(pt 1)

16 Jun 2005 : Column 143WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 16 June 2005

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Inter-Parliamentary Union

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Kevin Brennan.]

2.30 pm

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson) : I am delighted to open this second debate on the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Everybody agrees that last year's debate was lively and informative, as I am sure this one will be. The fact that the Whips have made time for the debate in a busy programme is clear recognition of the importance of the IPU to Parliament. It is active in many areas of democracy-building and human rights, and the British group's contribution is widely respected and valued.

At this stage I shall speak briefly, as I hope to respond to the debate later. I pay tribute to the IPU and its splendid work in furthering democracy. It is vital to encourage the democratic process in the Parliaments of newly democratic states; in promoting the values that we in this country hold so dear, the British branch of the IPU brings credit to Britain.

I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on taking the chair of the British group. She cannot be here today, but I look forward to hearing her colleagues inform us about the IPU's activities over the past year.

IPU visits and meetings with other Parliaments create a good environment for the lively exchange of views on a wide variety of topics, and the twice-yearly conferences allow members to discuss matters of common interest at an international level. My colleagues tell me that they very much value the bilateral visits. As far as the work of my office will allow, I will try to meet members who visit this country.

I understand that many Members want to speak in this debate, and I very much look forward to hearing their speeches and, with the leave of the House, replying to the debate.

2.32 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): First, I congratulate the Minister on his new position. Being a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Trade and Industry must involve a certain amount of delicacy, although I am sure that he will not find it uncomfortable. I genuinely wish him well in his new post. May I say how grateful we in the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union are for the support and encouragement that we have received from Ministers and officials at the FCO? We could not function without that support.

I am one of two vice-chairs of the British group. My co-vice-chair, if I may use that clumsy term, is the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), who I gather is engaged in urgent business in South
16 Jun 2005 : Column 144WH
Staffordshire this afternoon. Normally, I would wish him well, but given the circumstances, I simply wish him a speedy return. I speak also in place of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), the chairman, who has urgent business in north Wales, which, I understand, has nothing to do with the by-election. She sends her apologies for being unable to attend the debate.

Several of us met in Westminster Hall last July for the first debate of this kind on the IPU's work, although I am not entirely clear why it was the first given that the IPU was set up in 1898. The then chair of the British group, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin), used his experience as chairman and acting chairman for four years to present an authoritative account of what the IPU undertook during his time in office. Having been a vice-chairman for only seven months, and taking into account the intervention of the general election, I could not possibly attempt to speak with such authority on this occasion. If I have the chance to speak in such a debate in future, I hope to do better.

Before I comment on the activities of the IPU since the previous debate, I place on record the British group's thanks to my hon. Friend for his outstanding contribution in chairing the group. He faced some difficult challenges during his period of office—challenges that he outlined in some detail in last year's debate. He fulfilled his role with great skill and tact, and he won nothing but admiration from the officers and members of the executive committee during that time. He will continue to serve on the international IPU executive until October 2007. After observing the rather interesting convention that the chair of the British group cannot go on an outward delegation, my hon. Friend is now eligible again to do so, which I am sure he will enjoy.

Eight members of the British group's executive stood down at the general election. They include four former vice-chairs of the group: Dame Marion Roe, John Wilkinson, Donald Anderson and Tom Cox. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish them well and thank them for their service to the British group. I particularly thank the two most recent vice-chairs, Dame Marion Roe and John Wilkinson. Dame Marion was vice-chair from 1998 to 2001, and John Wilkinson from 2001 until last November. They made an enormous contribution to the British group and to the IPU internationally. As many know, Dame Marion was a great campaigner on child protection and women's issues; and John Wilkinson served with distinction as one of the vice-presidents of the peace and international security committee of the international IPU. We shall miss them both.

I thank finally the British group's general secretary, Kenneth Courtenay, and his staff who as best they can always keep us on the straight and narrow.

I shall focus on what has happened in the IPU since our last debate, looking first at the IPU internationally and then at the British group. There have been two IPU assemblies since our last debate—in Geneva in September and October last year, and in Manila in April. I did not attend those assemblies, and was hoping that either my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead or my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), who attended both, would be
16 Jun 2005 : Column 145WH
here this afternoon to help me if I was asked any difficult questions; but as you can see, Miss Begg, they are not. I thought that they were both pretty heroic in serving the IPU in Manila four weeks before polling day. However, I checked their majorities and found a second reason for envying them.

To illustrate the importance of the IPU's work, I shall give some idea of the key issues that were debated and resolved at the two assemblies. At the Geneva assembly in September and October last year, the first standing committee on peace and international security drafted a resolution on the role of Parliaments in strengthening measures for non-proliferation and disarmament, which was agreed. The second standing committee on sustainable development, finance and trade drafted a resolution on the role of Parliaments in preserving biodiversity. The third standing committee on democracy and human rights drafted a resolution on Beijing plus 10. There was also an emergency debate on Iraq, which I shall deal with in a moment. That gives hon. Members some idea of the topicality and importance of the issues debated at that assembly.

In April earlier this year, at the Manila assembly, three standing committees drafted resolutions on crimes against humanity, the millennium development goals and HIV/AIDS, and there was an emergency resolution on natural disasters, which was hardly surprising in light of the tsunami tragedy earlier this year. That illustrates the extent to which IPU assemblies focus on issues that are important and topical to parliamentarians throughout the world.

For some time now, Iraq has been one of the most important issues on which the IPU has focused. As I said, the emergency item at last year's assembly in Geneva was the situation in Iraq and the need for parliamentary action to restore peace and security in that country. The assembly reaffirmed the fundamental importance of multilateralism and international co-operation in resolving conflicts between states. It condemned the killing of innocent Iraqis and other nationals, as well as the continuation of hostage taking. It called for free and fair elections, for democracy and the rule of law and for the establishment of a new and legitimate Parliament in Iraq. It underscored the fundamental role that neighbouring countries must play in bringing a positive change to the situation in Iraq and called on them to strengthen regional security, notably by providing humanitarian assistance and reconstruction aid. Lastly, it encouraged the United Nations to avail itself of the IPU's expertise to support the new Iraqi Assembly during discussion of the draft constitution.

