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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 May 2006

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]


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

9.30 am

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Sir Alan, I have no registrable interests to declare, but I am chairman of the Britain-Nepal parliamentary group. In that capacity, I was asked to lead a parliamentary delegation to Nepal recently, which was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our visit in March this year followed on from a visit in January 1996, when I led the last Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Nepal. The Nepal we found in 2006 was very different indeed from the one to which I went 10 years previously.

In 1996, there was a flourishing, working, multi-party parliamentary democracy in Nepal and, as far as I am aware, no political detainees in that country. The media were conspicuously free. The Maoists were unheard of and their insurgency had not started at that point, although it began later that year. The king, now sadly the late King Birendra, was universally respected and admired in the country for bringing it to a new condition of constitutional monarchy and genuine multi-party parliamentary democracy.

The Nepal we visited in March was sadly wholly different. Parliament had not sat for four years, and an unknown number of people were subject to political detention, including Mr. Madhav Nepal, the leader of one of the major political parties, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). Notwithstanding its name, that is a democratic party. The Maoists were in effective territorial control of approximately three quarters of the country. In private and, in part, public conversation, the current king, King Gyanendra, was subjected to a degree of venom and vitriol that made me wonder whether I was going about in late 18th-century France.

As the Foreign and Commonwealth Office predicted, King Gyanendra declined to see us, although we noted with a degree of wry amusement that in the week we were in Nepal he none the less, according to the Himalaya Post, found time to receive a special envoy from Fidel Castro at the same time that he declined to see a delegation from the mother of Parliaments.

Should the Minister feel that his Department's funding was in any way not put to good use, I assure him that we were able to strike at least one solid blow for the restoration of parliamentary democracy. We paid a call on Speaker Ranabhat, who led the last Nepalese IPU delegation to this Parliament in 1999. Although Speaker Ranabhat was deprived of his Chamber, he was still the official Speaker. I asked him whether he would kindly show his Speaker's Chair, which is beautifully carved in British oak and was a gift from this House to the Parliament of Nepal in 1992, to the British parliamentary delegation. He kindly agreed to do so.
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We went along to the House of Representatives, and the forbidding steel-grille gates were unlocked and opened. The large outer doors were also opened, and in we went to see the Chamber covered in dust sheets. That has been Nepal for the past four years, with its parliamentary democracy covered in dust sheets. Speaker Ranabhat took his Chair, and we stood on either side of him. The Minister will be glad to know that that picture received front-page coverage in every leading newspaper in Nepal—in the English and, more importantly, Nepalese languages—and appeared under the headline, "After 4 years, Ranabhat sits on Speaker's chair".

I do not think that any of us who went to Nepal thought in our wildest and most optimistic dreams—there were no huge grounds for optimism—that within five weeks to the day of our departure from Kathmandu, the Speaker's Chair in the House of Representatives in Nepal would be occupied for the real opening of the Parliament. That, of course, took place last Friday. The credit for it lies with one group and one group alone—the people of Nepal, most particularly the 100,000 or so who took to the streets in Kathmandu and the thousands more who took to the streets in other towns and cities all over Nepal to demand the restoration of their Parliament.

Those were the people who had the courage to defy the curfew, the risk of arrest and imprisonment, and the bullets, although tragically some 14 people were killed. I would like to say that we in the House salute the people of Nepal for the bravery and determination they have shown and for their achievement in getting their Parliament restored to them.

The restoration of Parliament in Nepal is, I suspect, just the beginning; it is certain that the hardest part still lies ahead. Last week the King gave in, but the Maoists will be a far harder nut to crack. They have a stranglehold on the country that is based on brutality, fear and intimidation. That stranglehold, as I have said, extends territorially to at least three quarters of Nepal.

We received a striking illustration of the nature of that stranglehold at our meeting with the chief district officer in Biratnagar. He told us that, as a result of intimidation of school management committees and head teachers, the Maoists had a total ability to walk into any school in his district, with the exception of those in the immediate environment of the city of Biratnagar, take over the classrooms and spew out their propaganda to the children and students. To translate that into UK terms, that would be approximately the same as a United Kingdom in which the whole of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England with the exception of London, the Birmingham conurbation, the Manchester conurbation and Newcastle were under Maoist control.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend, but I am sure that he would like the rest of that conversation with the chief administrator to be put on record. We were told not only that the Maoists could access schools at will,
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but that teachers had to pay a month's salary in extortion to them and that most small businesses had to pay them protection money.

Sir John Stanley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely correct. I shall refer to that dimension of Maoist influence in a moment.

The real winners from last week's events, welcome though they were, stand to be the Maoists. They can claim, with real credibility, that the king's capitulation was due to them and the crowds that they brought on to the streets, not to the leaders of the democratic parties. They have also got themselves into a pivotal position, and Nepal's political and democratic development will depend on what they are or are not prepared to agree to.

As of now, the Maoists have given up nothing of substance in return. They have given no assurance that they will not resume their murder, torture and brutality or their exercise of fear and intimidation when the ceasefire that they announced ends in three months. They have given no assurance that the financial extortion to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) referred will not continue. That extortion extends to all parts of the country and, we were told, even to payments to Gurkha pensioners.

The Maoists have given no assurance that they will not resume their blockades, which emptied the markets in Kathmandu and precipitated a business and food crisis in the capital in a matter of days. Finally, they have given no assurance that they will lay down their arms and, most critically, that they will allow free and fair elections to take place.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): During that recent visit to Nepal, did my right hon. Friend find out whether the Maoists are sponsored or supported in any way by the authorities in neighbouring China?

