made in this debate, especially in respect of health.
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I am encouraged, however, by some recent Welsh Government initiatives, such as their response to the coalition’s establishment of enterprise zones in England by creating similar, and much-needed, zones in Wales. The Welsh Government must do more to make Wales an open and welcoming place in which to do business. I was saddened by the First Minister’s recent remarks supporting a financial transactions tax, as that would cost the UK 500,000 jobs. That remark shows that there is still a long way to go.
I want to respond to some of the many and varied points made by Members. The right hon. Member for Torfaen, a man of high distinction and service to Government and country, said we must work together, and his advice should be heeded by his own party. He was critical, however, of Ministers’ knowledge across Government, but the current system of devolution was created by a Labour Government. He should know that we now have a devolution Ministers’ network, with a Minister in every Department looking at how we operate and at levels of understanding of devolution. My officials and my excellent Minister work ceaselessly to educate people across the board on the meaning of devolution, in order to ensure that it works better.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen also mentioned the Barnett consequentials and health. He should know that the Government have protected the health spend for this comprehensive spending review period, which has benefited Wales, even though the Welsh Government have chosen not to offer similar protection. If in the longer term—post-2015—the provisions of the Health and Social Care Bill were to result in less spend on health, that might impact on the Barnett formula, but none of us knows whether that is going to be the case. It is also worth noting that the previous Government increased private sector involvement in health, yet spend per head in Wales rose and remains above the English average.
There was, once again, discussion about the initial proposals of the Boundary Commission for Wales. I think the right hon. Gentleman knows that they are based on the principles of equality and fairness; my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) made that point. The right hon. Gentleman has said several times that these proposals are partisan, but that is entirely wrong. There is nothing partisan in seeking a fairer basis for representation in Parliament. I would venture to say that it is the Labour party that is driven by self-interest, in seeking to preserve the blatant unfairness of the current arrangements. There is nothing unfair about making votes and constituencies more equal. It is the current arrangements that are unfair, with some constituencies being much larger than others and votes counting for more in some constituencies than they do in others.
My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) is my surfing hero and of the Beach Boys era, as he told us. The Select Committee he chairs has conducted an excellent inquiry. I congratulate him once again and note that he would like a dedicated trade agency to promote Wales. Although the Welsh Development Agency has recently hit the headlines and there have been attempts to rubbish it in the press, I do not think that what has been said is the case. The WDA is well known, if nothing else. It is a name that falls from our lips, it has made Wales a brand around the world and
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made us feel good about Wales. His comments about the wine at the reception last night are very well founded. I have visited the award-winning vineyard he mentioned and I can tell him that that white wine is absolutely delicious, although, sadly, I had none of it last night.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) agrees on the point about the WDA and is a beauty to behold in his place; I think we are attending the same event this evening, but I may not have the opportunity to change. I was very interested in the list of taxes that he wished to see devolved. He must understand that the Silk commission is working on how the accountability of the Assembly and the Welsh Government could be improved. One way of doing that is to devolve powers over certain taxes to Cardiff Bay and it is open to the Silk commission to consider the devolution of any taxes, although in practice it will probably be considering the case for devolution of certain fixed taxes, such as the aggregates levy, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, and the landfill tax. The commission is unlikely to recommend the devolution of more mobile taxes, such as VAT, because in certain cases, such as that one, we would need EU agreement. In addition, the mobility of taxes such as capital gains tax and VAT, and the porous nature of the England-Wales border, would probably militate against their being effective tools to enhance accountability.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) took us into an area of great celebration, mentioning not only the triple crown, but Cardiff City and of course the Swans, who are doing so well and will definitely stay up. May I just say that it was such a delight to see Sam Warburton and Warren Gatland at No. 10 last night and to be able to celebrate their achievements for Wales? I have comforting words for my hon. Friend on the licensing model for football administration, as that is certainly being looked at by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is awaiting the football authorities’ proposals in response to the Government’s ideas for a licensing system and other reforms on supporter ownership.
