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24 July 2007 : Column 218WH—continued

12.13 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood, and I thank Miss Begg for her earlier oversight of our proceedings.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate. I am delighted to make a guest appearance in a discussion of this area of the world. That does not reflect any ambitions for Saudi membership of the EU; it simply reflects the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is in the middle east. I respond to the deliberations today as a guest—as the Minister for Europe.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham on the way in which he conveyed his argument. I think that I am joined in that by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. His in-depth understanding of and passion for Saudi Arabia were clear to all who listened. Although hon. Members made it clear that there were specific areas of disagreement with his observations, it was clear that he had a real understanding of and passion for that country.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments were amplified by those of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), who is the chair of the all-party group on Saudi Arabia. We had the opportunity—it was indeed an opportunity—to listen to his reflections on the challenges facing Saudi Arabia and his assessment of our bilateral relationship. I will respond, in the time available, to the plethora of specific questions that were asked and observations that were made once I have set out some of the specifics of the important UK-Saudi bilateral relations.

I am pleased—this is not just at the instigation of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber—to announce today that Her Majesty the Queen has invited His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, custodian of the two holy mosques, to pay a state visit to the United Kingdom from 30 October to 1 November 2007. The visit will further strengthen the good relations that exist between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I want at the outset to outline why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is such an important ally for the United Kingdom. We have a long history of friendship, understanding and co-operation. Saudi Arabia is an important partner in the region. That co-operation covers bilateral, regional and international issues, including counter-terrorism, energy security, trade and investment, economic reform, Iraq, Iran, the middle east peace process and Lebanon. Our relationship is broadly based and vital to UK interests, and helps us to make progress on our international objectives.

One of the most important of those objectives, which was raised by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North and by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), concerns the middle east peace process. The UK’s clear view is that the Arab world has a key role to play in encouraging progress in
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the middle east peace process by supporting the efforts of President Abbas, by taking forward the Arab peace initiative and by helping to ensure international support and co-operation in respect of that initiative.

The Arab peace initiative is based on King Abdullah’s proposal and was put forward by the Arab League in 2002, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said. It was then re-endorsed at the Arab League summit in Riyadh in March this year. The action following the Riyadh summit has been positive. The Arab League representatives are due to travel to Israel shortly to continue their work. That picks up on the question raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury. King Abdullah also brokered the Mecca agreement in February 2007, which helped to lead to the formation of a Palestinian national unity Government.

Of course Saudi Arabia has a continuing role now and in the future in respect of the middle east peace process, primarily through the Arab League, but it would help if others in the region, particularly Iran, which is not a member of the Arab League, were able to show that there is willingness on all sides to reach consensus. It is unhelpful that the Iranian leadership continues, to all intents and purposes, to call for the active destruction of the state of Israel, continues denial of the holocaust and continues what can only be interpreted as a misguided approach to a nuclear programme. Therefore, although it is right that the Arab League continues to engage in trying to make progress, it is fair to acknowledge the challenge that Israel faces in trying to find concerted, consistent, universal partners in the peace process in that region.

Saudi Arabia shares our concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia, like us, has been working to implement the sanctions in UN Security Council resolutions 1737 and 1747 and has been supportive of the sanctions process. If Iran continues to fail to suspend its enrichment programme, we will seek a further resolution, and we look forward to Saudi Arabia’s continuing support in that international endeavour.

On the specific issue of Iraq, Saudi Arabia supports the political process and has used its influence with Iraqi Sunnis to persuade them to engage in the political process. It has a critical role to play in supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s broad-based Government, including through the international compact and the provision of border security. The Saudis fully recognise that the success of the revised Baghdad security plan is critical to the future stability of not only Iraq but the whole region. In response to the specific point raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, let me say that the Saudis are always looking at ways to stop terrorists carrying out cross-border terrorism between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and there are also new laws on the funding of groups. We continue to work with the Saudis on such important security issues.

Elsewhere in the region, the Saudis are playing an enhanced role. They are actively involved in efforts to resolve the political crisis in Lebanon, and we have welcomed their constructive efforts, which have sought to bring the parties in Lebanon together. Since last year’s conflict, they have been a major donor in Lebanon’s reconstruction process and they pledged more than $1 billion in loans and grants at the Paris conference on
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Lebanon. Furthermore, they contributed $1 billion at the Yemen donor conference, which the UK hosted in November 2006.