The last part of that resolution—the offer of the IPU's expertise in parliamentary matters—demonstrates that the IPU is not, and should not be, just a talking shop. That, as we all know, is always a danger for any organisation. The IPU exists to get things done—in this case, to strengthen representative institutions. After the assembly adopted the resolution, the Iraqi Transitional Assembly invited the IPU to provide assistance, and the IPU is currently working with the UN on a joint programme of assistance to develop representative institutions and parliamentary democracy in Iraq. That illustrates the important role that the IPU does, and must, play.
16 Jun 2005 : Column 146WH

Human rights is another issue on which the IPU is extremely active. I mention that not only because my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, who chairs the British IPU group, would be extremely upset if I did not do so, but because human rights are a crucial aspect of our work. My right hon. Friend has served on the IPU's human rights committee with distinction for many years. She never resists an opportunity to point out how important it is in defending parliamentarians throughout the world whose human rights have been violated. We could never imagine experiencing such a situation in this country, but anyone who reads the accounts of the work in which she and her colleagues on the committee are engaged, as well as the resolutions that they produce, can only be shocked at the number of parliamentarians throughout the world whose human rights are infringed. What is perhaps even more shocking is the number of countries in which parliamentarians' human rights are still violated. There can be no doubt that the committee's work on parliamentarians' human rights is an extremely important part of the IPU's activities.

Before I move on to say a few words about the British group, I want to turn to the issue of HIV/AIDS. We all know the devastating human, economic and social impact of HIV/AIDS. In his famous speech on international AIDS day, on 1 December 2003, Nelson Mandela said that AIDS was nature's war against the very survival of humanity. That raises a question: why are we not fighting HIV/AIDS throughout the world as if it were a war?

I am not saying that not many countries are doing that, because many are. Our Government, and others, are very active in fighting HIV/AIDS, but I suspect that very few of us can say that we know of no other countries where there is a lack of political leadership in dealing with the AIDS crisis, where politicians deny that there is a problem or where Parliaments do not devote the time that they should to debating HIV/AIDS.

I was therefore very pleased that a comprehensive resolution was passed at the Manila assembly on the role of Parliaments in advocating and enforcing the observance of human rights in the strategies for the prevention, management and treatment of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. That resolution has received a positive response from UNAIDS, and I am delighted that the IPU is increasing its work with the United Nations to mobilise Parliaments to take the action that they must take to implement measures for both prevention and treatment. The resolution clearly recognises that Parliaments need to share their experience of tackling the HIV/AIDS crisis.

In the 1970s, I worked for four years in Papua New Guinea, which I visited again last year. Indeed, I am fortunate enough to be visiting it this year to celebrate its 30th anniversary of independence. AIDS is starting to become a very serious issue there, but it is nowhere near as serious as it is in many parts of Africa. Immediate action is therefore required, because, to be perfectly frank, it is one of the countries that I think of when I say that politicians in general are in denial, that action is not being taken, and that sufficient effort is not being made to learn from the experiences of other countries, particularly in Africa, in how to address some of the HIV/AIDS issues.
16 Jun 2005 : Column 147WH

We are very fortunate to have David Gordon-Macleod as our high commissioner to Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. He has raised the issue with great commitment in that country, but whenever I think of the HIV/AIDS crisis, I think of Papua New Guinea and other south Pacific countries—countries outside Africa—which, frankly, often say, "We are not Africa; we don't have that problem." I am sorry, but so many countries do have this problem and are, as I say, in a state of denial. Therefore, one of the crucial things that the IPU can do is get parliamentarians to share experience so that action can be taken to deal with the crisis.

Turning briefly to the work of the British group, to which my hon. Friend the Minister alluded, most hon. and right hon. Members probably think of the IPU as synonymous with bilateral exchanges. We have both inward and outward delegations, which are an important part of what we do—indeed, we receive between six and nine incoming delegations a year, and we send out a similar number—but we now also offer limited financial assistance to affiliated all-party country groups. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) will comment on that, as he happens to be the chairman of the all-party group on Vietnam and has benefited from the IPU's support. The financial year 2003–04 was the first year in which the scheme operated. We believe that it has been very successful in giving some modest but much-needed financial support to some of the all-party country groups.

I want to repeat an important point that I made in last year's debate. The value of inward and outward delegations does not depend solely on what happens during the five or six days involved. Perhaps that is obvious, but I wonder whether we always ensure that the benefits of those exchanges are not transitory, but permanent. I will give the example that I gave last time.

I first went to Lithuania in September 2001, at the invitation of the British group. I was asked to lead the delegation—I am not sure why, because I had never been there before, but we will not go into that. Apart from saying that it wanted to be a member of NATO and the European Union, Lithuania's message was that it wanted parliamentary links with other countries in the European Union and, in particular, with the UK. So, we came back and established a group and now, once a year, members of the all-party Lithuania group use their European travel allowances—for the miserable two days that we are given—to meet parliamentary colleagues in Vilnius and other parts of Lithuania to share views. We also welcome those colleagues here. We have close contacts with the Lithuanian ambassador in London and our ambassador in Vilnius. Many other all-party country groups do precisely the same thing, but the British group of the IPU simply cannot give major support to all the country groups in this place. It is not physically possible; the resources are not there.

Our group has continued its work with Lithuania with little subsequent IPU involvement, but, without that initial outward delegation four years ago, we would not have had the kick-start to build close relationships with parliamentary colleagues in that country. The benefits of outward and inward delegations are not
16 Jun 2005 : Column 148WH
represented solely by what happens during the few days involved. If developed properly, the benefits are much more long term and of enormous value.

As we all appreciate, the founders of the IPU were far-sighted internationalists, who had a deep commitment to seeking to resolve conflicts peacefully. As I said, the IPU was established in 1889 and predates the League of Nations, let alone the UN. It also has the advantage of being a forum for discussion between parliamentarians, not Governments. We are all—not only those of us on the Back Benches—aware of that important distinction. It is important that parliamentarians have a way of communicating with each other internationally and helping each other by working together on matters of mutual interest. The founders of the IPU—so long ago—were far sighted in establishing such an important institution. Arguably, the need for internationalism and to resolve conflicts peacefully is as great now as it was more than 100 years ago.