I am not going to have time to cover everything from the legal system, tourism, enterprise zones, S4C and welfare even to the forthcoming nuptials of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), but I would just like to say that for me there is no more important debate in the calendar than the St David’s day debate. I very much hope that next year we will be able to have a full day’s debate, with more Members able to participate. It just remains for me to wish everybody a very happy St David’s day and a very healthy, happy, wealthy and successful Wales.
Paul Murphy: With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I say that you, as a Welshman, have presided over 13 speeches from Welsh Members of Parliament, together with contributions from other Members of Parliament who made interventions? We are grateful to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for reminding the House of the death of that great Welshman Lord Hooson, and I am sure that every Member of the House sends their condolences to his family and friends.
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and mindfulness in Bangor to sport, benefits, borrowing, tourism, energy and transport. I urge the Secretary of State to follow up her point about the parliamentary calendar, and I urge the Leader of the House, who is sitting next to her, to consider the point that the St David’s day debate could well be scheduled by the Government rather than by the Backbench Business Committee. That is because it is so very important for Welsh Members to take part in this debate, which today, has been a highly successfully one.
The Secretary of State touched on the issue of the Welsh Government dealing with the economic situation. I simply say to the House that the Welsh Government have announced, among other things, a number of measures to support the Welsh economy, including £55 million to support business growth, £90 million for infrastructure projects and £75 million for job growth.
That this House has considered the matter of Welsh Affairs.
Free school transport from Perton (South Staffordshire)
Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): In my hand, I have a petition signed by 938 constituents, calling for free home-to-school transport from Perton to Codsall high school. You might be interested to know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that on Saturday 10 March I will be leading a march from Perton to Codsall to campaign on this issue and you would be more than welcome to join us if you are free.
The Petition of residents of the South Staffordshire constituency, and others,
Declares that the route to school for children walking from Perton to Codsall High School is dangerous as it involves a walk along an A-Road and that this needs to be addressed so that the children can get to school safely.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to ask Staffordshire County Council to take all possible steps to ensure that free home to school transport is provided for all children from Perton attending Codsall High School.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
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Hazara People (Quetta)
Alan Johnson (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab): This debate is about the persecution of the Hazara community in Quetta city in the Pakistan province of Balochistan and its aim is to draw attention to their plight. The ultimate objective is to put pressure on the Pakistan authorities to do more to capture those who are responsible.
I sought this debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), who cannot be here this evening because of an engagement in his constituency, and the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) who, with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, will make a contribution. I know that others who have members of the Hazara community in their constituencies wish to intervene and with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am perfectly happy for that to happen.
Like many other right hon. and hon. Members, we have constituents who are part of the Hazara community in the UK. The constituent who drew this matter to my attention, Muhammad Younas, is a typical Hazara: passionate about education, law-abiding and committed to public service. He works for a social enterprise, teaching and assisting those who need his help and making an important contribution to community relations in Hull.
We are extremely grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet us last December to discuss the issue and for being here for the debate today. As we discussed it, there was consensus that it needed to be aired on the Floor of the House of Commons, which is why I am so pleased that the debate was granted today.
There are about 600,000 Hazaras living in Quetta city and many fled there from Afghanistan, where they were a specific target for the Taliban. Hazaras in Quetta are being killed practically on a daily basis and it has been estimated that about 600 have been killed so far, yet not a single perpetrator has been captured and brought to justice.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing the debate. His point is so powerful that it deserves underlining. Does he share my concern that while that statistic of more than 600 deaths and not a single conviction remains, it is very hard to take seriously the Pakistan Government’s claim that they are tackling this matter?
Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is right. I have huge respect for the country—I went to Pakistan when I was a Minister—and for the high commissioner, but I believe that that is the key point about the Hazara community: there is no sign of any of the perpetrators being brought to justice, and it is not simply the case that they are being held but the prosecuting authorities are not being successful. That is one of the major issues in this debate and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to it.