As hon. Members on both sides have recognised, Saudi Arabia is one of the UK’s key counter-terrorism partners, and we maintain a high level of bilateral co-operation. Saudi Arabia plays a pivotal role, both regionally and internationally, in the global response to the terrorist threat, including in countering extremism and disrupting terrorist networks on its own territory.

Hon. Members have, fairly, commented on the political process and reform in Saudi Arabia. While remaining sensitive to the conservative majority’s views, King Abdullah has introduced significant incremental reforms in recent years. They include strengthening the Shura council, holding partial—only partial—municipal elections, establishing a number of civil society organisations and promoting women’s participation in elections to professional bodies and educational reform.

I heard the point about religious freedom, which was raised by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), as well as a number of additional points. The annual UK/Saudi “Two Kingdoms” conference provides a bilateral framework for frank and honest dialogue on issues such as economic reform, education, the role of women, civil society and human rights in Saudi Arabia. We continue to support reform in Saudi Arabia by providing funding for specific projects, such as capacity-building for civil society organisations, helping the Ministry of Education and the vocational training agency to strengthen their English language training and encouraging young entrepreneurs.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record remains poor. Although the pace of reform is slow by western standards, the authorities have to balance their wish for faster reform against the wishes of a deeply conservative majority, many of whose members appear to oppose any reform in principle.

Jim Sheridan: Does the Minister agree that reform in Saudi Arabia can go only at the pace that Saudi Arabia wants it to and that it is our job to encourage reform? However, on the issue of women, will the Minister tell the Saudi Government that women have, with the exception of Mrs. Thatcher, played a positive role in this country and, in particular, in Parliament?

Mr. Murphy: I wonder whether that intervention was prepared when Miss Begg was overseeing our proceedings earlier. Thus far, she has been the only woman to participate in our debate, although I am, of course, delighted that my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) are with us.

If colleagues will allow me, I will make a couple of points about our bilateral trade relationship with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia remains the UK’s largest trade and investment partner in the middle east and accounts for 25 per cent. of the Arab world’s GDP, which is more than the other five Gulf Co-operation Council countries and Egypt combined. On the point about an EU trade agreement, conversations continue, and further meetings are planned for October. We would hope to make quick progress on the issue.

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Today, the UK’s trade and investment links with Saudi Arabia are stronger than ever and they are growing. Over the past few months, the importance of that relationship has been clearly demonstrated at Government level by a number of high-level visits. Those include visits by the Duke of York, in his role as special representative for trade and investment, and by UK Trade and Investment’s chief executive, Andrew Cahn. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor also visited Saudi Arabia in May, in his role as the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Let me respond now to the points raised by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). In the short time available, I do not intend to rehearse the debate that we had on the Floor of the House, and nor do I wish to add to the detailed responses that the Solicitor-General and the Minister for the Middle East offered on specific points. However, I do want to say on the record once again that the Serious Fraud Office’s decision was taken by the director alone. The Government have given good reason to believe that there is a real danger to our co-operation with a country that is vital to us, and I do not use the word “vital” lightly in describing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s importance to us. It would have been wholly irresponsible of us to ignore that information and wholly wrong not to make the SFO aware of it. The SFO made a decision based on that evidence, and, on balance, we believe that it was the right decision. We are also confident that it is compatible with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development convention.

The hon. Gentleman reflected his constituency interest in an observation about BAE’s good name, but let me gently tell him that the tone of some of his hon. Friends’ comments in recent weeks—it was perhaps unintentional—does not do an awful lot to enhance the well-deserved good name of BAE in this country and internationally.

Daniel Kawczynski: Does the Minister agree that the Liberal Democrats can make such comments knowing
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full well that they will never be in government, whereas he, being in government, must be far more aware of the sensitivities on these issues?

Mr. Murphy: Of course. An expectation of permanent opposition brings one to easy judgments and cheap soundbites, although I have no idea whether that was at play in the Liberal Democrats’ positioning on this important issue.

Mark Hunter: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Murphy: As long as there are no cheap soundbites.

Mark Hunter: Far be it from me to make cheap comments in this important debate. I have listened carefully to the Minister, but will he say on the record whether he agrees that no individual, company or country should be above the law?

