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22 Nov 2007 : Column 200WH—continued

Countries such as Saudi Arabia are our great friends, but as my hon. Friend said, it is to our great friends that we should be able to say, from time to time, “What you are doing is unacceptable,” just as I would tell the United States that what it is doing in Guantanamo Bay is unacceptable—at the risk of bringing controversy to the debate. I hope that for its own sake, and for the image of the United States, which has taken a huge battering, I hope that it dismantles Guantanamo Bay
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as soon as possible, because the rule of law should take a proper, open and accountable course, particularly in such a great democracy.

However, I was not briefed to say that today and I should like to get back to my script.

Mr. Evans: Our right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is on the phone.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Perhaps I should go on an IPU outward visit. I should like to get back to my script before I get into further trouble.

My visit to Mexico was immaculately organised and such visits do much good. Mexico is a big country—one of 11 with a population of more than 100 million. It is therefore important, but it is not too widely known among the British people. It has a GDP per head of twice that of Brazil, which gets far more publicity. Mexico is an important emerging country. Some 18 cents in every $1 that the US spends abroad is spent in Mexico. It is a very fast-emerging country.

Of course, Mexico is heavily reliant on the United States, which is itself heavily reliant on Mexico. Some 7 million Mexicans live in the US, and I do not doubt that many of those will have a vote in next year’s presidential elections. In states such as Florida, they will have a decisive effect on the result. The relationship between Mexico and America, particularly following the election of the conservative President Calderon, has become closer and warmer over the years. It is therefore important that we know what precisely is going on there and that we build contacts with Mexico’s Parliament, which we did.

Equally, we found that Mexico had a great deal of good will towards Britain, and that it wanted to extend its relationships in Europe, and for Britain to be the spearhead of those. We live in a fast-changing world, and we do not always catch up with what is going on, but trading relationships with south-east Asia are moving quickly. It is a historical fact that Europe, and particularly this country because of its historical links, tends to look to the east to see south-east Asia. Increasingly, I believe that we will see those countries as being to our west, through the Panama canal. Countries such as Mexico and Colombia could well become stopping-off points for those trading activities.

Mexico is an important country, but it needs to emerge from a dirigiste economy, much of which is founded on public monopolies and private oligopolies. However, when it brings about some constitutional changes—for example, to liberalise its oil regime so that it can begin to explore deeper water in the gulf of Mexico and the Pacific—it will change quickly. We found great friendship among the Mexican people, and great expertise among their parliamentarians. That is a typical example of how the IPU’s work benefits the country. The Minister made an excellent point when he said that the IPU is an added arm to Foreign Office diplomacy, and an additional level of contact. It is good to make contact with parliamentarians, particularly those who may become senior members of the Mexican Government.

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Jeremy Corbyn: During the Mexico visit, did the delegation have any opportunity for either formal or informal discussions with representatives of the non-Spanish speaking indigenous peoples, of which there are many in the country, and/or representatives of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate who was declared not elected in the presidential elections last year? Whatever the hon. Gentleman’s views on those people, both groups have important contributions to make and an important message to send.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. On a slightly jocular, if mainly serious note, there was a nude demonstration right outside Parliament the whole time we were there of indigenous peoples who had lost their land rights. I cannot believe that it failed to make an impression on Mexican parliamentarians and it struck a chord with us. We asked those parliamentarians what the demonstration was about, which will no doubt happen when other foreign people visit the Parliament. I would assume that the Government will eventually do something about it, but indigenous peoples have issues, not only in Mexico but in other countries, and I am hopeful that just solutions can be found. We were not, however, given any indication that that would happen when we were in Mexico.

A number of papers have been published and a number of issues raised on the broader aspects of the IPU’s work, particularly in my field of international development. I am grateful that the IPU concentrated on peace, stability and good governance. Unfortunately, 1.2 billion people—around one fifth of the world population—live on less than $1 a day, as measured by equivalent purchasing power. One fifth of our fellow citizens live in abject poverty, in one way or another. It is incumbent on all of us to do something about that.

I am mildly critical of Governments of all colours, and internationally, on such matters. Kurt Hoffman, whom I have quoted on this figure in the House, said that over the past 20 years, the developing community has had some $400 billion of aid, and yet in the same period their average standard of living has dropped. The way in which we have disbursed aid has not been as effective as it might. One reason for that is that the worst Governments tend to be in the same areas as the worst human rights and the worst poverty.

I was pleased to see no less a figure than the Secretary of State for International Development announce in a debate last Thursday an additional £20 million for the globalisation and poverty fund, which takes it to £120 million, to encourage better government. We must all find ways, at every level, by negotiation, and by bilateral and multilateral aid, to encourage bad Governments to get better. However much help one gives, it is no good if people such as Mugabe and Field Marshal Than Shwe in Burma keep their people in unacceptable conditions. We must find ways to change such regimes.

When the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley was speaking, I reflected on whether she feels—I would be interested to know hon. Members’ views on this—that democracy is on the march and increasing throughout the world, and whether, because the media have made events so much more immediate, dreadful cases such as
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Burma and Zimbabwe are brought much more to our attention than they used to be. I suspect that that probably is the case and that if people consider places where democracy is quietly on the increase, they will see that things are improving. I can think of examples such as Mozambique, which was a very war-torn country but now has democracy and is flourishing. Sierra Leone is another example. One tends to think of everything as doom and gloom, yet there are countries where things are getting better.