There is some talk about globalisation being the problem that humanity faces. Globalisation is not new. It has always been there; it is just in a somewhat different form today. The challenge—the problem—is how, in an increasingly globalised world, we can develop a real international community that represents the interests of the people who live on this planet. That can be done only through representative institutions. That is the only way that the majority of people can have their voices heard. The work of the IPU is essential if we are to succeed in the task of building representative institutions that reflect the voices of the majority of people who live and work on this planet.

2.54 pm

Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) in congratulating the Minister on his appointment. I have done so privately, but this is my first opportunity to do so formally and publicly. This is also the first opportunity that I have had to speak under your chairmanship, Miss Begg, and it is a great privilege to do so.

I join other hon. Members in praising the good work of the IPU. People may think that international relations are conducted between Governments and at intergovernmental level by Ministers, state officials, ambassadors and the like. However, the IPU plays a crucial complementary role. Since its inception in 1889, the network of parliamentarians from its 141 member Parliaments has achieved many successes. It is my impression that the IPU performs miracles in the UK, with very limited resources. It is an exemplar of value for money, organising numerous visits and events each year on a budget of £1.5 million with just seven staff.

The IPU has been a consistent force for democratisation around the world, and many countries have benefited in some way, small or large, from the IPU's help and advice, through delegations and continued contact. Even when Governments have been in dispute, parliamentarians have met at IPU assemblies. One has to praise our parliamentarians—both from this House and from the other place—who have participated and have devoted valuable time to the work of the IPU. I particularly praise the members of this House, because participation in the work of organisations such as the IPU is not necessarily
16 Jun 2005 : Column 149WH
seen as a vote-winning opportunity. None the less, they have extracted themselves from the exigencies of the parliamentary treadmill, and devoted considerable time to the work. I thank them for that.

Perhaps I should thank especially those hon. Members who have volunteered their services and expertise at officer level. It is a time-consuming sacrifice, which has benefited this country and others. I add my thanks to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood to Ken Courtenay, as secretary, and all the staff who work with him in Westminster Hall.

As has been said, I am chairman of the all-party Vietnam group. I am also chairman of the all-party China group, and I should like to say a few words in the context of the IPU about the funding of such groups. I was privileged to lead a delegation to Vietnam last September. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood joined me, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart). I like to think that the trip was a considerable success. It was a chance for parliamentarians to see at first hand the progress that Vietnam is making, both on the economy and on democratisation; we met representatives of British firms operating in the country and gained a better understanding of trading opportunities for both sides; we saw what was being done by the Department for International Development, working in partnership on poverty reduction; we visited a subsidised boarding school for ethnic minority children; and we examined allegations of religious persecution in the central highlands.

We took part, with Vietnamese Members of the National Assembly, in two series of workshops. It was an effective mechanism to sit down together for half days at a time on several occasions, in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, to consider Government accountability and public service reform. We took the opportunity to press the authorities for greater freedom with regard to use of the internet; the Foreign Minister reiterated his hope that the death penalty would be abolished by 2010; and we secured the commitment that the National Assembly Members would continue to focus on poverty reduction programmes to ensure social and political stability, and on strengthening democracy in the country. Our hosts welcomed the role that we would try to play in Vietnam's bid to join the World Trade Organisation and to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in years to come.

That list of achievements was made on a shoestring. We had a small contribution from the British Council, an extremely gratefully received contribution of £5,000 from the IPU and some small commercial sponsorship. That has led to a continuing relationship with the National Assembly, which, it is envisaged, will bring the same National Assembly Members who participated in our workshops back to the United Kingdom to undertake incremental work in that regard. They will also spend time with the UK members of the delegation in our constituencies to develop not only a bilateral national relationship but a particular relationship with individual Members of Parliament. That is important since Vietnam wants to enter an Anglophone world, as well as having been in a Francophone world. It has an ambiguous relationship with the United States and it wants to play its full part on the global stage. Vietnam
16 Jun 2005 : Column 150WH
wants to democratise and to play a key role in world events. Our £5,000, modest though it was, has made some contribution to that end.

I am also chairman of the all-party China group, as I have said, and we look forward to receiving our £5,000 when we go to China. However, although the £5,000 is welcome, it simply is not of the order of funding that is required if the group is to develop its full potential and the relationships between the two countries. I believe that China, in particular, has plenty of potential. With the support of Members of this House and other organisations, we want to deepen and widen the relationship between China and the United Kingdom.

Even with all the publicity that one sees about China, its importance, its challenge, its opportunity and its effect on our daily lives in the future is not understood to the extent that it needs to be. China is a mega power. It is a country of 30 different countries and nationalities; each province is the size of a European country. The economy of each province is the size of that of a European country. It has between a fifth and a quarter of the world's population. China is, by some measures, the second largest economy in the world, and by any measure it will be so by about 2020 if it continues on present trends.

China's economy has grown at an average of 10 per cent. per annum since 1978. China is not selling us cheap, shoddy goods with pirated intellectual property; it is selling us high-quality goods down and up the technology spectrum. Frankly, the effect of China on our economy and our workers, and on the global economy and its workers, will be profound, particularly when viewed alongside that of India. We all have to take some notice. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) will have taken some notice in the context of Rover. We have to take notice of the developments in China. We want to develop our relationships with China as much as we can.

China has undergone a massive transformation in recent years. More people are moving to the cities and giving up their traditional lifestyles. Skyscrapers dominate the skyline. Western brands fill smart shopping centres. Take-up of mobile phones and computers has soared in recent years and there are an estimated 90 million internet users—four times the number in 2000. That is a phenomenal expansion.

China is growing not only economically but in terms of its political influence. It is a joint permanent member of the Security Council along with the United Kingdom. It has become a regional and world leader. It is a leader of developing countries, not least in the context of Kyoto and environmental issues. It is a power in the land. We try, as best we can, to play our part in developing our relationship with China. However, that has not been possible in recent years because we have had no funds.

