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I say to the Minister that there are many commercial opportunities for the United Kingdom. The desire for development, the relaxation of foreign investment regulations, the level of political stability and the extent of existing cultural ties mean that the Maldives is a very attractive location for UK foreign investment. I encourage UK firms to grasp that opportunity, and
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that opportunity is to unite with the Maldivian Government in what my hon. Friend and I regard as an early sight of paradise.

7.13 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and especially to the Minister for allowing me to take part in this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for securing it.

I am the secretary of the all-party Maldives group and although it is paradise, I can assure the Minister that work does take place in paradise. Indeed, we worked really quite hard and were well received wherever we went. As my hon. Friend said, the whole of society was opened up to us and we were taken wherever we asked to go. That is worth saying.

As the Minister will know, there have been political difficulties in the Maldivian system. I know that the British Government have been heartened by the fact that the country embarked on a change programme two or three years ago. I am delighted to report to the Minister that the change programme is moving on apace. A problem might be that we see the Maldives as not the perfect democratic nation, but it is striving to get there. As my hon. Friend said, the referendum was very successful and a massive proportion of the electorate took part. Hopefully, the elections in September 2008 will prove conclusively that the Maldivian people are in possession of a representative democracy of which they can be proud. This is thus a good time for us to help the Maldives, which was a protectorate for so long and where English is spoken. The fact that the Maldives looks to our country as a model and a great friend certainly came over to my hon. Friend and I.

What can we do? There is a real problem with education. There are about 80,000 pupils in Maldivian schools, but only up to secondary school level. Anyone who wishes to pursue further education to any extent must leave the country. When we asked the Minister, the honourable Abdulla Shahid, the areas of activity in which Britain might help, he suggested further education, especially in connection with British universities. We said that we would explore that area of activity, so my hon. Friend and I intend to contact our senior educational establishments. We are talking to foundations that might be able to help with the creation of a university college, or at least some attachment of that kind that could relate to a British university, given that the country uses British exams. We hope that something might come of that.

The Minister is involved in and appreciative of relationships with the Maldives. He is what we in Northamptonshire might call a good old boy—I hope that that is parliamentary language, Mr. Speaker. I know that the Minister is a kind man, so I wonder whether he might allow my hon. Friend and I to spend 10 minutes with him to determine whether we could pursue the possibility of working closely with our senior educational establishments with a view to helping the Maldivian people into the degree of higher education that is difficult for them to attain now.

I am grateful for your kindness, Mr. Speaker, and to the Minister. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

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7.17 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): May I join the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) in congratulating the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing the debate? I welcome the close interest of the hon. Member for Southend, West in the issues that have been raised. If he does not mind my saying so, it is always a pleasure to debate with him. He believes passionately in the causes that he champions, as does the hon. Member for Northampton, South. I do not always agree with the hon. Gentlemen, but I recognise the force of their arguments.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the debate on relations between the United Kingdom and the Maldives. Mention of the Maldives will readily evoke images of picture-postcard islands and crystal-clear water. We have heard such a description today. I have not had the opportunity to visit the country, but, hopefully, I will do so one day. I cannot remember whether this was mentioned, but 100,000 British citizens go there for a holiday every year, which in itself is a testament to not only the beauty of the islands, but their potential, which was the most interesting aspect of the hon. Gentlemen’s speeches.

We enjoy excellent relationships with the Maldives, both bilaterally and through our shared membership of the Commonwealth. Many Maldivians hold Her Majesty the Queen and the United Kingdom in high regard. That is reflected at ministerial level, and through the close relationships between Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials and the Maldivian Government.

In his visit in July, President Gayoom had an audience with the Queen. He also met my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, the Minister with responsibility for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They reviewed our wide range of shared interests, which include education, trade, tourism and addressing the challenges of climate change. More recently, senior FCO officials met the new Maldivian Foreign Minister, Mr. Abdulla Shahid, and the Deputy Foreign Minister, Ms Dhunya Maumoon, who was educated in Britain. She is the daughter of the President and is married to a British national. Officials also met Mohamed Nasheed, who is the leader of the opposition Maldivian Democratic party.

I was interested in the suggestion that the hon. Member for Northampton, South, made about establishing closer contacts with UK universities; I could not agree with him more. We do not work hard enough at that. I will give him an undertaking: tomorrow night, I will have the pleasure of dining with the distinguished Professor Merfyn Jones, who is chairman of Higher Education Wales, which represents Welsh universities. I shall mention the subject to him, because he has done some pioneering work on contacts between Bangor university, of which he is the vice-chancellor, and Kuwait. Work is done on important maritime studies, and I have no doubt that issues such as climate change could easily be included.