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The response of the authorities in Balochistan has been to restrict the movement of the Hazaras themselves—to forbid them entering certain districts and to apply travel restrictions—and to treat the murders with a mixture of complacency and complicity. Last September/October almost 50 Hazaras were taken from buses and wagons in separate incidents, lined up and killed. The Chief Minister of Balochistan responded with levity, saying in a television interview that he would send a truckload of tissue paper to the bereaved families. That is the kind of atmosphere in which the Hazaras are living. The authorities know that the Hazaras are a target for terrorist groups and that an al-Qaeda affiliate is seeking to make Pakistan, in their words, Hazaras' graveyard. They state that their mission is to eliminate “this impure sect” and people
“from every city, every village…and corner of Pakistan.”
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. By way of declaration, Mr Deputy Speaker, I worked with Benazir Bhutto from 1999 to 2007. On the point about the Hazara community being affected, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is not the only community being affected? The Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities are also suffering as a result of Pakistan’s having been a front-line state in the war against Russia and then in the war against al-Qaeda after 9/11. As a result, radicalisation and sectarian violence have spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan, leading to the murders of Benazir Bhutto and Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian Minister. Of course I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern, but everyone has suffered as a result of the sectarian ethnic violence spreading from Afghanistan to Pakistan, not just the Hazara people.
Alan Johnson: I do accept that point; indeed, the high commissioner for Pakistan made the same point when he contacted me today about this debate. I shall say some things later about the difficulties that Pakistan is facing, but that must not detract from the fact that these killings are taking place on a daily basis. The authorities seem remarkably complacent about it and not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice.
While the movement of Hazaras is restricted, their pursuers walk freely in the city despite the heavy presence of the police, the army and the frontier corps who all have checkpoints in and around Quetta. The reason for that persecution is not just the Hazaras’ religion—they are predominantly Shi'a Muslims—but their genetic link to the Mongol people, which allows them to be recognised by their physical appearance. Hazaras are also persecuted because have pursued higher education, enrolled in the army and occupied senior positions in government, the civil service and civic society more generally. They are the kind of law-abiding citizen who would play an important role in a free, democratic Afghanistan and a peaceful and prosperous Pakistan. Thus, they are the enemies of a whole range of terrorist groups.
The persecution—some would say genocide—carried out against the Hazaras has been well documented by the United Nations, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and organisations such as the New York-based monitoring body Human Rights Watch. However, there
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is insufficient awareness nationally and internationally about what the Hazaras are going through, despite the best efforts of the Hazara community and organisations such as the Hazara Organisation for Progress and Equality, or HOPE, which seeks to raise these issues in Parliaments around the world.
The attacks are intensifying. Hazaras are murdered when they stay in Quetta and killed when they try to leave. Fifty five young Hazaras were drowned in the waters of Indonesia on 20 December when trying to escape their perilous existence. The Hazaras believe that the religious militant groups carrying out these killings are state sponsored, and there is evidence for that assertion. The Asian Human Rights Commission reported on 6 January that the Pakistan army had created a militant organisation to kill intellectuals, activists and Hazaras in Balochistan. I have seen a copy of an official letter from the Government of Balochistan informing the military authorities and the police in Quetta about the presence of a man called Sabir Mehsood, whose stated aim was to murder Hazaras, but no action was taken to apprehend him. Thus, more than 80 Hazaras were killed in Quetta by this man and his fellow operatives last year.
The international community cannot allow this persecution to continue. There are significant Hazara populations in countries around the world, particularly in Australia, and these countries should co-ordinate and intensify their efforts. I know that the Minister is fully engaged in trying to pressurise the Pakistani authorities to protect the Hazara community in Quetta, and I know that the Foreign Secretary is equally committed.
