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Alongside greater independence, such partnership working will also be central to the delivery of our reform. That independence for schools does not mean that they will all do their own thing in isolation. We do not see any conflict between seeking greater dynamism in the system and collaboration. We want a system of strong self-confident schools with a distinctive ethos working in partnership to respond to parental demand and to meet the needs of every child.

Schools benefit a great deal from collaboration with each other. Our objective is to ensure much wider collaboration, embracing all local partners. Academies and specialist schools are proving every day that schools that think beyond the education sector and draw on the energy and expertise of local community groups, local businesses and, of course, local parents can be the most successful.

The development of trust schools is the next major step in ensuring greater independence for state schools in the maintained sector. It is the next step in this evolution, not the revolution feared by the hon. Member for Gainsborough. Acquiring a trust will give schools many of the freedoms already enjoyed by foundation schools, and they will be really important in ensuring a dynamic and exciting maintained sector for this country. They will mean greater diversity across the whole system, which, in turn, will mean a genuine choice between high-quality schools that offer different opportunities and specialisms where pupils can develop their own individual talents. The involvement of a trust from the private, voluntary or public sector can improve the ethos and governance of a school.

However, there is a distinction between freeing-up schools and ensuring that they have greater independence within the maintained sector, and more independent schools. Working within the maintained sector, we can ensure fair access and opportunity for all; it is independence within important boundaries. I shall not rehearse yet again the debates relating to the Education and Inspections Bill because there is not enough time to do so in order to convince hon. Members of the merits of trust schools.

The Bill puts parents in the driving seat. Trust schools will have to comply with admissions legislation and act in accordance with the new school code, just like other schools. They will be part of the local authority family. I am looking forward to that legislation becoming law. It will then be my job to make progress by implementing it. I will also think about implementing those other things mentioned by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb).

I again thank the hon. Member for Harwich for raising the issue. We both agree that we must get away from the one-size-fits-all approach that too often does not fit anyone at all. Through the Bill and our wider programme for change, we want to achieve greater independence for state schools—not dogmatically for the sake of doing so, but because it can deliver real improvements in standards, building on what works in academies and specialist schools.

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Human Rights (Iran)

12.30 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): The world’s attention is focused on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the danger that that undoubtedly poses for the region. However, there is a long-running cause of concern that should not be allowed to escape the spotlight: Iran’s abysmal record on human rights. Iran’s abuse of human rights has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In this short debate, I shall focus on limited areas of persecution, but it is important to appreciate the context in which the abuses that I shall detail take place.

The systematic suppression of dissent in Iran permeates the whole of Iranian society. The abuses are not random. They are organised by the Government or by what Iranians call parallel institutions, such as the intelligence service and paramilitary groups. President Ahmadinejad’s Cabinet is dominated by former members of the intelligence and security services, some of whom are allegedly implicated in serious violations, including the assassination of dissident intellectuals.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the deterioration of freedom of expression and the routine use of arbitrary arrest, torture and solitary confinement. Tehran’s public prosecutor, Saeed Mortzavi, has been implicated in major violations, including the unresolved death in custody of the Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi in June 2003, yet no proper investigation has taken place.

Executions, including those of juveniles, continue after highly questionable judicial processes. Amnesty International reports that in the past year at least 94 people have been executed, including at least eight who were under 18.

At the end of May 2006, 500 armed riot police stormed into Tehran university campus following a student protest after a purge of the university’s academic faculty. Live bullets were fired, people were injured and arrests were made. At the end of May, no further information was available about the fate of the arrested students.

A systematic purge of the media in 2000 closed newspapers and imprisoned journalists. In 2005, the Iranian Government turned their attention to targeting websites and internet journalists. Those who were arrested were sent to secret detention centres. In February 2005, a court in the province of Gilan sentenced Arash Sigarchi to 14 years imprisonment for online writing.

Those attacks on the media send out a clear message. The result is that where the media is not shut down, there is self-censorship. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that independent harassment of human rights organisations and lawyers continues. The prominent activist and Nobel peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, was held in jail in January 2005 and released only after an international outcry. Akbar Ganj, the investigative journalist who exposed the role of high-ranking officials in the murder of writers and intellectuals in 1998, remains in prison. Political executions take place, and in May concern was expressed about the imminent execution of Valiolla Feyz Mahdavi, a 28-year-old member of Iran’s main opposition party.