Sir John Stanley : All the conversations that we had during our visit, and all those that I had previously, indicate that this Maoist group, rather like Shining Path in Peru, receives no backing from the Chinese Communist party.

Nepal is on a knife edge between a democratic or a Maoist outcome. As of today, it is far from clear which way Nepal will fall, and it would be a brave person who said that a democratic outcome was assured. The political democratic leadership is relatively aged and, it must be said, somewhat tainted by the past. Central Government institutions are weak, and we must always remember that Nepal has the most favourable terrain in the world for terrorist operations. In this country, someone in need of help and protection will receive it in a matter of minutes, but in the hills of Nepal it will not arrive within minutes or even hours—it is several days' walk away. That factor alone puts the hill people and, indeed, many others in Nepal at the mercy of the Maoists.

As a sovereign country, Nepal is of course responsible for determining its own destiny, but there is little chance of a successful long-term democratic outcome if the
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country is left unaided and unsupported by its friends and the international community. Britain is in a unique position among the members of the international community. It is Nepal's longest-term friend, and that friendship goes back nearly 200 years, in which time Nepalese soldiers—the Gurkhas—have served in the British armed forces with conspicuous distinction, in peace and war. Britain is the European Union member state with far and away the closest relationship to and greatest influence in Nepal. It is also much more trusted there than either of Nepal's most immediate big neighbours, China and India.

The central question facing Nepal today is whether the hugely welcome restoration of parliamentary democracy will be permanent or simply a transitional phase towards a Maoist state. If that were the outcome, it would be a tragedy for the people of Nepal. Almost as significantly, however, it could have profound regional consequences because Nepal is surrounded by three large neighbours—India, Pakistan and China—all of which are heavily armed and, of course, nuclear powers.

I do not for a moment suggest that the British Government can single-handedly prevent such an outcome, but they must do their utmost to ensure that a Maoist state is not the end result for Nepal. At this critical moment for Nepal, and in the light of our 200-year friendship, the British Government need to give Nepal a new and altogether higher priority. The people of Nepal deserve nothing less from us.

9.48 am

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I rise both to compliment the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and to complement what he has said in his speech. I compliment him on leading the delegation, on which I was proud to serve, and I have a feeling that the other Members who served on it, including the hon. Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) will want to pay tribute to him for leading it with courage, strength and great passion. Indeed, his feelings about Nepal are sincere and go back a long way.

I was very moved by what I saw on our visit, which was my first to the country, and I want to draw a few conclusions to complement what the right hon. Gentleman said. I should say for the record that we spent some of our time looking at aid issues and that I am a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for International Development. My comments today, however, are about the political situation in the Foreign Office context.

Before we went there, Nepal was showing all the signs of a failing state. It is an incredibly poor country, with per capita income at $260 a year and falling. Indeed, the figure might be only as high as that owing to the value of remittances, which come from the perhaps one quarter of all Nepalese people who now live outside the country. That says something about the situation inside the country. Some 60 per cent. of the economy of Nepal is agricultural, but that means that about 30 per cent. of the economy relies on tourism. The five-star market, as it is called, has completely collapsed. I read from figures published this week that in April alone there was a 2.2 per cent. fall in the value of the tourist economy in Nepal, which is obviously dependent on that contribution.
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Nepal is also a country where there has been overt and covert censorship in very large measure. It is fortunate that we can mark today as world press freedom day, and I should like to draw attention to one or two conclusions that the Federation of Nepalese Journalists has reached about the past 15 months. Over that time, during which the king had absolute power, two journalists were killed, 88 were tortured, 11 were abducted, 282 were attacked and 707 were arrested. Similarly, 39 journalists were displaced and 250 sacked, and 108 newspapers were forced to halt publication. The Nepalese Government also blocked at least 25 news websites, raided private radio stations and banned broadcasting of news from all stations for a few months, until the supreme court stepped in to allow FM stations to broadcast news again.

Not all those incidents were the responsibility of the Government of Nepal, however. The figures released by the Federation of Nepalese Journalists suggest that the Maoist forces killed at least two journalists, and assaulted and threatened many others over a 10-year period, and have continued to bar them from reporting freely from the Maoist stronghold, even though the leaders of the Maoists have time and again expressed their commitment in principle to respecting press freedom.

According to one international organisation, Reporters Sans Borders—I am not sure what language that title is supposed to be in—more than half the cases of news censorship worldwide in the past year were in Nepal, with 567 incidents reported and 145 journalists physically attacked or harassed. A country where there has been no press freedom over the past 15 months or so is a difficult country for the outside world to explore.

We also know that about 3,000 people were detained without trial for various durations, leading up to the abortive local elections in February. I would be interested to hear any news from my hon. Friend the Minister about whether people continue to be held without trial or whether more have been released— Mr. Nepal, who is one of the high-profile prisoners, has been released, but information about others would also be welcome.

To return to the list of hallmarks of failing states, there have also been several instances of soldiers and members of the armed police being arrested for crimes such as robbery. The ability of the Royal Nepalese army, which is one of the biggest armed forces in the world, successfully to control its vast number of new recruits is questionable.

Over the period of the king's autocratic rule, we also saw the systematic replacement of non-sympathetic members of the supreme court. I understand that the new Nepalese Government have already said that that process will stop. However, I hope that it will not only stop but be reversed and that an objective means of appointing members of the supreme court in Nepal will return.

Over a long period, there were also the bhands—or transport strikes—which seemed to become more and more potent, and were used by more than one element in what passes for the political process in Nepal. One of those strikes ended just before we arrived there. Nevertheless, when we travelling out to Biratnagar we saw minibuses and buses that had been newly torched
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and trees that had been newly felled over roads. I subsequently discovered that a gunfight between Maoist forces and the Royal Nepalese army took place in the village close to the one that we visited while we were there. Fortunately, we did not hear it or get close, but as the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling and the hon. Member for Cotswold mentioned, there was clearly a lot of intimidation going on, even outside the strikes.