The hon. Member for Southend, West, mentioned that the Maldivians are extremely concerned about climate change, and he gave us the most vivid example possible. While I was swotting for the debate, I read that no point in the Maldives is higher than 2.5 m. When we read some of the predictions of what will happen if sea
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levels rise, we see that climate change poses the gravest threat to life and commerce in the Maldives. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the subject, and we want to work with him on it.

When I made inquiries with our officials, they said, “Look, as for contact between the Maldivians and us, we are no more than a phone call away.” We have a very good relationship with the Maldivians, and it is not at a formal level. If they want to speak to us, they can do so at any time. I wanted to reiterate that in the House tonight, because it is an important point. We care a great deal about the Maldives. It has a very small population of 350,000, but as the hon. Member for Southend, West, pointed out, it has strong historical links with our country, and we want to nurture and strengthen those links.

I was fascinated to hear the hon. Gentleman’s description of the new town that is set to grow, possibly with a causeway connection to the capital, Malé. That is an exciting prospect. The hon. Gentleman probably already knows, although I admit that I do not, whether the Maldivians are looking closely at the new developments in the Gulf, where causeways are being used to enlarge the available building land. He made an important point when he said that it is easy to run out of land. We may be talking about the biggest occupied atoll in the world, but that does not mean that there is a lot of land there for development. Clearly, we are talking about a country with aspirations—I will come to the points that the hon. Member for Northampton, South, made on that subject later. It aspires not just to become a more transparent and vigorous democracy, although I believe that it is that, but to feed itself and to ensure a sustainable economy. As the tourism industry grows, so will the population, probably—and why should it not? However, it will be a fine balance, because there is not much room. From our own constituencies, we all know how difficult it is to get land for development, even though we have such an abundance of it. For the Maldives, the problem is acute.

I am sure that the hon. Gentlemen and the entire House will join me in condemning the appalling bomb attack on 29 September that injured 12 tourists, including two British nationals. We offer our sincere condolences to those injured, some of whom are still recuperating from the attack. The bombers, whoever they were, do not represent the overwhelming majority of the Maldivian people, who reacted with horror to the attack. Their reaction was not only of great comfort to the victims, but sent an unambiguous message to the perpetrators that the Maldives is united against terrorism. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown wrote to Foreign Minister Shahid on 4 October to express our gratitude for the generous and effective response of the Maldivian Government, the tourism industry and the Maldivian general public for their expressions of opposition to that outrage.

I join the hon. Member for Southend, West in saying that that attack did not represent the Maldives. Perhaps it was designed to try to weaken confidence in the Maldives and to tell people that they should not go there. We have seen the same tactics being used in Sharm el-Shaikh and elsewhere. I have been impressed by the determination of the Maldivian people in re-asserting that that is a country worth living in and one which has a great future.

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I echo the words of the hon. Member for Northampton, South—if it was the hon. Member for Southend, West, I hope he will forgive me—who paid tribute to the work of the noble Lord Naseby, whom we know well. He has done sterling work in helping our Government and the House to focus on helping the Maldives to achieve a more democratic and transparent system of government. That has been a remarkable achievement. As the hon. Member for Northampton, South told us, the transition has not been easy and there is a long way to go yet, but we appreciate the fact that President Gayoom has set in train an ambitious reform programme to adopt a new constitution and to institute multi-party democracy.

We should not underestimate the challenges in attempting to make the transition from a political system that was based heavily on patronage and state control to a multi-party liberal democracy in the space of just a few years. In some areas, such as freedom of expression and the media, the formation of political parties and the development of civil society, there has been good, albeit not always consistent, progress. We would like to see more movement in other areas. I understand that the new constitution is well on its way
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to being finished. I heard today that 13 chapters had been written. It is being put together by a constituent assembly, and the United Nations Development Programme has provided assistance in the drafting. That is encouraging news.

In August the Maldives constitutional referendum was the first national poll since the creation of political parties. The hon. Member for Southend, West asked whether we could send election observers out there. We would like to do that, but whether we can is another matter. It is an important issue. We would certainly support full Commonwealth or European Union election observation missions and British participation in those missions to observe what promises to be the first multi-party elections next year.

I am told, and the hon. Gentlemen have confirmed to me tonight, that because of the nature of Maldivian geography, with hundreds of small islands—I think that more than 200 are inhabited—an international observation team would not be able to cover the entire country. It is at least as important that there should be sufficient domestic observers, through the Maldives human rights commission and the political parties. I very much hope that we can take that forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o’clock

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