We last visited China in 2002. Given that the place is changing so quickly, that is simply not enough. They say, apocryphally, that 75 per cent. of the world's construction cranes are in Shanghai. That may not be true, but it certainly gives the appearance of being true. We have to engage with this economic and political superpower. To fund a programme of activities, as my Chinese counterpart and I have identified, would, we conservatively estimate, require a budget of £60,000 per annum. We have talked of
16 Jun 2005 : Column 151WH
running exchanges involving not only formal groups but individual sets of parliamentarians—specialists, for example, in technology or the environment. We have talked of exchanges involving individual parliamentarians, staff exchanges and language exchanges between our Parliaments. British Members of Parliament could go to China to learn Mandarin; Chinese Members could come to Britain to learn English.

People talk of the Chinese learning English, but at least as large is the question of what we are doing about learning Mandarin. People talk about the Chinese becoming westernised, but when will we become orientalised? We will certainly have to, because the centre of gravity—globally, economically and politically—is moving eastwards. We need to take account of that, and I hope that we can take advantage of it too.

Previously, the all-party group has gone to China pretty much ad lib and at the expense of the Chinese. However, they have got wise to that and say that we must reciprocate and pay our own way. It is right that we should have proper funding for all-party groups. China is particular, of course, because it is now part of a new, tripolar world. Our group has 260 members and we have gone as far as we can in building it up, given that our secretariat has consisted of about 5 per cent. of my researcher. We cannot go on doing that; it is vastly important that we organise things properly.

I do not say that exclusively in relation to China. Only the Vietnam all-party group receives Government funding at present; that funding has recently increased and exists for historical reasons. However, we should consider proper funding, probably administered via the IPU, for all the groups. The £5,000 writ large could do so much. I have started discussions about Government funding for the China group and all-party groups as a whole. I recognise that there are a lot of them and the commitment that such funding would involve, but I also recognise that the bang for the buck is considerable. The issue needs thorough and fresh examination. Surely it cannot be right that, when we visit countries such as—I pick them at random—Ethiopia and Togo, which have a mere fraction of our gross domestic product at their disposal, we ask them to fund our all-party group's visit. As I say, we need to consider how the IPU might take on more funding and help the all-party groups to conduct their business properly. We have started down that road, and we have to continue down it.

Normally, it is not possible to take spouses on IPU delegations, and I am sure that there are good reasons for that. However, those Members of Parliament who live outside London spend probably 40 weeks of the year apart from their partners or spouses, and are reluctant voluntarily to spend more time apart from them on top of that. In my experience, taking spouses or partners on delegations—obviously at the Member's own expense—has enhanced those delegations and added to the camaraderie, critical mass, cohesion and atmosphere of the group. As I say, there must be good reasons why, traditionally, spouses and partners are not allowed to go, but the issue might need to be considered again. If they were allowed, that would certainly help me in my participation in overseas visits.

I see bilateral relations between any two countries as a pie chart. The variety of slices and their size will vary according to the countries involved. The slices will relate to trade, cultural relations, sport, education, civic and
16 Jun 2005 : Column 152WH
twinning relationships, military relationships and so on. In volume terms, the slice that reflects the parliamentary exchanges will be a slim one, but in importance it is a vast one. Relationships between Parliaments are vital, since Parliaments are measures of countries' places in the global society and of the way in which they have progressed towards democratisation. They are the voice of the nation and are law-making and decision-making bodies. What they do affects every other slice of the pie chart.

Given the importance of that parliamentary relationship, may I suggest that we examine what the Inter-Parliamentary Union is currently doing and the value for money we get from it? We should also consider what more it can do, particularly in relation to developing the role of the all-party groups further. Will the Minister and his officials examine that carefully, with the offices of the IPU and the IPU secretariat, to see how it might be taken forward?

3.11 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), whose expertise on Vietnam and China is well known. He has demonstrated it again today. I take his point about funding and I will say something about it in a minute. Following his argument, I was beginning to wonder whether he was going to put in a claim for organising all-party group funding on the basis of per head of population of country visited. I began to work out how that would sort itself out in relation to his being the chair of the all-party group on China.

I also welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg, and add my congratulations and welcome to my hon. Friend the Minister—a fellow west midlands Member of Parliament. It is good to see him here. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) on his comments and the issues that he raised. I congratulate him particularly on the thanks that he expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin), whose contribution has been very welcome over the years in his time as the chair of the British inter-parliamentary group, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd).

My hon. Friends the Members for Kingswood and for Wirral, South made the point that none of us could do what we do, were it not for the work of Ken Courtenay and the staff of the IPU. I give special thanks to them. I add my endorsement to what my hon. Friend said about the need for the IPU, not just in relation to the value of its work on raising the profile of the HIV issue but about the need to increase it. His point about politics in too many parts of the world being in denial on the issue was well made.

I have the privilege of chairing one of the newer country groups in terms of its affiliation to the IPU: the all-party group on Palestine. It is a unique group in many ways, because while it is building friendship between two countries, two peoples and two Parliaments, only one of those countries has a state. That presents particular challenges for how to build the relationship. It is a new venture for the IPU, but it is a valuable and important one; that is certainly the case in relation to delegations.
16 Jun 2005 : Column 153WH

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South said that asking particular countries to fund delegations was not fair on them. That is even more of a problem when we ask a people without a state to do so. Before affiliation that was one of the problems we faced in relation to the all-party group on Palestine; there was no funding at our end and too much poverty and too little funding at their end. We found ways round that. I remember on one delegation that I led out there a couple of years ago, my meanness became renowned. We got back to the UK and I worked out how much to charge the other members of the delegation. I kept the costs down so much that, had we been able to claim money, we would have come in, per capita, below the registration level for the Register of Member's Interests. That was going some, including all the accommodation, the air fares and so on. I would not like to say too much about the particular airline that we travelled on, but I managed to get the costs down that far.