Throughout much of April we saw 100,000 dissenters on the streets, as the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said. It is reported in the news today that the Nepalese Government have announced that 19 people, rather than 14, died at the hands of the military and the armed police during the days of dissent and demonstration.

In response to the developing situation over the past year or so, Britain, like other countries across the world, has quite rightly stopped supplying lethal military aid to Nepal. We have continued to provide Nepal with training in human rights issues for military staff, as well as anti-mine technology and training in its use. No one would argue with that, but we need to consider whether—and if so, how quickly and in what quality—any military aid from Britain would be increased to Nepal, particularly as its problem is an internal one, rather than one from an external aggressor. The situation is made even more complex by the fact that the very people from whom protection is required are in some form of alliance with the democratic parties. I therefore suspect that the Minister will say that there is no likelihood of any early restoration of military aid in its previous form.

There is a sad situation in Nepal, which is changing but getting no less sad. The threats are no less than those that the right hon. Gentleman described. In retrospect, the week that we were there was crucial for King Gyanendra. It was probably his last chance to oversee a peaceful transition of power back to the forces of democracy in a way that could have guaranteed the continuation of the constitutional monarchy. Much has happened in the past 18 months to destroy trust in the king and the position of the monarch, in his relationship not only with politicians but with the people themselves. I have mentioned the hallmarks of the failing state, many of which followed from the king's autocratic rule. They were not chance happenings but deliberate actions by the king and those acting on his behalf.

While we were in Nepal, the leaders of the seven-party alliance were trying valiantly to keep the lid on popular republican sentiments. My guess is that in the long term they will be seen to have failed in that. I have a sneaking suspicion that the king might no longer be in office 12 months down the road. That might be the outcome of the constitutional settlement that is now being sought. I believe that Nepal will probably fail as a constitutional monarchy because the king hung on to power for far too long, although I admit that there were very difficult circumstances.

We know that the Maoists have declared a three-month ceasefire, which is welcome, but it should be regarded with some suspicion, not least because it does not cover the likely date for a general election. The monsoon season will start shortly so, as we heard from
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the Nepalese ambassador with whom we had a positive meeting yesterday, the first credible date for an election is in September or October.

We must not underestimate the size of the task that faces the Nepalese Government. Restoring Parliament is only the first step in the long path to restoring faith in democracy. Inside Kathmandu, the threads of democracy are being maintained for as long as possible. Outside Kathmandu, for reasons mentioned by my colleagues the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling and the hon. Member for Cotswold, democracy has disappeared, and it needs to be reinstated from first principles. That cannot be done while there are forces in Nepal that seem to insist on undermining the process.

Despite the conciliatory words of the Maoists, it is clear that we will not achieve democracy in Nepal while parts of the country are controlled by terror and intimidation and by unaccountable forces. That is the principal challenge that faces the seven-party alliance.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells) : My hon. Friend gives a fascinating account of what he and his colleagues discovered in Nepal. In his discussions with representatives of the seven-party alliance, did he gain any notion of what the alliance thought would be the prospect of the Maoists going down the democratic road?

Tom Levitt : The seven-party alliance drew up the 12-point agreement with the Maoists, and it was re-endorsed a couple of weeks before our visit. That agreement is the straw at which everyone is clutching. My knowledge of the Maoists is not sufficient for me to make an absolute judgment as to their reliability, but we must also consider their capacity to deliver on a deal with the democratic forces.

It is worth pointing out that, by definition, an alliance of seven parties will have problems in keeping together. There are many other political parties in Nepal; some of them could have been described as "two men and a dog", except that I did not see many dogs. There must as a result be tensions within the alliance, particularly on how far the 12-point plan can be trusted and worked on. I hope that we will be able to help all seven members of the seven-party alliance to build a capacity to function as democratic parties, because there are real questions about their democratic credentials. By any standard Nepal is a young democracy, and it did not reach democratic maturity before starting to take backward steps.

On the party political front, we should not forget that there are some very influential and powerful individuals in Nepal. Among those placed in position by the king over the past 18 months, some will want to follow the pro-monarchist agenda, and their political programme may include undermining and trying to split the seven-party alliance. We must be aware of that possibility.

I return to the Minister's question. It is true that the Maoists must be defeated, but it has to be a political defeat. Everyone agrees that there is no chance of a military victory against the Maoists because of the country's terrain, poor communications and so on. However, the 12-point plan has to be the means by
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which the political parties call the Maoists' bluff. If they can deliver on the 12-point plan, they will have taken a huge step forward. They have to call their bluff.

While we were in Nepal, some of us were putting a case for the political parties to call the king's bluff and taking up the king's nominal and perhaps superficial offer of elections. The parties chose not to do so. Perhaps they will now call the Maoists' bluff, saying that it is either the 12-point plan or nothing, with the constitutional election and decisions about the future of the constitution at the heart of the process.

It was a challenging week, but enjoyable. We were joined by two Members of the other House. Between us we represented the three main parties and the Cross Benches, but we spoke as one. Our delegation's analysis of the situation was pretty uniform. I thank the Foreign Office for having enabled the delegation to take place. I hope that we can look back and say that we helped at the start of the long process of restoring democracy. Democracy is much more than elections, and Nepal has a long way to go, but I hope that the Government will take up our historic role of being a good friend to Nepal and give whatever assistance they can to help that country become a stable, satisfactory and successful democracy.

