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House of Commons

Wednesday 7 November 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

11.33 am

Speaker’s Statement

Mr. Speaker: I have a statement to make about the use of electronic devices by Members in the Chamber.

On 25 October, the House agreed to the use in the Chamber of hand-held devices to keep up to date with e-mails, provided that they cause no disturbance. From the start of this Session, therefore, Members can use such devices in the Chamber provided that they cause no disturbance. In line with a ruling from my predecessor in 1997, Members carrying such devices should turn off the audio function before coming into the Chamber. They should also not wear earpieces to receive messages.

In line with previous rulings, it remains unacceptable for a Member speaking in the Chamber to be prompted by information on the screen, or for a device to be used as a prompt by a Member—or a Minister for that matter—participating in proceedings. The Chair will order a Member seen to be using such an electronic device while speaking to resume their seat immediately. This ruling will be applied in Westminster Hall and in General Committees of the House. [ Interruption. ] Order.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I cannot take any point of order on this statement. Those come after statements, and we now have one from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

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11.35 am

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): With permission, I would like to make a statement on the situation in Pakistan, which I am sure the whole House will agree is dangerous, fast-moving and important to us in Britain.

The House will have followed in the news the unfolding events since the weekend. In brief, on 3 November, President Musharraf declared a state of emergency and the suspension of Pakistan’s constitution. He has issued a new provisional constitutional order, the two key features of which are as follows: first, the suspension of constitutional articles guaranteeing security of the person, safeguards on arrest and detention, freedom of movement, assembly, association and speech, and equality of citizens; and secondly, the removal of the Supreme Court’s authority to issue any order against the President, Prime Minister or any person exercising powers or jurisdiction under their authority, or to challenge the PCO.

In addition, the President has issued separate ordinances to tighten up regulations for print and electronic media, forbidding them from criticising the Head of State, military or judiciary, showing bodies of suicide bombers or their victims or broadcasting anything

Another effect of the PCO is to suspend all the Supreme Court judges pending their taking of a new oath of allegiance. We understand that fewer than half of the present bench of 19 judges have taken the oath. The former Chief Justice and 14 of his colleagues have been dismissed. Hundreds of other civil society leaders and political activists have been detained or placed under house arrest.

I have today spoken to our high commissioner in Islamabad. He and other members of the high commission staff, and other partner missions and embassies, are in close touch with civil society and other political figures who are the subject of restrictions and we are expressing our concerns to the Government and all relevant authorities at all levels.

I am sure that the whole House shares the Government’s grave concern at these developments. The Government of Pakistan say that they are temporary. It is vital that they are so. We are very much aware of the terrorist threat with which the Government of Pakistan have to grapple and which President Musharraf has cited in justification for his decision to suspend the constitution. The bombings over the last two weeks—in Karachi, Rawalpindi and elsewhere—have resulted in the murder and injury of hundreds of innocent victims. We have deplored those attacks and reiterated our support and determination to work in partnership with the Pakistani authorities to counter this menace.

However, since the weekend, we have seen actions from the Government that have set back the process of democratic transition which is essential for the future stability and security, as well as for the sustainable development, of Pakistan.

I have made clear our concerns on the telephone to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Aziz and Foreign Minister Kasuri, as well as speaking to Opposition leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and indicated what actions
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we now expect the Government to take. Specifically, we call on the Government of Pakistan to do the following: first, to declare now a specific date for January elections and implement the necessary conditions to guarantee that they are free and fair; secondly, to release all political prisoners, including members of the judiciary and human rights activists, and pursue energetically reconciliation with the political Opposition; thirdly, to honour the President’s commitment to step down as chief of staff by 15 November; and fourthly, to relax restrictions on the Pakistani and international media, including the BBC.

The stability and development of Pakistan matter to the UK. Pakistan is a vital partner for us in tackling the serious threat of terrorism and extremism against UK targets in the region and at home. We also need to work closely with Pakistan in promoting stability in the wider region, not least in Afghanistan, and in tackling a range of serious issues such as proliferation, drugs, migration and the environment.

It is not the moment for discussing the separate incident in northern Afghanistan yesterday, but it is right that I mention it. It led to terrible loss of life—the current number is around 40, including five Afghan Members of Parliament. Suffice it to say that I am sure that the House is keen to express its horror at and condemnation of those terrible attacks on Afghan democracy. However, as I said, they are a separate matter.

For the medium and longer term in Pakistan, we are convinced that democracy and the rule of law are prerequisites of stability and development in the country. Such stability is essential for economic growth. There has been much positive development in recent years. We have enjoyed a successful partnership between Pakistan and the Department for International Development. We are looking forward to the implementation of a new, expanded programme of co-operation from 2008 to 2010, which includes a focus on partnership in education. In total, that amounts to a doubling of our overseas aid. We do not want those positive developments for the poorest members of Pakistani society to be put at risk now.