How we build that relationship, particularly with the Palestine Legislative Council, is important for the future. Even the £5,000 that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South talked about will be welcome in future. It is going to be an issue in that context very soon. The Palestinian presidential elections took place early this year. The European Union, and various other bodies and national Parliaments, sent observers there. This Parliament did not send any. As an all-party group, we wished to send observers, but finding mechanisms for funding was exceptionally difficult. At the end of the day, I am pleased that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stepped in and enabled a delegation to happen. That was important. As parliamentary elections will hopefully be happening in Palestine in the not too distant future, perhaps we will raise that question again. I use the opportunity of this debate to address that question to the Foreign Office and ask the IPU to consider how it could perhaps facilitate the kind of observation that was so valuable in the presidential elections.

Most poignant for me, in showing the value of the IPU in Palestine, was when history was made last year when this Parliament received the first ever official Palestinian parliamentary delegation in the House of Commons. That was important in three ways. It was important in giving Palestinians the diplomatic and inter-parliamentary recognition that they deserve. It was certainly important in building their confidence and allowing dialogue to take place on how they build their democracy under the particular conditions facing them. It had a third importance, however, which none of us was expecting, and it was a tragedy that it did. They were here in the spring of last year at exactly the same time as the major Israeli military incursions into Gaza, particularly into the town of Rafah. Many homes and buildings were demolished and thousands were made homeless. I think two of the parliamentarians on the delegation came from Rafah. While they were here, they did not know whether it was their friends and families who were being made homeless or whether it was their houses that were being destroyed. It was tragic that it was the case, but the third important thing was expressing solidarity and understanding, parliamentarian to parliamentarian, at a time when their thoughts, even though they were meeting us here, were
16 Jun 2005 : Column 154WH
inevitably with their families and friends there. That is a graphic example of why delegations are important and why building links between parliamentarians is important. It is something we must build upon in that part of the world, and I am sure we will. I look forward to working with the IPU in doing so.

Towards the latter end of last year, I was able to join an IPU delegation to Lebanon. The importance of the IPU is demonstrated there as well. In the summer of last year, Lebanon was not much in the news. A United Nations Security Council resolution had been passed just a month or so before the delegation went there. It had received virtually no publicity in this country, virtually no press comment. I am not sure if it generated one single parliamentary question during the Parliament. It was UN resolution 1559 and was particularly important in relation to the political situation in Lebanon at the time. It was important that the IPU delegation was able to go there to explore what was happening—to find out about and discuss some of the things that had been all too obvious to the rest of the world from the events of the previous two months.

I want to mention the Palestinian connection again. Two members of the delegation—the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and I—were able to visit Shatila refugee camp on the anniversary of the massacre of civilians there all those years ago. We saw squalor and poverty equal to anything that I have seen in the Gaza strip today. It was a reminder to us that—in addition to the task of overcoming those refugees' problems and allowing them dignity and, hopefully in due course, a right to return to their homeland—the living standards in Lebanon today should not be ignored. Were it not for the IPU delegation, even those of us who are active on the issue of Palestine would not have had that forceful reminder not to forget what is happening in the camps in Lebanon.

The IPU is tremendously valuable and I am sure that it will continue to be so in the years to come. Before I came here today I obtained my weekly briefing note from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, based in East Jerusalem, which lists the events of the past week. On 8 June demolition orders were issued because there were no building permits for tents, barracks and animal pens in the Bedouin area to the south of Hebron. The demolition order covers 12 structures housing 90 persons and 600 sheep. Also last week Israeli border police fired tear gas canisters and shock grenades inside the compound of an elementary school in East Jerusalem. Several students suffered from gas inhalation.

On the other side of the fence, in that week a total of 56 home-made rockets, mortar shells and anti-tank missiles were fired from different locations in the Gaza strip towards Israeli settlements, nearby Israeli towns and Israeli military installations. In the same week on the west bank a Palestine Red Crescent ambulance team tried to reach a patient in the town of Tulkarm. When the team reached the scene Israeli soldiers were standing next to the injured person. The crew administered emergency treatment, but the soldiers did not allow them to transport the injured person to hospital.

Reading such reports every week is a reminder of the importance of what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said about the need for the IPU and all parliamentarians to continue to take up human rights
16 Jun 2005 : Column 155WH
breaches wherever they happen. I hope that through our relationship with the IPU the all-party Palestine group can continue to make an important, if modest, contribution to achieving and promoting the peace that ordinary Israelis and Palestinians deserve and to building the democracy and understanding that is at the core of the parliamentary democracy, to which we are all committed.

3.24 pm

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): It is a privilege to follow so many other hon. Members with more experience and expertise than I have about the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in this second annual debate on the subject. The timing of the debate is perhaps more appropriate than it might at first seem. On a day when, judging by the news reports this morning, the British and French Governments are at each other's throats in Brussels, it is perhaps worth recalling that it was two Back Benchers—one from France and one from Britain—who founded the IPU back in 1889. Perhaps the spirit of partnership that prevailed between parliamentarians on that occasion could usefully be transported through time to the slightly more vexed condition of bilateral Franco-British relations today.

I want to confine my remarks to exploring what has perhaps become a commonplace observation: Parliaments of all shapes and sizes have their work cut out to retain their visibility, relevance and credibility in a world where globalisation and the 24-hour media industry have made their traditional procedures at times appear more slow-footed than the rapidity with which events evolve. I am struck by an observation that Professor David Beetham made at a panel discussion convened by the IPU in January on the parliamentary dimension of democracy. He summed up that challenge by saying that

I am not sure whether such pessimism is always warranted, but I imagine that all hon. Members present would agree that one of the greatest dilemmas for national Parliaments is that so many of the issues that dominate public debate are international and supranational in nature. Whether we mean the great fraught discussion about the European Union and our place in it or the issues to be discussed at Gleneagles in a few days—global warming, the plight of some of the poorest nations in developing countries or trade justice—many things can be dealt with only internationally and supranationally, often most fully by organisations that operate at a level far above the nation state. So far at least, however, the structures through which democratic accountability is most fully exercised are rooted in each nation's history and confined by the limits of the nation state. That is a slightly long-winded way of summarising what is often described as the democratic deficit. How do we exercise accountability in a world in which so many decisions escape the clutches of the parliamentary institutions with which we are familiar?