10.7 am

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): During the last 40 minutes, in excellent speeches from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), we have heard as good an analysis of the situation in Nepal as one could expect to hear anywhere.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend showed admirable leadership during the visit. He ran the exercise with military precision—not once were we allowed to deviate, hesitate or turn from the programme. In my judgment, it was the most effective parliamentary delegation in which I have been involved, largely due to its composition: as well as the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend, it included my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and two Members from the other place, Baroness Northover and the Earl of Sandwich. It was a very cohesive and effective team.

I thank our ambassador to Nepal, Keith Bloomfield, and his colleagues. Our embassies are always supportive when parliamentarians make such visits. One senses that our embassy to Nepal went the extra mile on this occasion—partly because it was the embassy's idea that we should visit—but it made a special effort, which made our visit far more effective. I agree with the hon. Member for High Peak that, in a modest way, our visit might have made a difference.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said it all in his introductory remarks. This was my second visit to Nepal; I was there in 1994 as a United Nations observer of the second general election under the old king. It is sad that those elections led eventually to the country's demise, but I have been left with a feeling of the nation's unpredictability. Every time I thought that I could see my way through the situation, something happened that made me realise that I was wrong. I would not like to put any money on what the outcome might be—on what the situation will be in a year's time.
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When we arrived, the protests were just beginning. They then escalated until the day of action in early April—the violence reached a level I had not expected. Two days were earmarked as days of action, but the protests went on for 12 days. Hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets: there was a shoot-to-kill curfew, yet they still went out, and some people were killed. I had not anticipated that happening. Then the king slowly and incrementally capitulated. First, he asked the political parties to appoint a Prime Minister, and then he said he would restore Parliament, whereupon everything stopped—in Iran, however, such protests led to the Shah going—and everyone seemed to be happy. That was mainly because the political parties had achieved their objective with the king, which was getting democracy. They were not for getting rid of the king—the Maoists were in favour of that.

It was a rollercoaster ride, and the people showed a great enthusiasm for democracy. Frankly, I would be happy if in our country we were to have hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets campaigning for Parliament. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold says from a sedentary position, perhaps tomorrow they will show some enthusiasm.

However, to stick to the issue in hand and to refer to a point that has been made, of the various components in Nepal, the Maoists' motives is the most unclear. The Maoists control large swathes of the country with the stated aim of deposing the king and establishing a one-party state, but then they signed up to the 12-point agreement with the political parties, and now they have acquiesced in the current situation, so there has been a complete switch there.

I am not sure that I would trust the Maoist parties further than I could throw them; my advice to the political parties of Nepal—and, indeed, to the British Government—is to sup with them using a long spoon. One suspects that they have entered into an agreement for short-term, opportunistic reasons. Perhaps both sides of that dispute feel they cannot win. The Nepalese army cannot beat the Maoists, and the Maoists are looking at a Royal Nepalese army that is bigger than the British Army, and they have probably reached the conclusion that they cannot beat it. Therefore, there is a stalemate of sorts.

In our initial briefings after we arrived, we were told that there were three components of the situation in Nepal: the king, the political parties and the Maoists. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, there is also a fourth component, which is the people of Nepal. They have been through tremendous hardship. One should never underestimate their commitment to resolving this situation and to fighting for what they believe in if they feel they can achieve their objectives.

The human rights situation was of great concern to us all. We had a meeting with the foreign press delegation, and the hon. Member for High Peak has set out the breaches of human rights. While we were there, the leader of the Communist party was under house arrest for no good reason. I ask our Government to keep a close eye on that as we engage with the Nepalese Government.

I wish to make four points on our policy. First, will the supply of military equipment to the Nepalese army be reviewed? Rightly, anything that could be used for an
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aggressive purpose has been withdrawn. Do we now feel that the situation has changed? We should take note of the role of the army: it was loyal to the king when he was the Executive power, and one assumes that it will be loyal to the Government now that Executive power has been bestowed upon them. If the Government are committed to free and fair elections, does that change the situation? Perhaps the Minister has not yet reached a conclusion on that, but it should be reviewed.

Secondly, the heart of our policy should be to give full support to the Nepalese Government to hold free and fair elections. That is the only way forward; without them, the situation will collapse into anarchy. I encourage the Nepalese Government to announce a date—even if it is in September—as soon as possible to show their commitment. I hope the embassy will encourage them to do that. Thirdly, the basis of the way forward is the 12-point plan that was agreed in the early stages, in March.

Fourthly, my humble advice to the Government is to stay close to the Indian Government in this. India is the nation of influence in Nepal, alongside us. In truth, because of India's proximity, it has more influence. It is also affected by the Maoist insurgency, which has spilled over into the north-east corner of that country. I think that will focus India's mind.

Nepal is in for a very rocky time. The king has lost all credibility, and it remains to be seen whether he will survive. I do not think the incumbent has a useful role to play and his son is manifestly unpopular, so I do not know what the future holds for the monarchy. I believe in constitutional monarchy, as we have in our country, but I cannot see an obvious candidate to restore credibility in Nepal. That, however, shows the unpredictability in that country.

10.16 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate. My grandmother lived her entire life in the same house in West Malling in his constituency, and my grandfather, Gordon Browne—spelled correctly, with an "e" on the end of his surname—continues to be an enthusiastic constituent of the right hon. Gentleman. Therefore, I am very familiar with the part of the world he represents.

Sadly, I am less familiar with the part of the world we are discussing, and I am probably the only participant in this debate who has not been to Nepal. Nevertheless, I will endeavour to offer thoughts and suggestions on how this Parliament and the British Government can best seek to ensure a happy resolution of the difficulties in Nepal that we have been reading a lot about in newspapers and elsewhere.