Our concerns are shared by Pakistan’s other friends. I have been in touch with European counterparts and spoken to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and to Javier Solana, the EU’s high representative. There is a unanimous view from the international community that democracy, human rights, political freedoms and constitutional rule are the allies of security and stability in Pakistan. There is also a unanimous view that President Musharraf has very important responsibilities to fulfil his commitments at this vital time for Pakistan. We are following developments closely and seeking to co-ordinate our response so that our own vital interests are not damaged.

The situation also raises important issues for the Commonwealth. We look forward to a meeting of the Commonwealth ministerial action group next Monday in London, which has been convened to discuss the situation in Pakistan. Leaders will also have the chance to discuss the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Uganda later this month.

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The friends of Pakistan know that it is a critical time for that country. I acknowledge that that is particularly worrying for British citizens of Pakistani heritage and the Pakistani community resident in the UK, but it matters to us all. We hope that they will recognise our actions and that they, too, will use their contacts through family and business to make the case for democracy and the rule of law that we have been trying to articulate.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for making that timely statement. It is a crucial time for Pakistan and its relations with the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. So many issues bind our countries together. With a million British citizens claiming Pakistani heritage and our extensive trade links, Pakistan is a crucial ally and partner of the United Kingdom.

I absolutely agree with the Foreign Secretary that strengthening democracy in that country is the best way in which to guarantee its security, stability and prosperity for the future. Against that background, the Government’s response to the draconian measures taken at the weekend has, so far, been the right one. The Foreign Secretary’s representations and requests: that elections should go ahead in January on a free and fair basis; that General Musharraf should resign as head of the army by 15 November; that political prisoners should be released, and that restrictions on the media should be lifted, have the Opposition’s full and strong support.

That said, of course I have several questions, and the first is about elections. The Pakistani Government have given three different accounts so far of when elections will be held. When does the Foreign Secretary expect them to reach a decision? How highly does he rate the chances of elections being held in January? Will he confirm that the Department for International Development is providing £3.5 million to support the electoral process in Pakistan, and that he will continue to press on the Government of Pakistan the need for elections to be free and open and for the result to be upheld? What has he said to the Government of Pakistan about the continuation of British development aid and its doubling in the next three years, which hon. Members of all parties welcomed?

A former Prime Minister of Pakistan said yesterday that the state of emergency will

as the President is

Do the Government share that assessment?

Following the Foreign Secretary’s conversations with Opposition leaders, what assessment has he made of their intentions? What assessment have the Government made of the number of people who have been detained so far and does the Foreign Secretary know whether any UK nationals have been detained? He referred to his discussions with other Foreign Ministers and the clear and united message from the international community about the course that the Government of Pakistan should now follow. Does he know who will represent Pakistan at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Uganda to receive that clear and united message?

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I have a final set of questions on the overall security situation. The Foreign Secretary expressed his horror at yesterday’s terrorist attack in Afghanistan, a sentiment with which we absolutely concur. We are concerned that the instability will affect the Government of Pakistan’s ability to control the volatile border areas with Afghanistan. We are also concerned about the risk that the Taliban and al-Qaeda elements there will seize the opportunity caused by instability in Islamabad to step up their cross-border operations into Afghanistan. What assessment have the Government made of the risk of a spillover into Afghanistan and of the impact of recent developments on our continued co-operation there? What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the security situation in the North West Frontier province and Waziristan?

Such considerations underline the fact that the future stability of Pakistan is not only of vital interest to the United Kingdom, but an important matter for the whole world, because of Pakistan’s central role in the fight against terror, its relation to events in Afghanistan and its possession of nuclear weapons. Is it not the case that we need Pakistan as our ally, but we need it as a free, democratic and stable one?

David Miliband: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the content, tenor and tone of his comments and questions. Let me start where he ended. The position of Pakistan is vital for the whole world, not just for Britain, and a free, fair and democratic Pakistan is the best guarantor that the voice of the moderate majority that I believe does exist there is properly heard. That is an issue that goes far wider than bilateral relations.

Let me also say by way of introduction that the unanimity across the international community to which the right hon. Gentleman referred is important and that the unanimity in the House is important, too. For obvious reasons of history, this country has an important voice, which is heard by both the Government and the people of Pakistan. It is wholly welcome that there should be cross-party agreement on the issue.

Let me quickly run through the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised. In respect of when the elections will happen, I have made the point to the Government of Pakistan at the most senior levels that it is massively in their interests to provide clarity about that now. He asked whether I would like to predict whether the elections would take place in January. The best thing to say is that they must take place in January and that the most suitable time is 15 January, which is when they have been set for. That is an important message. He is also right that the elections must be free and fair. That is certainly what our funding is determined to achieve and what the independent electoral commission must seek to achieve, too.

