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The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): May I begin by extending the normal courtesies of the House to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow
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(Mr. Galloway) on securing tonight’s debate, which he entitled “Restoration of democracy in Pakistan”? I am sure that everyone—including, I hope, the hon. Gentleman—will join me in condemning the recent violence in Karachi and terrorist attacks in Pakistan that have killed and injured so many people. On behalf of the United Kingdom, I extend my sympathies and condolences to those affected.

As this House is aware, Pakistan is an important friend and ally of the United Kingdom. Sixty years after independence, the bilateral relationship between Pakistan and this country is as close as it has ever been. We are closely intertwined historically, culturally and politically. More than 800,000 British citizens living in the UK have Pakistani origins. What is perhaps less well known is that there are at least 80,000 residents in Pakistan with British nationality. About 150,000 people from each country visit the other country every year.

Pakistan is at the heart of a range of the key international issues, including counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, counter-narcotics, migration and cross-cultural and cross-community relationships. These are all shared challenges, which we need to tackle together. The UK is grateful for the continuing co-operation on counter-terrorism that it receives from Pakistan, and the sacrifices that Pakistan has made in the border region with Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban and other criminal elements from crossing the border.

This debate is, however, focused on the question of democracy, and I want to deal with a number of related issues in turn, the first of which is human rights. The Government welcome President Musharraf’s commitment to promoting “enlightened moderation”. The recent reform of the Hudood laws was an important step forward in human rights and democracy in Pakistan. Ministers have consistently raised human rights questions with the Pakistani Government, welcoming their efforts on the women’s protection Bill, for example. Follow-up by the British Government detailed a number of our human rights concerns in Pakistan, and offered UK support on a range of connected issues.

One of those issues was the effect of the blasphemy laws on religious minority groups. We have welcomed Pakistan’s efforts to address that issue, and encourage further reform of discriminatory legislation. I am aware of the continuing problems faced by minority groups in Pakistan, such as the Christian community in the North-West Frontier Province. We continue to monitor closely the developments in these cases.

Both bilaterally and with our European partners, we continue to engage in dialogue with Pakistan on the issues of discriminatory legislation and the situation of minorities. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, and we will continue to voice our concerns to the Government of Pakistan.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the related question of media freedom. I am aware of the new ordinance introduced on 4 June, giving greater powers to the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority. That ordinance was suspended on 6 June, although the hon. Gentleman did not mention that, and subsequently revoked. In response, EU Heads of Mission in Islamabad reaffirmed the great importance that the EU attaches to freedom of expression and of the media as a crucial element for a successful democratic process. They welcome the
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Government of Pakistan’s decision to suspend the amendment and express their confidence that further steps will be taken to safeguard a political climate in which freedom of expression and of the media is respected, and is conducive to free and fair elections. Freedom of information is essential to economic and social development and stability, and we actively support the evolution of a free and fair press in Pakistan.

On the issue of democratic institutions, in Malta in 2005, Commonwealth Heads of Government welcomed the progress that Pakistan was making in restoring democracy and rebuilding democratic institutions. It is important that Pakistan continue that transition. Strengthening democratic institutions and promoting freedom of expression are vital steps in countering extremism and promoting an environment of tolerance.

The Department for International Development is working in partnership with Pakistan to help to develop its institutions and increase the accountability of the state to its citizens. That programme has four dimensions, which are public sector reform, representative government, access to justice and citizen participation. We also support major interventions underpinning the reform process in government. An important context for DFID’s work is Pakistan’s devolution reform, which was announced in March 2000 by President Musharraf. A distinctive feature is that it aims to deliver “justice at the doorstep”, including moving beyond public safety and the recognition of basic human rights to political and administrative justice. Other interventions include support to tax administration reform, reform of the Federal Bureau of Statistics, and a package of district level reforms in Faisalabad district.

As the House is aware, when the Prime Minister visited Pakistan in November 2006, he announced a doubling of the UK’s development programme for Pakistan. DFID is currently working on its new country assistance plan, which will include further support to Pakistan on good governance, institution building and empowerment.

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The UK looks to the Pakistan Government to ensure that the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are held in a free and fair manner in which it is equally possible for all political parties to participate. The British Government welcomed the appointment of an independent election commissioner as an important first step towards those free and fair elections. We are supporting him and his team in their efforts to provide free and fair elections, and to strengthen the role of local election monitors. We call on the Government of Pakistan and the Election Commission to continue their work on voter registration.

In January this year, the Department for International Development announced that it would be giving £3.5 million to support the electoral process in Pakistan. The money will be spent on a number of areas that are fundamental in ensuring a successful electoral process. They include voter registration, training of polling staff and party agents, voter education and ensuring maximum citizen participation in and oversight of the electoral process. The funds will also provide support for a group of international observers to give an objective analysis of the conduct of the elections.

The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow mentioned President Musharraf’s dual role as head of state and chief of army staff. The UK remains committed to the declaration made by Commonwealth Heads of Government in Malta in 2005, to which Pakistan also agreed, that until the two offices of head of state and chief of army staff are separated, the process of democratisation in Pakistan will not be irreversible.

In conclusion, I emphasise the fact that the UK has a long-term commitment to Pakistan’s future. We are closely linked and we share common goals: to defeat terrorism, to tackle extremism, and to share a peaceful and prosperous democratic future. For our part, the Government will continue to work with the Pakistani Government to achieve those goals.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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