In debates of this sort, I am often struck by how much cross-party consensus there is. I suppose that is inevitable, because all of us in this Parliament are liberal democrats—with a small "l" and a small "d". Rightly, there is a consensus that the objective in respect of Nepal is to seek to establish open, liberal government by the people and for the people, and for elections to take place, and for there to be all the other traits that one associates with an open society—press freedom, fair trials, multi-party democracy.

However, as is often the case, the situation is difficult, awkward and less clear-cut than we would wish. There is not a group of good guys we can straightforwardly
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support and a group of bad guys we can oppose. That presents a difficulty for the British Government, and we should be cautious not to overestimate their ability to resolve the situation. Obviously, we should try to participate, but, ultimately, the decisions will be made by the Nepalese.

However, I would be interested to learn from the Minister what is the approach of the Government. As I understand it, the United States of America—inasmuch as it is playing an active role—is not willing to deal in any way with the Maoists in Nepal. Do the British Government have a different approach? Do they consider that they are most likely to be effective in their role if they try to deal—in a reasonably even-handed way, if possible—with all the different groupings and factions, or does the Minister think that that is unlikely to be an appropriate or effective way to proceed?

The first of the other areas that I hope and believe that the Government will consider is political education. In this country, we take for granted the formation of democratic parties and all the paraphernalia or infrastructure that goes with democracy and elections. It is easy to say that there should be elections and that we should get a Parliament up and running, as if that could be done at the drop of a hat, and people, including me, often sound somewhat glib in saying it. However, there is a lot of organisation to be done in terms of not just the mechanics of polling day, but the political parties—what they represent ideologically, and whether they are coherent and hold together in a proper, identifiable way, and do not keep splintering into lots of different groups, as that makes it impossible for people to exercise any choice that can be transferred to the delivery of power. All that is a difficult process in any country that, unlike ours, is not a mature and stable democracy.

Anything that we as a country can do to educate and assist in those processes should not be underestimated. Diplomacy or Government action of that sort does not seem very dramatic and does not seem to make a huge impact, but on the ground, in a quiet way, we can contribute to the mechanics of democracy and political education in Nepal.

Also, I hope that we can foster and encourage exchange schemes and other ways of increasing knowledge and understanding of Nepal among those in Britain and the west. In that regard, tourism is a considerable asset. I suspect that most British people who are familiar with Nepal have been there as backpackers between school and university, or after leaving university, or on visits of that type. So, there is a contemporary, as well as an historical, link that many British people have with Nepal. I hope that that will be of benefit to our country in trying to engage the Government in Nepal, whatever form they take, in the months and years ahead.

The second point that I would like the Minister to touch on is how we go about trying to exercise influence in Nepal. We have an historical tie with that country and that part of the world, but are we also working with our partners in the European Union and, more importantly, India, with which, of course, we have great historical links and which has a direct strategic interest in the region? Of course, India is a democracy—a somewhat imperfect one, but considering it has more than 1 billion
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people, it is an extraordinarily effective and stable country in terms of how power is exercised there. It has lessons to teach many countries in the world, including Nepal. All our links with the Indians will be extremely welcome in trying to resolve any problems in Nepal.

The last of my three main points is about what role the Government can play in alleviating poverty and distress in Nepal, not only because that would evidently be a good in itself, but because any country that seeks political stability and rational decision taking will also benefit from its people enjoying a certain basic standard of living. It is hard to interest people in liberal concepts involving elections, free media and so on when they have more immediate concerns about their material and physical well-being. The Government, the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office take an interest in the provision of aid to Nepal, and we play a financial role. I would be interested to learn how that is tied in with diplomacy and a potential political solution.

I conclude by repeating a remark made by the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), which summed up the way forward as we in the House see it. He said, "The Maoists must be defeated, but it has to be a political defeat." That is an astute summary of the position as I understand it, which is that we should seek a constitutional settlement and that the 12-point agreement is the basis on which to move forward. The outcome that we should be seeking is effective multi-party democracy, not change from one undesirable system to another.

I wish the Minister and the Government well in assisting with achieving that end, and wish the people of Nepal a happy, settled, stable political future in which they are not constantly buffeted by different forces that make it hard for them to live free, open and decent lives.

10.25 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this timely debate, and on the knowledgeable and thoughtful way in which he introduced it. On my very first day in the House, I went into the Tea Room and an elderly Member said to me, "Be very careful what you say in this House. There is always an expert on every subject." My right hon. Friend is exactly that expert. As I went to sleep last night, I had a vision of him towering over me, listening to everything that I said, so I must be careful in case I incur his wrath.

My right hon. Friend led a worthwhile delegation to Nepal between 19 and 23 March, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) and the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) have said. Like my right hon. Friend, I hope that that delegation has contributed, in a very small way, to setting that country on the path on which I hope it has embarked.

My right hon. Friend was absolutely right to focus on the people of Nepal, because we wish those people to continue along the path of democracy. We want their economy to recover, we want them to prosper and we want them to live in peace and harmony with each other. They are a very pleasant people—hard-working,
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industrious and peace-loving, as was shown by how rapidly they went from demonstrating against the authorities one day to celebrating the result of their success the next. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South said, in other countries there would still have been looting many days later, as was the case after the fall of the Shah of Iran and the fall of Ceausescu in eastern Europe.

Hon. Members have ably described what happened in the past, and have alluded to our great historical links with Nepal over almost 200 years, as well as our strong bonds with its people through the Gurkha connection. Those bonds will continue. That is why the British Government, as a great friend and historical ally of Nepal, should remain heavily engaged in the peace process, which we hope will go from strength to strength. I want to concentrate, in a prospective way, on one or two things that could happen in Nepal, and I want to ask the Minister a few questions about how the British Government will react and help.