Mr. Murphy: I have already said very clearly that the decision that was taken was compatible with the OECD convention and I have no intention of re-running the debate that we recently had on the Floor of the House for a number of hours. I think that hon. Members would thank us for not doing so.

Our bilateral trade with Saudi Arabia is on the up. UK exports of goods and services to the kingdom were worth more than £3 billion in 2006. The UK is also a major investor in the kingdom, and there are more than 150 UK/Saudi joint ventures, with total investments of about $14.5 billion. The amounts earmarked for investment over the present period are staggering. Investment of an estimated $630 billion in Government projects and more than $800 billion in private sector projects is planned over the next 20 years.

Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is important and strategic, and I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for giving us all the opportunity to rehearse just how important it is to the UK diplomatically and internationally in terms of trade, the economy and jobs.

24 July 2007 : Column 223WH

International Labour Law

12.30 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Mr. Hood, it is always a delight to see you in the Chair and to have the opportunity to raise a subject of great importance. I stand here as a trade union MP, in the sense that I have the support of ASLEF, the train drivers’ union. However, the matter that I want to raise today has enormous importance right across the field of representation.

I and other Labour Members of Parliament are here today because of the existence of trade unions. It is not an accident that trade unions began in the United Kingdom. We have always had a commitment—I think that it exists in the Anglo-Saxon character—that makes us strongly resent anything that happens to the detriment of fair play, in industrial relations or with respect to any organisational change. I think, therefore, that it is important that this country should uphold, as it does, the labour laws that are part and parcel of our commitment to fairness, decency and proper standards.

I want to talk today about a bus company. The way in which United Kingdom companies operate, in the UK and elsewhere, affects their efficiency and their ability to succeed. It is their particular responsibility to ensure that what they do is properly supported by the rules of law and, more than that, that it clearly shows a proper commitment to justice and the general principles on which the International Labour Organisation declarations are based. It is therefore important to raise the matter of First Group.

First Group is a very successful transport company. It has expanded from a very small base into the railway and bus industries. Very many companies are involved with it. It has been extraordinarily successful and, in this country, very well run. It has conducted proper industrial relations. It has a strong and robust connection with the Transport and General Workers Union and it has made its commitment to proper trade relations clear. It is therefore worrying to see, as it begins to expand elsewhere, that that may not necessarily be a tradition that is fully carried out in other countries. We should perhaps today consider some of the things that are happening, which will rebound badly not just on First Group but on the reputation of United Kingdom companies.

We might first refer to passages in the ILO conventions on trade union rights and civil liberties. Members of Parliament frequently mention their commitment to the ILO conventions; I wonder how many of them have read the conventions, including the provisions that state

that for

and that a

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Another paragraph states:

A commitment is also made:

That is all very clear and good and is well supported in a Parliament that has grown up because of reaction to the imposition of unfair or unacceptable laws.

Why, then, do I worry about what First Group is doing elsewhere? First Group is a company that because it is successful—I am happy to record that—is expanding. In the United States it is not just expanding into one company; it is expanding into a much larger company than was originally intended. Forty per cent. of the non-management staff of Laidlaw International Inc., which First Student appears to be about to take over, for $2.8 billion, are represented by trade unions. Why should that be a matter for concern? First Group is facing a serious risk to its reputation and it is best to speak plainly. It is because of its continuing aggressive interference in workers’ organising rights, community consensus and the adequate funding of school transport services.

I spoke to trade union representatives who came here from the United States of America, because I am very concerned about the reputation of transport companies, whether they operate in the UK or organise elsewhere. I knew very little of the situation and asked to be given a detailed brief. I was very surprised to see that, in spite of the fact that the company has pledged to support the principles of the ILO conventions on workers’ freedom of association, three different reports produced for the Teamsters union by well respected members of universities—Lance Compa of Cornell, a professor specialising in labour and human rights law, John Logan, a scholar and professor at the school of management at the London School of Economics, and Fred Feinstein, who was on the US National Labour Relations Board, the Government agency that enforces federal labour law—make it clear that there has been a consistent, targeted and deliberate attempt to make it almost impossible for members of the First Student companies to organise, meet together and operate as a proper trade union. There is considerable detail in all the reports, which I will spare you, Mr. Hood, because I hope that we can accept that anyone who wants to know the details will read the “Third Report on Freedom of Association and Workers’ Rights Violations at First Student, Inc.”

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