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That systematic oppression has had profound consequences. It has resulted in what Human Rights Watch calls

It means that people are silenced because they fear speaking out and there are fewer voices to speak out about what is wrong, so abuses are not fully documented. It is against that background that I draw attention to particular concern about two minority communities in Iran.

The Iranian Baha’i community numbers 300,000, but Baha’is also live in other countries and, indeed, there are some in my constituency. The Baha’is in Iran have long been persecuted.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I apologise for my slightly late arrival, Mr. Pope.

I thank the hon. Lady for letting me intervene as chair of the all-party Friends of the Baha’i group. Does she agree that the difficulty is that the Baha’i community, whose religion is passive and seeks no ill will toward others, has been persistently persecuted? That persecution has become serious in Iran. Does she agree that the best thing the Iranian Government could do is to enter some sort of dialogue to try to understand why those of us who have supported the Baha’i community feel that this is an unnecessary attack on Baha’is, who present no threat of instability whatever to the Iranian state? Does she agree that the Iranians should enter some sort of dialogue to try to ease the difficulties that the Baha’is in Iran are experiencing at present?

Mrs. Ellman: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Baha’is are peaceful and do not pose a threat. Their persecution is intolerable and I shall outline some of the detailed concerns about their treatment. That concern is so great that the United Nations has appointed a special rapporteur to investigate their situation.

The Iranian regime wants to weaken the Baha’i leadership by attacking people in leading positions and preventing Baha’is from entering higher education. During the 1980s, 200 Baha’is were killed or executed. International monitoring had some impact on inhibiting that, but arbitrary arrests continue, and since the beginning of 2005 125 Baha’is have been arrested. As recently as May this year, 15 Baha’is, mainly young people, were arrested in the city of Shiraz while participating in a community project. Three remain in custody but no charges have been made. Those arrests coincided with six raids on Baha’i homes in which papers and computers were taken.

Recently, there have been more sinister developments. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, issued a highly significant report on the condition of Baha’is in Iran earlier this year. She concluded that she was “highly concerned” about the persecution of Iranian Baha’is and condemned the letter sent on 25 October 2005 by the chairman of the command headquarters of the armed forces in Iran to Government agencies, which stated that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has instructed command headquarters to

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She judged that that was

and expressed fears that the information would be used for the persecution of the Baha’is in violation of international standards.

Against that background, Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha’i international community to the UN, spoke of the unrelenting persecution of the Baha’is. Concern has since intensified with the publication of a series of defamatory articles in Tehran’s Kayhan newspaper, including one in February stating that Baha’is gather on Muslim holy days

Those outrageous allegations, which have created an atmosphere of fear and hostility, were published in Iran’s national newspaper. There is no evidence whatever for the allegations. They are venomous and reminiscent of anti-Jewish blood libels that also circulate in Iran. Indeed, the 20,000-strong Iranian Jewish community, which has diminished from 85,000 in 1979, feels increasingly anxious.

President Ahmadinejad’s recent provocative holocaust denial, combined with his call for Israel to be

is, sadly, not a new phenomenon in Iran, but its intensity and central place in the international furore about Iran’s nuclear ambitions have raised acute concern about the situation of Iranian Jews—one of the oldest Jewish communities—and created an atmosphere of fear. President Ahmadinejad stated just a few months ago:

I have viewed a highly disturbing programme that was broadcast on Channel 2 of Iranian television on 5 January. It hosted a discussion in which political analyst Dr. Majid Goudarzi stated—unchallenged—that following Jesus’ birth, the Jews of Yemen prepared a pit of fire for Christians who refused to renounce the religion of Jesus. Dr. Goudarzi stated that “burning believers” then became ingrained in Jewish consciousness so that the Jews later blamed the Germans for atrocities that they themselves had started. For good measure, Dr. Goudarzi also proclaimed that the Jews created the “protocols of the elders of Zion” to enable them to become the

It is truly shocking that that statement, aired as fact, was broadcast on national television in the 21st century. National television, a public resource, stated it not even as a matter of debate—although that would not have been acceptable either—but as a matter of fact. It is little wonder that Haroon Yeshaya, the former chairman of the Jewish community in Tehran, sent a public letter to President Ahmadinejad stating that his current stance of holocaust denial had created:

I have mentioned detailed problems concerning Jews and Baha’is, but they are just two of Iran’s minority communities. Other groups such as Arabs, Kurds and Christians suffer from tremendous discrimination. The
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whipping-up of hostility towards them and other minorities can only damage Iran’s reputation. Sadly, the extent of Iran’s human rights abuse is immense, and in the short time available today, I have been able to describe only a small number of concerns.

