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24 Oct 2006 : Column 361WH—continued

Protection of personal data is another vital issue, and it has been raised by all speakers in the debate. Many people are rightly cautious about revealing their
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details to organisations, not least because of the newspaper articles and television programmes that have exposed instances of alleged malpractice by call centre staff in this country and abroad.

However, wherever their operations are based, companies remain bound by the requirements of the 1998 Act, in particular that for data to be kept secure. Companies remain responsible for how data are processed overseas on their behalf, and that includes the transfer and overseas processing of the data. Companies have taken many steps to protect the security of data and many examples of good practice are followed. To monitor standards, it is also important that strong links be maintained between the UK and call centres located abroad.

In March 2006, the British regulator, the Banking Code Standards Board, visited eight Indian call centres. More than 1 million inbound calls from the UK, together with other processing work, are handled each month by those centres. The review identified good standards of compliance with the banking code.

Increasing integration of the international economy presents challenges and opportunities for all sectors of the UK economy. The potential impact of globalisation on the UK’s prosperity will depend critically on business response, in terms of choices businesses make about location and successfully meeting the needs of customers. That has led to the offshoring of some jobs and services, and calls for protectionism and economic patriotism, although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North was not making that challenge in introducing the debate. Those are part of the competitive challenges facing business and the Government alike.

We need to put the issue of offshoring into perspective. We want to keep jobs in the UK, but we operate today in a fiercely competitive global market, and no sector is more competitive than IT. Changing technology is a fact of life. Some call centre and other service functions have moved to India and other third countries. It is for companies to choose their investment locations; the Government cannot protect jobs by suggesting that industry operate in a certain way, and we cannot stem the tide of overseas or technological competition. However, we can aim to provide the most favourable conditions for businesses, whether they are already located here or want to locate here. In addition, we can encourage all call centres to move up the value chain.

Dr. Gibson: Will the Minister elaborate on why he thinks that offshoring call centre services have worked as well as those services in Britain? How will he protect the data out there? As I said, there is no legislation to stop the flow of information. A server in the United Kingdom may be operating the computer, but the information is still available to staff who work abroad, giving opportunities to the Nick Leesons of this world. How will the Minister prevent that?

Jim Fitzpatrick: On my hon. Friend’s latter point, I mentioned a moment ago that call centre companies are bound by the 1998 Act. The regulator is obliged to monitor and enforce that Act. That is why I mentioned
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that the Banking Code Standards Board went to India to examine eight Indian call centres. The board is obliged and empowered to deal with any breaches.

Dr. Gibson: I know that the Financial Services Authority has done a study in Mumbai and Delhi. Have there, in the Minister’s experience, been any cases of people having been fined for breaches of the 1998 Act?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I shall come to that later. If I do not, I shall investigate and write to my hon. Friend in due course. The Banking Code Standards Board is the British regulator empowered to monitor and enforce. If I do not have the relevant information in my speech, I shall get it for my hon. Friend.

As I was saying, there is an additional responsibility to encourage all call centres to move up the value chain. We should remember that outsourcing is a two-way process. The UK is the world’s second largest recipient of inward investment. Inward stock was worth £472 billion at the end of 2005 and call centre firms contribute to UK exports, which in turn contribute to our prosperity.

HCL Technologies, an Indian company, has bought two call centres in Northern Ireland. It now employs about 2,000 people, who among them speak eight different languages. The centres service clients such as BT, the AA and Deutsche Bank, and are the largest outsourcing operation in the whole of Ireland. Companies need to think carefully about relocation and to consider the difficulties of managing staff, maintaining standards and offering appropriate customer care when staff are relocated thousands of miles away. We would do well not to forget that customers have a choice about whom they do business with. They have power, and can take their custom elsewhere.

Service quality is one of the many important considerations companies have about relocating. Quality of customer contact is crucial for many companies. Offshore call centre services may be the obvious short-term economic option, but some companies are now sounding a note of caution as a result of strong customer feedback. Customers are demanding successful delivery of goods and services; to achieve that, call centre workers need detailed social, cultural and geographical knowledge of their customers’ requirements.

As a former Minister with responsibility for the fire service, I could digress about fire service mobilising systems, the latest caller ID technology, global positioning systems, local road data and contemporary information. However, I shall not be tempted down that path by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North.

Dr. Gibson rose—

Jim Fitzpatrick: Well, perhaps I shall be.

Dr. Gibson: May I tempt the Minister in another direction, which is precisely relevant? Several Members have made the point that the unions are not subject to
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negotiations. As an ex-trade union activist, does the Minister understand the feeling of employees and trade union representatives when they are told about changes, or find out after they have happened? Should the Department of Trade and Industry guidelines not be much stronger?