As has been said, before we arrived, there was a three-cornered political situation that involved the king, the Maoists and the parliamentary parties. The king, I hope, has now conceded power in a real way; it seems that there is no way back to the former situation, at least in the short term. Whether the king survives as constitutional monarch is a much more open question.

The king has ceded real power, but what about the political parties? As has been said, there are seven of them, and they have vastly differing views. Some of them wanted the country to be a republic even before the current situation arose, so it is unclear what their real political aims are. But as the Minister said, interestingly, in an intervention on the hon. Member for High Peak, it is the capacity of those political parties to deliver, and whether they will remain a cohesive whole, that is the critical question.

Part of the problem up to now has been the weakness of the political parties. We wish them well, and we wish them a transition into a mature phase, so that they can at least prepare for elections. The first question I want to ask the Minister is what help will we give through the rights, democracy and inclusion fund to the people and the political parties in Nepal as they prepare for the elections. A great deal of work must be done. An interim constitution must be drawn up and the election procedure must be sorted out.

I have no idea how advanced the registration of voters is. I suspect that people will probably need to start almost from scratch, but how that can be done when the Maoists control a large chunk of the country remains to be seen. The process presents considerable difficulties, and I think it unlikely that an election will take place in September or October. A more realistic timetable would mean it taking place next year, but perhaps the Minister will give us the Government's view on the matter.

The third of the three groups involved is the Maoists. Much has been said about the Maoists this morning, and I have asked the Minister a series of questions on Nepal, both before and after our visit. On 26 April, the Minister answered one of my questions, and it is worth quoting that answer because it gives the Government's official view of the Maoists. I asked what assessment he had made of them, and the answer was:

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There is clearly a serious threat of insurgency and it requires every effort to be made during the political process, through negotiation with the Maoists by the democratic parties, which will be coupled with activity carried out by the police and the Royal Nepalese army.

As we learned in Northern Ireland from the situation involving the IRA and other paramilitaries on both sides, the solution was partially military, but it was political to a much greater extent. That is the message regarding how to deal with the Maoists. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, there is a real prospect that Nepal could degenerate into a fully fledged Maoist state—a very unpleasant regime, which would be very deleterious for the people of Nepal. Every effort must be made by the whole international community, through every organ we can use in Nepal, to prevent that from happening. The one achievement of today's debate should be to issue a warning about that possibility, and I hope that we can prevent it from happening.

Moving on from the political aspects, what is to be done for the future? Mention has been made of the Royal Nepalese army, which is big and increasing in size and which comprises almost 90,000 people. It has the capability, if given the right equipment, to deal with some of the problems. The key issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South. If the political situation moves, as we hope it will, satisfactorily towards democracy and a situation where peaceful and fair elections can be held, the British and Indian Governments, the United States and the international community will have to review their policy of not supplying any form of lethal equipment to the Royal Nepalese army.

The situation is pretty dire at the moment, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling alluded to it. If the army gets information that a serious incident involving Maoists has taken place in a rural area 200 miles from the capital, Kathmandu, for example, it can take the soldiers days to get there because the army simply does not have enough helicopters to lift them into position. When the soldiers get into position, they probably will not have enough equipment to deal with the situation.

Indeed, while in Nepal, we heard of the Maoists cutting a major water pipe. When the army went to repair it, the soldiers were attacked by the Maoists and several were killed. If the situation is to be properly brought under control, the Royal Nepalese army needs to be equipped with proper communications, helicopters and night vision for the Islander aircraft so that the troops can see what is going on, as well as proper co-ordination of intelligence, particularly with the Indian authorities. Those basic things must be put in place, and must be carefully considered by the international community.
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Another policy that must be reviewed is that on ministerial visits. I have asked the Minister a question about those before. In the run-up to what I hope will be free and fair elections—I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling will want to take a full part in that process—we can show the political parties and the people of Nepal that we are there to help in whatever capacity they want. The policy on ministerial visits urgently needs to be reviewed and such a visit in the relatively near future would be a helpful step to give political parties some encouragement.

As the hon. Member for High Peak said, there must be a proper, independent judiciary. That is crucial. Some important judgments have been made in the past about the constitution and the role of journalists, and I hope that the political parties can now put in place a team of judges and a judicial system, in a way that is seen to be free and fair, that can act in controversial situations, which will undoubtedly arise.

One such situation is preparation for elections. There is an urgent need to establish a fully independent electoral commission. Legal questions will arise from the work of that commission, which should be considered by a free and fairly appointed judiciary.

Mention has been made of the press and the media, which are critical in any fledgling democracy. While in Nepal, we were lucky enough to meet the independent organisation of journalists, and I have no doubt that it will continue to press the political parties to allow full access to all strands of media, including independent radio, which reaches most parts of Nepal, but also television and a free press. I hope that that takes place as part of the emerging, reassuring process that follows.

Tom Levitt : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was pleased to note that the Nepalese Cabinet has already lifted the controversial ordinances concerning broadcasting. That will set Nepal in the right direction in respect of press coverage.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that. It is a good sign that things are moving in the right direction.

I want to give the Minister plenty of time to reply, but my final point, which I referred to earlier, concerns this country's connection to Nepal via the Gurkhas. We were lucky enough to go the Gurkha headquarters in Kathmandu and to be briefed fully on the situation. One emerging factor concerning the Gurkhas is that the British Government have, quite rightly, altered the rules on leave to remain in this country, so that Gurkhas who have served in the British Army can apply to this country—although they will be discharged in Nepal—and expect to be granted leave to remain, provided that they have given exemplary service. It is expected that most will apply.