Pakistan is an old, valued and trusted ally of the United Kingdom and is seeking to renew its democratic credentials after years of military rule. It is a country beset by problems, and its citizens have suffered at the hands of terrorists more than any other country in the world, as the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) pointed out. However, the Pakistani Government must do more to root out state-supported terrorism wherever it exists. It undoubtedly exists in Quetta city, and the Hazaras are its principal victims. It is a good place to begin this process.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) on securing it. I am happy to endorse all his points, which, in the interests of brevity, I will not repeat.
My interest in this issue, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), stems from our having a large Hazara population in Milton Keynes. The headquarters of the Hazara Community of Great Britain charity are located in Bletchley in my constituency. It is a close-knit, progressive community, and it certainly makes a valuable contribution to the local community and wider civic life of Milton Keynes.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op):
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) on securing this debate. Like others, I have a Hazara community in my
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constituency in north-east London. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we can play an important role in supporting the Hazara community in Britain to come forward and raise concerns, and in engaging with the Foreign Office in making progress in Pakistan on some of these issues?
Iain Stewart: I am happy to endorse that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North has already met a delegation from the community and the Minister. They are deeply concerned, as the hon. Lady implied, about the plight of their relatives and the broader community in Pakistan, amid what are daily reports of killings and persecution.
As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, there are concerns that these attacks are not being dealt with appropriately by the authorities in Pakistan. I join him in imploring the Minister to do all he can to influence the situation. Just a few weeks ago, we all commemorated world holocaust memorial day. The campaign this year was, “Speak up, Speak out”, and was aimed at challenging persecution and hatred wherever it existed in the world. This we must do for the Hazara people. I look forward to hearing what steps the Government are taking to address the situation.
Rehman Chishti: Linked to the Hazara community, the other community that has suffered a lot as a result of radicalisation is the Christian community in Pakistan. We must do everything that we can to ensure that it gets its full rights as well. Will he join me in paying tribute to Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, who is from Pakistan and has done a lot on community cohesion and dialogue between all faiths?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) for securing this debate and for his usual courtesy in forwarding to me a copy of his remarks earlier this afternoon. I also thank other colleagues who have taken part and expressed their concerns—the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). We all share a passion for Pakistan and supporting human rights across a difficult and complex region. I have met and corresponded with several colleagues in the House on a number of human rights issues in Pakistan and welcome the opportunity to discuss them in a public forum.
Last December I spoke with the right hon. Gentleman and his Hazara constituent and was told about the day-to-day living conditions of the Hazara community in Quetta. I had previously met the constituents of my
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hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, who raised similar concerns. I expressed my serious concerns about the discrimination of minorities in Pakistan and joined the right hon. Gentleman in condemning September’s appalling attacks in Balochistan, which left so many innocent people dead.
Before talking about the Hazara community in more detail, I will take the opportunity to set some of the issues in context, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham suggested. Sadly, sectarian violence is not isolated to Balochistan. Tragically, across the country the Pakistani people have suffered from the scourge of sectarian violence. Sunni and Shi’a alike have endured terrible violence, as have other minority communities. I join the Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, in condemning this week’s disgraceful attacks in Kohistan, which killed at least 18 Shi’a Muslims. It is vital that the perpetrators of all sectarian violence, including this week’s vicious attack, are brought to justice.
The United Kingdom and Pakistan have a long history and a strong relationship founded on mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual benefit. Our respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is absolute, so we must be clear that the security of Balochistan, as with all provinces of Pakistan, is a matter for the people and Government of Pakistan. The improvement to regional security to which the international community is committed requires all countries to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their neighbours.
Although sectarian violence across Pakistan is a growing concern, it is important to note the progress being made in a range of human rights areas, including removing reservations to human rights treaties. It is vital that Pakistan now works to ensure that it effectively implements the international human rights treaties to which it is a signatory. None of the communities of which we have spoken in the debate will truly be secure unless these advances are made.
“no discrimination between one caste or creed and another”,
“fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state”.