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. However, the Government signed up last year to European Union standards in the information and consultation directive, as recommended by the DTI, so we are up with our European partners. Obviously, we always advise best practice, and companies that look after their staff inevitably find that those staff are better motivated to improve the profit margins, as they know that they are valued.

Some companies have taken account of considerations such as customer preference or the difficulty of managing staff at a distance and have decided to bring back operations from abroad. Where jobs are unfortunately lost, we continue to do everything possible to help people to find new jobs and, if necessary, new skills. Jobcentre Plus and the rapid response service provide that help. We encourage companies to consult their employees and unions over relocation decisions, and, as I just mentioned, the information and consultation directive was signed last year by the Government. Co-operation is mutually beneficial.

Dr. Gibson: As a follow-up to what my hon. Friend just said about companies coming back, does he have any information about why they come back, and does their service improve because of that?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I do not have any detailed information to hand, but I believe that we are all familiar with anecdotes that reflect the sentiments that I mentioned earlier. Companies are much more sensitive. Call centres abroad have been getting a pounding for a variety of reasons—some are probably not so valid, but others are. I think of the question about Watford raised by the hon. Member for Wealden, people’s dissatisfaction levels and customers who may feel let down or that they are not being offered the best possible service, even though many overseas call centres offer an excellent service. Those aspects make companies think twice about outsourcing and make them think about bringing call centres back. Those are business considerations, and such decisions are taken every day.

Dr. Gibson: I am sure that my hon. Friend talks to businessmen—we all do. Why do call centres come back?

Jim Fitzpatrick: If they do, it is obviously because that is in the interest of the company—service that is more satisfactory to customers makes for better business. However, as I said, those are decisions for companies to take in the light of their experience, the services that they provide to their customers and how their business is going.

I was about to quote an example of co-operation between Amicus, the union mentioned by my hon. Friend, and Computer Sciences Corporation, which is
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an information technology services company. An agreement has been negotiated to provide the company with the flexibility to enhance its competitiveness while aiming to safeguard the job security, skills and careers of its work force.

The Government are investing in schools, higher and further education and the skills of the UK’s work force. While there will be ever-growing pressure from the likes of China and India—together, they produce 2 million graduates each year to our 400,000—to compete for higher-skilled jobs, it is still our best course to have the confidence to find our comparative advantage by investing in a more highly skilled work force who can respond quickly and flexibly to change in the globalised market.

Skills are central to UK competitiveness. The Government are working with key stakeholders to improve productivity by raising the level of and demand for skills, by developing a diverse and flexible labour market and by increasing the take-up of ways of working to foster high-performance workplaces. Skills underpin the ability to innovate, and innovation drives the demand for better and higher skills. We must continually improve the work force’s skills and motivation to deliver.

Call centres have an important part to play in driving UK productivity and competitiveness. Wages in the Indian IT services industry, for example, are rising by some 15 per cent. a year, so competitiveness in that market is narrowing.

In conclusion, research commissioned by the DTI in 2004 showed that the call centre sector will continue to grow. However, the way forward is not regulation,
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which just adds to the burden of red tape and stifles initiative in an innovative sector. The future lies in continuing the good and positive work of concentrating on staff training and enhancing skills so that the work force move to advanced, high-value work with an emphasis on customer care and satisfaction.

I heard my hon. Friend’s request for an inquiry. I hope that I have given enough reassurance to support the Government’s view that an inquiry is not needed, but I acknowledge the concerns that he and other hon. Members have.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as he is just about to conclude. He kindly agreed to review Ofcom’s role in enforcing contraventions of the regulations. I agree that regulation is not necessarily what is called for, but the regulations that we have must be enforced. If he is not able at this moment to provide examples of how regulations have been enforced by Ofcom, perhaps he will be good enough to write to me and explain what actions Ofcom has taken since I received the same assurance in the last Westminster Hall debate on this matter earlier this year.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful for that intervention. I should have said earlier that, further to the research that my office will undertake, I am happy to write to the hon. Lady and to hon. Gentlemen who took part or intervened in the debate to ensure that everybody is up to speed with Ofcom’s role and the data that our research will produce.

10.35 am

Sitting suspended.

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Human Rights (Burma)

11 am

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Today, Burma's democracy leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, will mark a total of 11 years under house arrest. It is therefore highly appropriate that the House should consider once again the current situation in Burma, the gross violations of human rights being perpetrated by its military regime, and the actions that Her Majesty’s Government can and should take to address the growing crisis there.

There are other factors that make this a particularly timely moment for hon. Members to have this discussion. Last month, the United Nations Security Council formally discussed Burma for the first time and just last week the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, presented his report to the UN General Assembly. This debate has attracted interest from various non-governmental organisations working in the field and I am grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and The Burma Campaign UK, which, among others, have asked me to consider various research notes and pieces of evidence in preparation for the debate.