That is a good thing in many ways, because of the foreign remittances that they send back home to their families, but it gives rise to another problem, which concerns the number of social security staff already required to look after the existing 10,000 or so Gurkha
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dependants in Nepal. There is a severe concern about those social security staff, particularly regarding their wages.

I do not expect the Minister to be able to deal with that problem today, but I hope he will consider it. The well-being of those dependants in Nepal is a critical part of our responsibilities to that country, and it would be reprehensible if anything were to happen to that network. If the Maoist threat lessens, the job will get easier, but for some of those social security staff travelling to dangerous rural areas in the west of the country, this is a hazardous job for which they are paid a pittance. It would be helpful if the Minister looked into that.

This has been a thoroughly well informed debate. Let us hope that, through it, we can send a message to the British Government that we fully support the people of Nepal. We desperately hope that the path to democracy will be smooth and that they can defeat the Maoist threat. However, like all difficult paths, it is bound to have its ups and downs. Let us hope that, on the whole, we can progress smoothly.

10.40 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells) : It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. May I add to the thanks offered to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) for securing parliamentary time to discuss Nepal at this critical point in its history? I know how deeply he feels about Nepal, and I have benefited more from this short debate, in terms of learning about the nature of a country, than I have from any other.

The right hon. Gentleman gave us an excellent and most revealing comparison between the conditions that he encountered in 1996 and those that he encountered this year. His colleague, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), helped with that comparison, too. I must say—the right hon. Gentleman made this point—that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has received great value for money from his trip. I get lots of e-grams and intelligence about the situation in Nepal, but there is nothing to beat the reports of colleagues who have been out there to look carefully at the situation on the ground. I have learned a great deal.

This debate should tell us something about the value of inter-parliamentary visits. They do not usually receive very good press in this country, because they are considered a freebie, with MPs jaunting around the world. However, in the past hour or so, we have heard a report that it would be impossible to obtain from any other quarter. If it came from the intelligence services or an independent agency, there would probably be allegations that they had their own agenda. Through this cross-party visit, however, we have received invaluable information.

As the right hon. Gentleman and others reminded us, the king's restoration of Parliament is a great victory for the forces of democracy in Nepal. It offers the prospect of a resolution to the 10-year conflict there, and a return to peace and stability. I remember that when the right hon. Gentleman first spoke to me about that country, he
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told me that it was such a dreadful shame that a place he encountered 10 years ago had been driven into such straits.

This morning, the right hon. Gentleman has given us the hope that there is a way through that situation. He quite properly drew our attention to the central feature of the past couple of weeks: the great bravery of the Nepali people and their determination in the face of great difficulty to try to reinstate some of the order that previously existed.

The one point that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention was Bhutan, although he might wish to intervene on me. On the "Today" programme this morning, I heard an extraordinary interview in which somebody said that politicians should try to make us happier in life. I am not sure whether it was during the interview, but people talked rather glowingly about how the Government of Bhutan measure their success or failure in terms of the happiness of their subjects, yet 100,000 Bhutanese refugees live in Nepal, having been driven there in the most brutal conditions.

I was hoping that the right hon. Gentleman could tell us about that, so I shall give way.

Sir John Stanley : As the Minister has invited me to intervene, I shall do so in the traditional way, by posing questions to him. I could have spoken at considerable length about the Bhutanese refugees, but I wanted to ensure that all my colleagues had the opportunity to make their remarks.

Is the Minister aware of what we learned for the first time in the Sanischare Bhutanese refugee camp? Sadly, the then Government of Nepal were engaged in gross discrimination against the Bhutanese refugees. Their policy was to prevent those people in the refugee camp from trading and working outside it, and even from leaving the country when third countries were willing to take them. Will he examine those issues, which I have indeed put to the Foreign Secretary?

Dr. Howells : I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has posed that question, because it is very serious. I am also glad that it has been asked in this debate, because the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), I think, said that we must warn people of the size and requirements of this great task. The right hon. Gentleman's question is one of the most urgent. I was aware of those inequities, and I hope that our ambassador can convince the new Nepali Government that they must take the matter seriously and that the whole world is watching. That will be an indicator of the civilising spirit of the new Government.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : As probably the only Member of the House to have visited Bhutan and met its Foreign Minister, I say to the Minister that there is a willingness among the Bhutanese Government to help to resolve that problem. Bhutan is only a small state with 500,000 people, and it cannot realistically repatriate all the
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refugees. In fact, the total number of refugees is not the total number who were driven out of Bhutan, because many refugees have been born in the camps.

Dr. Howells : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I am sure that those facts have been noted. We know that the country's economy is under great strain for many reasons, and that is one of them.

Tom Levitt : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Howells : Yes. I must make a bit of progress, though.

Tom Levitt : I appreciate that. It is worth putting it on record that the then Nepalese Government were preventing not only third-party movement, but the movement of those people who wished to return to Bhutan and whom the Bhutanese were willing to take back—much to the frustration of the international agencies running the refugee camps and entirely at their cost. There will come a time when the agencies are no longer willing to take on that burden on their own.

Dr. Howells : Yes, indeed. That is a situation that I am afraid we are all too familiar with in other parts of the world. I hope that the Nepali and Bhutanese Governments, and outside agencies that can work to broker a much better arrangement, will prioritise that issue.

The United Kingdom went to great lengths to persuade the king not to take power in Nepal, and, once he had, to hand it back to the political parties. In December 2004, in response to rumours of a palace coup, our ambassador in Kathmandu sought an audience with the king to forewarn him of the consequences of a takeover. The ambassador said that a palace takeover

The accuracy of that prediction was illustrated precisely by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling when he expressed his great fear that the real victors would be the Maoists, if we were not careful. I am afraid that that is all too true.