I have met many Pakistanis who are working tirelessly to realise that vision today, and none was more courageous than Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, whose work towards peaceful, moderate change was met with such brutal violence. Since his assassination I have twice met his brother, Dr Paul Bhatti, and underlined the UK Government’s support for human rights in Pakistan.
Human rights are intertwined with a wide range of issues, including education, stability and development. The UK’s engagement with Pakistan is therefore broad and strategic, covering education, economic stability, security, and cultural co-operation. The Pakistani Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, had a successful visit to the UK last week, during which I discussed security and economic development with her and raised my concerns over the rights of religious minorities, including the Hazara community.
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We work with international partners and the Pakistani Government to tackle the shared challenge of extremism and to increase Pakistan’s stability and prosperity. It is worth reminding all Members that Pakistan is on the front line of terrorism and makes bigger sacrifices in fighting it than any other country. In the 10 years since 9/11, more than 30,000 Pakistanis have been killed. The people of Pakistan will always have our sympathy, understanding and robust support in addressing terror.
The Pakistani Foreign Minister’s visit to the UK reflects the depth of our partnership and friendship. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary held wide-ranging discussions with her, within the framework of our enhanced strategic dialogue, which strengthens practical co-operation between our two countries. They discussed the progress being made to create between the UK and Pakistan a deeper and broader dialogue, including on human rights, which will strengthen our friendship and promote mutual prosperity and security.
The many links between the UK and Pakistan mean that we can engage honestly and directly with each other on many subjects: counter-terrorism, security policy, immigration, trade, development, education and the rule of law. The theme that underlines all that, and the focus of our attention this evening, is human rights.
As the constitution of Pakistan lays down, all Pakistani citizens should be able to live their lives without fear of discrimination or persecution, regardless of their religious beliefs or their ethnic group. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we regularly reinforce to our colleagues in the Government of Pakistan at all levels the importance of upholding those fundamental rights, and our strategic dialogue enables Ministers such as myself and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to do so on behalf of all minority communities in Pakistan.
The Government of Pakistan have taken positive action: they have reserved quotas in the public sector and in Parliament for minorities; they have set up complaints procedures for those encountering discrimination; and they have removed reservations to international human rights treaties. We will continue to support those who wish to see reform in Pakistan, and to raise human rights with the Pakistani Government. As I said, I raised my concerns about human rights with Foreign Minister Khar last week.
In 2011 I twice held constructive discussions with the Pakistani Prime Minister’s adviser on inter-faith harmony and minority affairs, Dr Paul Bhatti. Tomorrow, as some will know, marks the first anniversary of his brother’s assassination, serving as a poignant reminder not only of the need to tackle terrorism in order to support Pakistani progress on human rights, but of the losses that they have suffered. There is a process in place to ensure that inter-faith committees meet in the various provinces. I have seen it in action, and we are keen to continue to support it.
The plight of the Hazara community is connected to the wider regional dynamic. Hazara people fleeing repression in 19th century Afghanistan formed the beginnings of Pakistan’s Hazara. More refugees from Afghanistan followed throughout the 20th century, and Quetta’s population is now estimated to be made up of one third Hazara, with 600,000 in total in Pakistan.
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The presence of the Afghan Taliban in Quetta has amplified the repression of Pakistani Shi’a, including Hazara, in the region. We welcome the progress made by the Hazaras of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It has seen high-profile Hazaras occupy key positions in the Afghan Government. In Kabul, UK officials engage with a range of Hazara interlocutors and continue to promote an inclusive political process. The Hazara community in Iran has also complained of mistreatment, and we will continue to appeal to Iran, including through the United Nations and the European Union, to respect human rights. Those details give Members a sense of how the Hazara community is treated throughout the whole region.
The specific issues of Hazara rights and of sectarian violence in Balochistan were raised with the Balochi authorities and with parliamentarians by British officials in October. Local discussion of those issues has continued since, with our officials engaging with, among others, Balochi members of the National Assembly.