A number of innovations have been developed over the years to try to fill that democratic deficit. One such solution is the European Parliament, with which the
16 Jun 2005 : Column 156WH
hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and I, as former Members, are familiar. The European Parliament is perhaps the most advanced attempt to create a supranational institution to fill the democratic deficit. However, without in any way wishing to cast aspersions on that important body or the valuable work of my former colleagues, I think that it is fair to say that the European Parliament does not enjoy the same degree of legitimacy that Parliaments such as ours do, given that parliamentarians in this place and in other national Parliaments are closer to their electorates than supranational parliamentarians could ever be. In that context, the work of the IPU is so important, because it brings together representatives of national Parliaments. They are the most fully equipped to speak on behalf of the electorates and, in so doing, exercise the greatest form of political accountability on events around them.

I would like to pick one example of that, which is terrifically important. In preparing for today's debate, my eye was caught in the papers that I downloaded from the IPU's excellent website by the joint initiative that the IPU has launched with the European Parliament to create a standing parliamentary conference on the World Trade Organisation.

I am not sure whether other hon. Members share my feelings, but one of the things that struck me in the recent general election campaign was how international issues such as trade justice and global warming seemed to captivate the imaginations of many voters, particularly younger voters, more than any other matter. An organisation such as the World Trade Organisation, which used to be an obscure, little-known, technical body on the shores of Lake Geneva, has moved into the centre-stage of high street petitions about the economic imbalances of the world trading system and the rights and wrongs of the trading relationship between the developed and the developing worlds. We are all familiar from contact with our constituents with the centrality that trade policy and the World Trade Organisation now seem to play in contemporary political debate.

That the IPU in conjunction with the European Parliament should have convened this parliamentary conference is extremely timely. If we ever hope to fill the democratic deficit in which important decisions are taken—often by unelected decision makers in bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, and on issues that have such great political resonance—then the construction of some flanking parliamentary arrangement is of great urgency. That could try to shed the light of political accountability on what are otherwise often rather obscure, technocratic and not wholly transparent developments.

In that vein it would seem logical that the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union should continue to focus as much as possible on those issues that we know are, first, of great importance to our constituents, but secondly, by their very nature ones that we cannot settle on our own in this place or, indeed, in any other Parliament in any other nation. A long list of candidates issues spring to mind, but one is global warming. I am sure that I speak in ignorance on this point and that the IPU has done work on it, but global warming seems a perfect example of another trans-border or transnational issue on which the IPU is ideally suited to create a greater sense of parliamentary and political accountability, which is sometimes lacking at the supranational level.
16 Jun 2005 : Column 157WH

3.34 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): First of all, I welcome you, Miss Begg, to the debate this afternoon. Appearing before you for the first time is a great privilege. I also congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I will have great pleasure in shadowing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office aspects of his trade brief, as well as the human rights aspects. Also, I think for the first time, I formally congratulate and welcome the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) to the House. I am sure he will be happy and will have a great contribution to make.

I was very taken by what the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) said, and I would like to touch on some of the points that he and his hon. Friends have raised. I was particularly taken by the comments made by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) on spouses not being able to join outward delegations. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam found himself in that position, but in my case it became something of a family joke. When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I was single—never having married. I then married in 1992. My husband worked for an American airline company. As a Member of the European Parliament, I travelled a lot during the week. The family joke was that, while my parents hardly spent a night apart, my husband and I rarely spent a night together. That was one of the reasons why I sought to become a Member of the House of Commons.

I pay tribute formally to the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. On behalf of the official Opposition, I lend our wholehearted support to the work of the union. In particular, I record our gratitude to the British group and the work of Kenneth Courtenay and his excellent team. Let me deign to give some advice to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam. On first being elected as a new Member, there are three organisations that one wishes to join. One is the Inter-Parliamentary Union, one is the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the other, of which I forget the formal title, is the Anglo-American inter-parliamentary group. Those are three worthy groups.

Both the formal and the informal work of the members of the British group is extremely important, in welcoming incoming delegations and in meeting and making daily contacts that one can build on so that one can lift the phone if there is a trade problem. During the recent troubles with MG Rover in his constituency, I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) picked up the phone to colleagues in, for example, China on more than one occasion.

Like the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, I am coming fresh to the brief, so it is interesting to place in context the historical moment at which the Inter-Parliamentary Union was set up, which was 1889 and to note that eight Nobel peace prizes were awarded to leading personalities from the IPU, most of them between 1901 and 1927.

Alarmingly, in the British context, there are echoes that may strike a chord with current history in the Conservative party. In preparing notes for today's debate, my office discovered that, following Disraeli's death in 1881, the Conservatives entered a period of turmoil. Lord Salisbury became the leader of the
16 Jun 2005 : Column 158WH
Conservative Members of the House of Lords, although the overall leadership of the party was not formally allocated, so Salisbury had to struggle with the Commons' leader Sir Stafford Northcote, a struggle from which Salisbury eventually emerged as the leading figure. He became Prime Minister of a minority Administration from 1885 to 1886, before holding a parliamentary majority from 1886. Salisbury was the last peer to serve as Prime Minister, with the brief exception of the 14th Earl of Home, who renounced his peerage a few days after being appointed. There are certain echoes from the history of that time.

From the website of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we learn of some of its work. It is interesting to note that the current activities are representative democracy, international peace and security, sustainable development—which is topical because the G8 summit is coming up—human rights and humanitarian law, women in politics and education, science and culture. I join the vice-chairman of the British group, the hon. Member for Kingswood, in paying tribute to the retiring members of the IPU British group, in particular to Dame Marion Roe, John Wilkinson and Tom Cox. They made a considerable contribution spanning a substantial period.

Also noteworthy, particularly with the phenomenal peacekeeping work that the United Nations is doing at present, are the IPU's efforts in supporting the UN. The two organisations share objectives and work in close co-operation. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam referred to the work of the European Parliament—perhaps the most supranational body, although subsidiarity is becoming a buzz word in the absence of a constitution. The IPU's work with other regional inter-parliamentary organisations is important and deserves recognition, as does its work with international, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations that are motivated by the same ideals.