In respect of development aid, I do not believe that this is the time for threats. However, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the agreement that we have with the Government of Pakistan for development aid includes criteria in respect of human rights, and that is right. The consequences of the actions that have been taken, if they continue, would have to be taken into consideration in an obvious and sensible way.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the end of emergency rule and predicting the timings for that. The sooner that happens the better. I would not want to
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associate myself with the prediction of two or three weeks that was issued yesterday. However, some of the relaxations in the media that have been introduced in the past four or five years, which I have seen for myself, have been some of the most positive changes in Pakistan over that period and it is seriously detrimental that they should have been set back.

In respect of my conversations with Opposition leaders in Pakistan, I have emphasised to them both that statesmanship on their part will be very important and that their followers will be looking to them. Mrs. Bhutto is planning a series of protests. Obviously it is important that they are organised in a way that maximises the safety and security of her followers, which I know is an important issue for her.

I do not have any specific evidence about UK nationals. I have heard about people who have spent time in the UK, for example as students, being detained, but obviously we are monitoring the situation carefully.

There has been no indication yet, as far as I know, of who will be the Pakistani representative at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, but it will obviously be for other Heads of Government to decide on any consequences for Pakistan, should the current situation continue over the next two or three weeks as the Commonwealth Heads of Government gather.

The right hon. Gentleman’s final point, on the situation in the North West Frontier and the federally administered tribal areas, deserves a much longer discussion. This is a long-standing issue, and the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who is a former Foreign Secretary, has written about it at length, with wisdom and insight. It would be wrong to say that we have seen any short-term spillover of the situation in Pakistan into the border area. However, there is far too much safe refuge for Taliban fighters across the border. Also, we have to recognise that Pakistan itself has suffered serious loss of life in trying to patrol that area. There are between 85,000 and 90,000 Pakistani frontier troops on the border, and I think that I am right in saying that the Pakistani frontier corps has suffered 1,000 losses in the border area in the past year, although I am happy to be corrected if that figure is not quite right. Pakistan is suffering losses, and when I met Government representatives there in July, they were keen to impress on me that, while there could be debates about tactics, they did not want us to doubt their commitment to putting men in harm’s way, as they have done.

As I have said, this is a major issue for our strategy in Afghanistan, and the Prime Minister said yesterday that he will make a statement on Afghanistan next month. That will provide an opportunity to revisit this issue, but I am happy to find others as well.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): May I endorse what the Foreign Secretary has said, and echo his concerns, which will be shared by many people in my constituency and elsewhere who have family and friends in Pakistan? He referred to the Commonwealth, and he will be aware that, when the military coup first took place in Pakistan some years ago, Pakistan’s membership of the Commonwealth was suspended. If
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Pakistan does not comply with the democratic values set out in the Harare declaration, and if there is no speedy return to civil liberties, no release of political prisoners and no setting of a date for elections, will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that one of the sanctions that might be pursued, is, sadly, the renewed suspension of Pakistan from the Commonwealth?

David Miliband: My hon. Friend speaks with authority on this matter, as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is absolutely right to say that suspension is one of the sanctions available, and it will no doubt be discussed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting if there is no change in the situation. One cannot help but note the irony of the fact that the Harare declaration is about good governance and human rights. It was indeed in Harare, however, that the declaration was first promulgated, and it is important that all members of the Commonwealth adhere to its contents.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and, like the shadow Foreign Secretary and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I echo his sentiments about yesterday’s tragedy in Afghanistan. As he said, that is an issue that we shall need to debate in due course.

The Liberal Democrats recognise the serious internal security challenges that Pakistan faces, not only now but over many years. Like others, we condemn the suspension of the constitution by General Musharraf as totally inappropriate and unacceptable. Similarly, we understand the importance of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Pakistan, at all sorts of different levels, not least in relation to security. However, that cannot continue to be a justification for tolerating the abuses of the promises that General Musharraf has made over many years to restore his country to democracy. Notwithstanding what the Foreign Secretary said earlier about threats, will he confirm that we will take action, along with our allies, against Pakistan if the elections do not proceed as originally promised?

Does the Foreign Secretary also agree that General Musharraf, in addition to his democratic failings, has also failed the security tests that his countrymen and women and the international community have set for him? Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore accept that, at this crucial moment, on the grounds of principle and pragmatism, Britain and the rest of the international community should not simply settle for the return of a fa├žade of constitutionalism in Pakistan?

David Miliband: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and support. He is absolutely right that there are no grounds for tolerating the abuse of power or the breaking of promises. Let me take up his two points.

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