At the beginning of my contribution, I referred to the systematic suppression of dissent and the absence of a free media in Iran. That means that it is especially important that voices outside Iran speak up for those who face oppression. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) spoke about the peaceful nature of the Baha’is. The Iranians think that they can persecute groups because they believe that there is nobody there to speak up for them. I hope that through the expressions made in this Chamber today, and the work undertaken by the all-party Friends of the Baha’i group and other groups, the Iranians will be proved wrong in their assessment.

Because of the suppression of freedom of speech, and the atmosphere of intimidation in Iran, it is particularly important that voices outside Iran speak up and speak up loudly. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are to be congratulated on exposing Iran’s failings on human rights. The work of the UN special rapporteurs has been invaluable in identifying abuses, although requests for visits by UN special rapporteurs on torture and extra-judicial executions have so far gone unanswered. Sadly, although the exposure has made the world more aware of what is happening in Iran, it has not changed Iran’s fundamental approach.

The world is right to be worried by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the aggression displayed by its President is not necessarily backed by its population. Dissent in Iran is suppressed and minorities face discrimination. It is essential that the spotlight focuses on human rights abuses within Iran’s oppressive regime, and I call on the United Nations and the European Union to step up their activities.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order. I would like to call the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), but he needs the permission of the hon. Lady and the Minister, and to inform the Chair that he wishes to speak. I do not think that he has, so perhaps the best way to proceed would be to see whether he can intervene on the Minister during his contribution.

12.45 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Thank you, Mr. Pope, for that helpful suggestion.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on securing a debate on a subject that is of real concern to the United Kingdom Government and, indeed, to this House.

Efforts to improve respect for human rights have long been a central element of the United Kingdom’s and, indeed, the European Union’s approach to Iran. The current situation in Iran seems to be deteriorating and lacking in transparency—from the situation of religious minorities to the conduct of trials and sentencing. The situation is well reported by non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, and in its latest report Amnesty highlighted the growing difficulties faced by ethnic and religious minorities, harassment of human
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rights defenders, the erosion of free expression and the serious concerns about Iran’s use of the death penalty.

We have frequently set out those concerns bilaterally and through the relevant international human rights mechanisms. As my hon. Friend mentioned, that includes our concern about the position that the Iranian Government have taken towards Israel. President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped from the map and his attempts to cast doubt on the holocaust are outrageous and unacceptable.

We have long-standing concerns about political freedoms in Iran. An unelected committee, the Guardian Council, comprised of jurists and clerics, was able to prevent all women and many reformists from standing in last year’s presidential elections. Many reformist candidates, including a third of the sitting Members of Parliament, were similarly excluded from standing in the parliamentary elections in 2004.

We are also very concerned about Iran’s treatment of women. Although the situation for women is in some respects better than in certain other countries in the region—women can, for instance, vote and drive, and they make up more than half of the university population—they nevertheless face significant discrimination. For instance, the evidence of a woman continues to be worth less than that of a man in court, and women do not enjoy equal rights in cases involving divorce, inheritance or the custody of children.

Andrew Mackinlay: The Minister has referred to the serious deficiencies—to say the least—in the legitimacy of the parliamentary process in Iran. This Parliament should beat its breast and apologise. As you know, Mr. Pope, I personally opposed elsewhere the receiving here of a delegation from the Majlis. I thought that it was a mistake, although I understand the compelling case for Committees such as the Foreign Affairs Committee to become engaged. My judgment might be wrong on that issue, but where this Parliament has got it wrong is in respect of the Inter-Parliamentary Union having Majlis delegations.

I put it to the Minister that the British Government and this Parliament would not countenance comparable relationships with the Parliament of Belarus. For all their warts and deficiencies, the Lukashenko Government and that Parliament are innocent compared with the abuse of human rights and the denial of true franchise seen in Tehran. We have double standards. I wonder whether the Minister will comment on that.

Mr. Hoon: I am aware of the delegation, which is led by an experienced Member of Parliament who is a former Foreign Office Minister. I anticipate that he and other members of the delegation will be well aware of the issues that my hon. Friend has quite properly raised. However, I think it is for the judgment of individual Members of Parliament and members of delegations whether such visits go ahead. By visiting, it is possible to identify some of the very concerns that my hon. Friend is anxious about.

Andrew Mackinlay: Would you come with me to Minsk?

Mr. Hoon: It is a matter for individuals to make appropriate judgments in that respect. [Interruption.]

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