Given the objectives of the IPU, having a membership of more than 140 national Parliaments gives it quite an entrée, and having seven regional parliamentary assemblies as associate members gives it a foot in those doors as well. I note that most members of the IPU are affiliated with one of the six geopolitical groups that are active in the IPU. The IPU budget is financed by its members out of public funds. For 2005, the budget totals 10.5 million Swiss francs, which is a modest amount for an international organisation.

I was struck by the personality of Albert Gobat, who was the first Secretary General. He was able to stamp his character on the initial work of the IPU. I was particularly taken by the fact that he staunchly supported the principle of equal pay for men and women, especially in the case of telegraphers. I checked with my father and was delighted to note that my paternal grandmother, Alice Anne Ballingall, would have—I hope—been a beneficiary, as she was a telegrapher. I was named after her. I am delighted that Albert Gobat not only made his mark as the first IPU Secretary General but looked favourably on equal pay for men and women, especially telegraphers.

I read the biography of Randal Cremer, who was one of the joint founding fathers of the IPU, on the Nobel Foundation's website. It seems that he had a very sad life. His father—a coach painter—deserted the family while the boy was still an infant. His mother, who was
16 Jun 2005 : Column 159WH
described as an indomitable woman, raised her son and two daughters despite stringent poverty and even sent her son to a church school, as she was a strong Methodist. At 15, he was apprenticed to an uncle in the building trade, eventually becoming a fully fledged carpenter. He supplemented his meagre formal education by attending lectures, and it was at one of those lectures that he was briefed on the role of arbitration in settling international disputes. That made a real impact on him.

Randal Cremer was described as a lonely man. His first wife died in 1876 and his second wife died in 1884, leaving no children. He lived a simple life, enjoyed nature, worked long hours and was generous. In fact, on being awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1903, he immediately gave £7,000 of the prize money, which totalled about £8,000, to the International Arbitration League of which he was secretary and which later became the IPU. He subsequently gave an additional £1,000. That seems an incredibly generous personal contribution.

I wish to refer to some moving words in the lecture that he gave on accepting the Nobel peace prize in January 1905. He stated:

It continues and I hope that we can take this message away with us this afternoon:

I hope that all those who have contributed to the debate this afternoon will take strength and courage from those remarks and that we will carry on the IPU's excellent international work, particularly through the British group.

I end on a slightly lighter note before inviting the Minister to conclude the debate. His hon. Friends, particularly the hon. Members for Birmingham, Northfield and for Wirral, South, may have given him a rather large tab in the form of a plea for further funding, with which I have some sympathy, particularly when we are receiving such hospitality. I have not yet had the privilege of attending an IPU delegation, although I have attended a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. I hope that it does not put the Minister in too difficult a position with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I pay tribute to the IPU's work; long may it continue, particularly through the British group.

3.46 pm

Ian Pearson : First, I thank hon. Members for their generous comments about my appointment as Minister for Trade with responsibility for investment and foreign affairs. It is a terrific job and I intend to do it to the best of my ability.
16 Jun 2005 : Column 160WH

The debate has given Parliament a good picture of the IPU's work over the past year. I am pleased to hear that so many colleagues participate in IPU activities, which give opportunities to engage with colleagues from other Parliaments. The Government recognise the value of those inter-parliamentary links and their benefit in strengthening democracy.

I want to add my personal thanks and appreciation to the outgoing chairman of the IPU, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin), and all retiring parliamentarians for their work for the IPU over the years.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who introduced this important debate impressively and said that the IPU is not and should not be just a talking shop. I totally concur with him in that. It should be about strengthening democracy and human rights.

I am glad that human rights have had such a prominent place in this debate. They are fundamental to democracy and remain at the heart of the Government's foreign policy. The IPU plays a valuable and important role in the defence and promotion of human rights, and the international IPU is right to focus on them. It is good to note that the British group is active in that area.

Some countries that have moved towards greater democracy are those that the IPU has identified as countries of interest. Many IPU visits are to countries where young democracies deserve our support, and sharing the democratic values of this country is a good way to show that support.

Human rights work also covers other areas and the IPU has been engaged in debate to encourage the eradication of the marginalisation of women, child trafficking, prostitution and female genital mutilation. We are right to be concerned about those issues; no effort to encourage human rights is wasted.

The IPU has been particularly active in promoting the human rights of parliamentarians. Without the freedom of expression that we take for granted in this House, true democracy cannot function. It is appalling that in parts of the world parliamentarians are often denied the right of free expression. Some are threatened, prosecuted, imprisoned or even killed, just for having exercised their right of free speech. With the 60th birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi this weekend, the situation in Burma is foremost in many people's minds. She has paid a heavy price for her commitment to democracy and is an inspiration to democrats throughout the world.

Richard Burden : I agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Minister says about Aung San Suu Kyi; she is an inspiration to many. I also want to alert him to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) through the international institutions of the IPU in raising the cases of two parliamentarians, and to pay tribute to her for that. I should, perhaps, have referred to them in my previous remarks. Two Palestinian parliamentarians, Hussam Khader and Marwan Barghouti, are imprisoned, and their cases need to be highlighted. The IPU has been an important forum in which to do so. We are, however, still waiting for action; Israel has yet to respond to the representations that have been made.
16 Jun 2005 : Column 161WH

Ian Pearson : I note what my hon. Friend says. There are human rights violations in many countries; the Government take an interest in all of them and we put our position to those countries.