The plight of Pakistan’s Hazara community, highlighted in this evening’s debate, will be recognised in the 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights report, which is due to be published this month. Media reports claim that almost 700 Hazaras have been killed in Pakistan since 2004. In 2011, the Hazara in Balochistan suffered a number of major attacks, including on 19 September when gunmen killed 26 Hazara pilgrims returning from Iran. Lashkar-e Jhangvi claimed responsibility for that attack and has waged a sustained campaign of violence against the community. On 4 October attackers killed 13 passengers, mostly Hazara, travelling on a bus in Quetta. A major attack during the Shi’a processions marking Ashura was anticipated but did not occur.
Nawab Aslam Raisani, Chief Minister of Balochistan, formulated a committee on September 22 to probe the killing of 29 pilgrims in Mastung. I remain concerned about the low-key response of Pakistan’s authorities to September and October’s violent attacks. It is vital that those responsible are brought to justice. In the long term we should like to see improvements in Pakistani citizens’ access to justice throughout the country. The House may be assured that we will continue to press on these issues, in relation to that community and to others.
Enhancing the rule of law in Pakistan is vital to improving the plight of the Hazara community. A range of Government work is developing that is helping to improve the rule of law in Pakistan. For instance, we are developing a programme with Pakistan to enhance its ability to prosecute violent extremists, including working to enhance investigations, prosecutions, detentions, and legislation. The Department for International Development’s transformational work to address poverty and education will help to enhance Pakistan’s commitment to the rule of law. The UK is working with our European Union partners and the Government of Pakistan to look at ways of supporting reform and capacity building of Pakistan’s rule of law.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham raised, in particular, the Christian community. That gives me the opportunity to say how we try to deal with human rights more generally across the region. Our experience is that picking out one community rather than another is not always the most helpful way to address the issue. Because human rights is an important
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issue right across the board, we find that many minorities are subject to these problems. Ensuring that the rule of law runs across all communities and that Governments are devoted to improving access to the rule of law and the rights of minorities across the board means that no minority can be picked out against another and that where there are those who would like to claim that favourable treatment is offered by those outside, that is not the case.
All are made more secure by attention to the rule of law, and all are weakened, including any minority community, by a Government’s failure to address the rule of law and human rights. That is why our policy is so determinedly aimed at the rights of communities across the board, whether it be those under pressure in Pakistan, Christian communities across the middle east, or individual communities such as the Hazara in Balochistan.
Alan Johnson: I am pleased that the plight of the Hazara will—for the first time, I believe—be covered in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights document. I understand what the Minister is saying about the persecution of other religions. However, does he agree, that if no one raises the persecution of a specific group, we will never discuss any terrorist targets? Does he agree that it is very difficult to find another religion or ethnic group in Pakistan that has quite the same level of apparent compliance in these murders, with absolutely none of the perpetrators brought to justice? If there are other groups—although this is not a contest to see who has been treated worst—I would be very surprised. There is a specific issue about the Hazara that needs to be addressed.
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Alistair Burt: I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s second point. He has referred to terrifying statistics about the absence of justice. As I said, we remain very concerned about the response of the Pakistani authorities to those statistics, and we will apply pressure in relation to them.
In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s first point: absolutely. Hon. Members are bound to raise the issues of individual communities. The point of our approach is to set those cases in context so that we are not pitting one community against another by indicating that one is treated worse than another, and recognising that the absence of the rule of law and human rights can affect so many people. I think that we are all doing this in exactly the right way. The right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members are absolutely right to raise certain different communities, as they have today. We are right in putting that into context and demanding justice for all, because unless there is justice for all, justice is denied for those who are outside that embrace.
The United Kingdom will continue to work with the leaders of Pakistan and its people—people who deserve to experience a stable and prosperous future, to enjoy vibrant democratic debate without fear of intimidation, and to live in a country where freedom of religion is not undermined by sectarian violence. We have a distinctive role to play in supporting that sort of Pakistan. I am grateful for the work of many Members of the House as we continue to work with Pakistan towards that vision.