It is good to see the Minister for Europe here. I know that he will not be offended if I say that we were looking forward to the Minister for Trade, who also has responsibility for human rights, responding. Nevertheless, we look forward to what this Minister has to say.

I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that more than 90 per cent. of everything said from the platform in the party conference season is instantly forgettable, and I am sure that that applies equally to all parties. However, in Bournemouth at the beginning of the month I listened to one of the most confident, passionate and meaningful speeches I have ever heard in any political forum. The speaker was a 25-year-old Burmese woman called Zoya Phan, who used an appearance at our conference to make a heart-cry for her people and her country. Zoya spoke of how, at the age of 14, she witnessed a savage assault on her village by troops of the Burmese regime. She spoke of mortar bombs exploding, soldiers opening fire and of her family running, carrying what they could and leaving their home behind. She also spoke of her memories of those killed on that day and the smell of black smoke as her village was destroyed behind them. She brought questions to our conference and asked: why has it taken 16 years for the UN Security Council even to discuss Burma; why are there no targeted economic sanctions to cut the lifeline that keeps the Burmese regime afloat; and why is there not even a UN arms embargo against her country? It was Zoya’s testimony, more than anything, that made me ask for the debate. I would like to use my contribution to bring these questions and others to the Minister.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the past 11 years of her life in detention. Despite an overly optimistic assessment of the situation by UN Under-Secretary-General, Ibrahim Gambari, who was permitted a brief audience with her in May this year, her detention was extended by a further year just days later. In addition
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to the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, there are more than 1,100 other political prisoners in jail in Burma today facing widespread and horrific forms of torture. Since December last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been forced to suspend all its prison visits due to the restrictions imposed by the State Peace and Development Council. Last December the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) published a report “The Darkness We See”, which details the different forms of torture used. Many political prisoners do not survive the harsh conditions and torture they face in Burma’s prisons. Another report, “Eight Seconds of Silence”, details the deaths of at least nine political prisoners since last year, and last week it emerged that another prisoner, Ko Thet Win Aung, aged 34, died in Mandalay prison. Will the Minister and his colleagues demand an independent investigation into the cause of death of that young man and make those findings public?

The date of 27 September this year marked the 18th anniversary of the establishment of the National League for Democracy in Burma. Yet, even at the same time as messages of support were sent to the NLD from politicians of all parties around the world, several leading dissidents in Burma, who had already spent many years of their lives behind bars, were re-arrested, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Gyi and Htay Kwe. What action is the Minister taking to raise the issue of those arrests with the SPDC and to secure the release of the prisoners?

Burma still has the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world according to Human Rights Watch, and more than 70,000 children have been forced to join the Burma army. According to the human rights group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has interviewed former child soldiers who have managed to escape, those children—some as young as 10 or 11—are taken from bus stops, train stations or off the street while on their way home from school. I know that from previous answers given by the Minister for Trade that he feels passionately about the issue of child soldiers. Will the Minister update us on the Government’s most recent actions to challenge the regime on its use of child soldiers?

As if the suppression of democracy, the widespread use of torture, the imprisonment of people for their political beliefs, and the forcible conscription of child soldiers were not enough, the human rights violations perpetrated by the SPDC against ethnic nationalities, particularly the Karen, Karenni and Shan, amount, according to many analysts, to crimes against humanity and, arguably, genocide. Since 1996, more than 2,800 villages in eastern Burma have been destroyed. That has been reported by human rights organisations for several years. Last week, in his report to the UN General Assembly, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma acknowledged that figure for the first time.

It is estimated that more than 1 million people are internally displaced in the jungles of Burma. They are on the run,

in the words of one report, and do not have adequate food, medicine or shelter. This year, the number of internally displaced people rose further. In the SPDC’s biggest and most savage offensive against Karen
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civilians in almost a decade, more than 20,000 Karen people had to flee their villages. Reports from the Free Burma Rangers and the Karen Human Rights Group reveal horrifying atrocities, including beheadings, severe mutilations and the shooting of civilians at point-blank range. A nine-year-old girl was shot after seeing her father and grandmother killed.

It is essential that we see that campaign for what it is. The European Union and others in the international community have been, in my view, far too timid in the language they have been willing to use. They have described this year’s events as an offensive against the Karen National Union, which is the Karens’ resistance organisation. In reality, it was nothing less than a genocidal assault on the Karen people themselves. The vast majority of the victims were innocent, unarmed civilians who had nothing to do with the resistance.

Evidence of the widespread and systematic use of rape continues to mount and is documented in reports such as “Licence to Rape”by the Shan Women’s Action Network, and others by the Karen Women’s Organisation and the Women’s League of Chinland. The pattern is clearly that wherever SPDC troops are stationed, women are extremely vulnerable. A Kachin woman told Christian Solidarity Worldwide that rape is “very common” and that

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