I am pleased to hear that the British delegation to the IPU assembly in Manila in April raised with the Iranian delegation the rights of parliamentarians in Iran. The British delegation also met with the newly formed Association of South East Asian Nations Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar caucus to discuss how we can help parliamentary democracy in Burma. That type of activity can have an effect and will ultimately bring about positive change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood spoke movingly about the importance of taking action to tackle HIV/AIDS, and I agree with his point that some countries seem to be in denial about the scale of the problem. He will be aware of the extensive efforts that the Government are making in Africa and in many countries elsewhere to provide support for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of Iraq. It is heartening that the new chair of the British group of the IPU is the Prime Minister's special envoy to Iraq, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). Who better to ensure that renewed relations between the IPU and Iraq get off on a good footing? It is important to nurture the fragile democracy that is emerging in Iraq, and I hope that it will soon be welcomed back as a full member of the IPU. Judging by the images of 30 January, it is clear that the Iraqi people wanted elections and to enjoy a democratic political process. I understand that the IPU is considering ways in which it can become involved in providing assistance to the Transitional National Assembly. I am glad that Iraq has shown a willingness to rejoin the IPU, and that the IPU has agreed to offer assistance. It is right that the family of Parliaments welcomes Iraq back into its ranks.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) that the IPU is a consistent force for democratisation. He spoke about the work of the all-party groups on Vietnam and on China. I note what he says about those groups operating on a shoestring budget, and I appreciate that he feels strongly that that is insufficient, given the development opportunities that exist.

My hon. Friend is right to point to China's phenomenal growth, its increasing power and influence, and the need to develop relationships with it at all levels. I understand that in January he met my predecessor, now the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), to discuss the issue of funding for all-party groups. I, too, would be happy to meet him to discuss that. However, he should be aware that the Treasury holds the view that the funding for all-party groups should come from the House of Commons budget. We would also not wish to do anything that might lead to us being accused of compromising the independence of parliamentary groups. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South raises a valid and important point about China. It is set to become the world's second largest trading nation and economy, and it is right and in Britain's interests that we have relations with China at all levels.
16 Jun 2005 : Column 162WH

I must also point out that, as a Government, we need to emphasise the human rights violations that currently take place in China, and we will continue to do so. I shall be visiting China early next month and will have the opportunity to raise several issues with people there. I hope to talk to my hon. Friend before I leave.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) spoke about his meanness in respect of travel and expenses. He does not have a mean bone in his body; he has a desire to do things right and an abhorrence of waste typical of many people who come from the west midlands. I congratulate him on his work in respect of Palestine with the IPU delegation and through other means. He is recognised widely as an expert on that part of the world and, along with others, he is playing an important role in promoting peace and human rights in Palestine.

To digress a little, I wish to say how much people in the west midlands value the role played by my hon. Friend following the collapse of MG Rover. He has been a leading light in ensuring that the Government do all that they can to support the workers at MG Rover and their families, and to deal with the consequences in the supply chain and further afield. The constructive way in which he has carried out his role as a constituency Member of Parliament is much appreciated by the Government.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) is developing a reputation quickly for being a diligent and thoughtful Member of the House. He covered a range of areas in his speech, but I wish to confine my remarks to what he said about trade. The Government regard it is an important issue. In the run-up to Hong Kong and the World Trade Organisation negotiations, it is important that we push strongly the Doha development agenda. We want an outcome that could take 144 million people out of poverty. Progress needs to be made on agriculture, non-agricultural market access—NAMA—services and trade facilitation. We want to gain the good will of other nations. Given that negotiations will be led by the European Union, of which we shall hold the presidency, the United Kingdom will have a significant voice in those talks. If we can make progress with other countries, we shall put the Doha agenda back on track and see a conclusion to the trade negotiations in 2006, which is the Government's objective. I welcome the IPU's decision to hold a conference on trade issues. I shall certainly take an interest in the outcome of its deliberations.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) rightly acknowledged her support for the IPU's work. One of its great strengths is its non-partisan nature. She spoke eloquently about the turmoil in the Conservative party back in the 1880s and 1890s when the IPU was formed. I am sure that the party's current turmoil will not prevent Conservative MPs from playing a full part in the work of the IPU.

The hon. Lady's contribution was thoroughly well researched and I agree with all that she said, in particular the moving words that she quoted and that were written almost a century ago. She referred also to the G8 and Africa. The Government have made Africa a priority in 2005. On 11 March the Prime Minister launched the Commission for Africa report, which sets out to generate fresh ideas and a comprehensive plan of action on Africa. We want to move it forward in our
16 Jun 2005 : Column 163WH
capacity as president of the G8 at Gleneagles. Supporting Africa's development will be a key objective in the millennium review summit in New York in September and—as I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam—at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong in December.

I congratulate the British group on taking the initiative and hosting a parliamentary summit on Africa in London in October with the European Parliamentarians for Africa and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. That work has an important role to play in building a consensus on doing more to help Africa.

I am also impressed by the long list of inward and outward delegations that the British IPU group has organised—the total for the 2005–06 financial year is 28. The British branch of the IPU has also supported visits by other all-party parliamentary groups. These programmes give Parliament a unique opportunity for dialogue with other Parliaments and Governments. They also give individual MPs the chance to see at first hand the situation in countries that are often the subject of debate in the House. I think we all agree that briefings and written reports are all well and good, but there is no substitute for going to a country and seeing the situation on the ground. One benefit of the IPU is that it provides opportunities to do precisely that. Inward visits to this Parliament, of course, give us a chance to share our traditions and expertise with colleagues from other
16 Jun 2005 : Column 164WH
countries. Foreign Office Ministers have met visiting delegations whenever possible, and we shall continue to do so.

At the IPU's 2004 AGM, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary praised the IPU for strengthening Britain's international links and for helping countries that are struggling to become democracies. The Foreign Office fully supports the British group's work and will continue to do so. Foreign Office departments will continue to offer oral briefings to delegations before they travel overseas, and our posts will be ready to help at visit destinations. Of course, there are limits to the help that posts can give, but I was pleased to read in the report of the delegation to the IPU assembly in Manila of the useful help given by our embassy in the Philippines. That is surely evidence that good relations do flourish.

In closing, I congratulate colleagues on the successes of the past year and I offer my and the Government's good wishes for their forthcoming programmes. Today's debate has shown the IPU, and especially the British group, to be a strong champion of democracy. The wide coverage of the globe and of global problems this afternoon shows the IPU's importance in international relations. I congratulate the IPU and wish its members well in their forthcoming events.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page