Looking back, those words were prescient. We welcome, therefore, the king's decision to reinstate Parliament. With that announcement, the security situation has begun to improve. The parties have called off their protests and the Maoists have announced a three-month ceasefire, although the details of how it will be implemented are not yet clear. There is a prospect of a new Government with the full authority to reciprocate a ceasefire, open negotiations with the Maoists and bring an end to the conflict, which has cost the lives of some 13,000 Nepalese. That is an extraordinary number when one thinks that we lost about 3,500 people over all those years in Northern Ireland. The fact that 13,000 Nepalese have died is a terrible indictment of what has happened in that country.

We do not to underestimate the considerable risks and challenges ahead. To begin with, it is imperative that the Maoists make a complete and permanent end to
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their violence, and commit to abandoning their arms for ever. That has been done in other parts of the world, and it can be done in Nepal.

As right hon. and hon. Members have said, the Royal Nepalese army will need to undergo what amounts to a cultural shift to turn it into an accountable, professional army under civilian, democratic control. We have been working hard to achieve those ends through our efforts to promote human rights. I will come to the question of human rights, which the hon. Member for Croydon, South raised, in a moment. The political parties will need to show vision and leadership, and learn lessons from the past, and there will need to be a peace process involving the Government and the Maoists to bring the conflict to a permanent conclusion.

As right hon. and hon. Members have said, the first sittings of the reconvened Parliament on 28 and 30 April were landmark occasions. Parliament agreed on elections to a constituent assembly and to talks with the Maoists, which we hope will pave the way for a permanent peace settlement. As colleagues have pointed out, the UK is an old friend of Nepal, with a long history of involvement. We are already working with our key international partners such as the US and India—we have urged that work should be done with the Indians; the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) raised that issue—and the EU to take full advantage of the opportunities in Nepal.

In co-ordination with our EU partners, we will consider lifting the agreement not to meet Nepalese Ministers from the king's Government. If appropriate, we will look for an early opportunity for a UK Minister to visit Nepal. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] We will examine ways to ensure that the new Government are equipped for the challenges that lie ahead. As a lifelong mountain climber, I very much hope that that Minister will be me, so that I might see the Himalayas, although I must admit that I limit my climbing to the Alps these days. One can be rescued there by a red helicopter. I have not seen any of those in the Himalayas, and I am getting on a bit now.

The first priority will be to establish a mutually agreed ceasefire. We welcome the Maoists' announcement of a three-month ceasefire, and urge them to make it permanent. We remain absolutely clear about the fact that the pursuit of political ends through violent means is absolutely unacceptable, as is a one-party Maoist state. In response to what the hon. Member for Cotswold said, I hope that that is a clear enough warning from the House to the Maoists. That is very important.

The UK continues to support the transition of the Maoists back into a democratic political party participating in a multi-party democratic system. I heard the comments made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling with a great deal of optimism. The fact that the Marxist-Leninist party that he mentioned is now a democratic party, so much so that its leader is under house arrest—

Sir John Stanley : Was.

Dr. Howells : Was under house arrest. That is a great encouragement, as it shows how such parties can change.
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The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) asked whether the Maoists in Nepal are being financed by the Chinese Communist party. Maoist parties have always been completely beyond my comprehension, as a student of the left, so I was glad to hear that they are not.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South mentioned the spread of the influence of Maoist insurrectionists into north-east India. There have been problems with the Naxalite insurrectionists in that area, who have committed some brutal murders. The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that aspect, and we must work closely with the Indian authorities to consider those links.

I am sure that most people in this country would be amazed to discover that Nepal has a large population. I initially thought that it had a population of about the same size as that of Scotland, but nobody knows how big it is. It is estimated to be between 25 million and 28 million. It is a huge population, which is very influential on India.

The hon. Member for Taunton talked about developing the economy and about the need for us to become more familiar with Nepal through tourism and other means. I do not know, but perhaps the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, as his interest continues, will be able to tell us whether Nepal might be able to supply India with electricity using hydroelectrics. Perhaps its future lies in becoming more involved in that burgeoning area of economic growth in northern India, which is not far away and with which it has many organic links and links through river valleys.

Such progress is happening in Afghanistan, and the great hunger for electricity in Pakistan and India could be met by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—those mountainous countries in the western Himalayas—via Afghanistan. Perhaps there is a similar future for Nepal. That is an important question.

The UK continues to support the transition of the Maoists back into a democratic political party, which would then participate in a multi-party democratic system, but that must be predicated on the Maoists making a demonstrable commitment to ending their violence and putting their arms beyond use for good. I make it absolutely clear that that is the only way that the Maoists will gain legitimacy in our eyes. The hon. Member for Cotswold was right to say that and the point must be emphasised.

We stand firmly behind the efforts of the political parties to take the reins of government and bring an end to the Maoist insurgency. We will make every effort to ensure that they are prepared and equipped to do so, including through our development assistance and the global conflict prevention pool. We are working with our international partners on co-ordinating the international effort as closely as possible.

Several hon. Members asked about military supplies to the security forces. Following the king's takeover of power last year, we put military assistance under review and cancelled the package of military assistance that we had intended to donate to Nepal using funds from the global conflict prevention pool. At this stage, it would be premature to make any formal commitments on security assistance. Now that there is a new Prime Minister and the prospect of a new Government who will take
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forward negotiations with the Maoists, we will consider requests from that new Government, but so far there have been none.

In the context of the new political landscape in Nepal, our conflict prevention objectives will inevitably shift. If the new Government can make progress on a peace process—

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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