I was delighted to hear the right hon. Lady’s comments on her work on the IPU’s human rights committee. I was reflecting on the extent to which her work has been undertaken over a number of years and wondering what communication she has had with the new UN Human Rights Council based in Geneva. I am very concerned about that because I do not think that it has the teeth that it deserves. I wonder what we can all do to ensure that it has teeth. I am hopeful that the universal peer review mechanism will give it teeth, but I note that the countries that are being reviewed first are pretty benign countries such as ourselves, for which the review will not do much good. Perhaps the IPU, through its links with the UN, can prod the council into doing a little more.

The right hon. Lady raised a number of issues. The work of the IPU is of huge benefit. The way to encourage better human rights, better governance and relief of poverty is through trade. We need to encourage every possible aspect of trade. Negotiations are going on between the European Union and the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. I have talked to some of the most senior Ministers in the ACP countries, some of which are among the smallest on the planet. Of course the very poorest—the low-income countries—already have full access to the European market through the “Everything but Arms” negotiations. It is the level above that—the 76 countries currently in that negotiating mechanism—whose interests are not being considered by the British Government as much as they might be.

The negotiation is unequal. We are talking about the full might of the European Commission, with all its expertise, albeit that is negotiating with the six groups. Nevertheless, the capacity of some very small countries to negotiate such agreements is not great. More than any other country in the European Union, Britain, with its historical links, has a prime duty to ensure that the interests of those countries are protected, by which I do not mean that the trade preference system should be continued. This country does, however, have a duty to conduct proper impact assessments, or ensure that the EU has conducted proper impact assessments, so that the full impact of the damage to the economies of those countries—the loss of jobs—is known.

I shall use an example that I have used before. I met some Seychelles Members of Parliament the other day. The Seychelles have only 88,000 people, yet they reckon that if the economic partnership agreements go through in their current form, they will lose their entire tuna canning factory business to Thailand—a lower-cost producer—with the loss of several hundred jobs. That does not sound much, but if we translate from the size of their population up to the size of our
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population—60 million—we realise the very considerable impact that the negotiations will have on those economies.

We will have a debate on the subject in this Chamber next week, but the Minister’s Department and the Department for International Development are heavily involved in the issue. Before he agrees that the Commission should sign the agreements, which have to be signed by 31 December, please can we ensure that there are proper impact assessments? Once those assessments have been conducted and we can see what damage will be done, can we ensure that there is a guaranteed package of international help in place from the EU to cushion the transition for those countries?

This is an interesting debate. As the right hon. Lady said, it is a pity that it is taking place on a Thursday, but the work of the IPU, through all colleagues in the House and through the secretariat, is to be greatly commended. I shall finish where I started—with a quote from a famous politician:

Of course that is from “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents”.

John Bercow: Burke—a great man.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Sir Edmund Burke, one of our former great politicians.

Jeremy Corbyn: He was a dreadful parliamentarian.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I have had a certain amount of barracking, but it is all part of good parliamentary democracy that we can disagree with one another and yet at the same time remain fundamentally committed to our cause, which is the advancement of the human condition right across the planet and the elimination of all the negative things that we have talked about. I am grateful to have taken part in the debate.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I remind hon. Members that we shall finish at 5.30 pm and, because there will be many points to reply to and it is important that the Minister gets a good innings, I would like to give him 20 minutes. Many others want to speak, so I ask hon. Members to exercise an element of self-discipline. I am not necessarily relating the last remark to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter).

3.46 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): That is very kind of you, Sir Nicholas. It is a particular pleasure for me to have the opportunity of participating in the debate, not just because you are a near constituency neighbour of mine, but because of your own long-standing and personal interest in the matters that we are discussing.

I also pay tribute to and congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who made a very comprehensive and detailed contribution to the debate. She went through a number of the highlights of
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the work of the British group, which she has chaired so diligently, of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Many other Members present are members of the IPU and I look forward to their contributions on that excellent organisation and the work that it has undertaken over the past 12 months in particular.

The role of the IPU is vital for three key reasons. First, we obviously live in an increasingly interdependent world where many issues can and probably should only be tackled supranationally or internationally. In that environment, connecting national Parliaments to allow them to co-ordinate their work and share ideas is particularly important. The IPU facilitates inter-parliamentary efforts in many policy areas, including international peace and security and sustainable development, about which we have heard much already.

The IPU is particularly well known, however, for its work on human rights. I shall give a couple of examples that I think are worth noting in the context of this debate. This year, the IPU reported on the justice system in Panama. It also teamed up with UNICEF to publish a report on violence against children. As an organisation, the IPU is uniquely placed to investigate and demand action on human rights abuses. It will often have at its disposal the support not only of representatives from the national Parliament of the country in question, but the experience and expertise of elected representatives from all over the world, some of whom will have dealt with similar problems in their own countries.

The IPU’s work is not confined to human rights, however. I especially congratulate the IPU on the work of its advisory group on HIV/AIDS and its efforts to co-ordinate the world’s legislatures in the fight against the AIDS pandemic. I understand that the group will be taking part in the first global parliamentary meeting on HIV/AIDS in the Philippines at the end of this month. I sincerely hope that the joint discussions taking place there will allow the representatives to share best practice and work together in this most vital of areas.

The second vital role of the IPU is to fill what many have termed the democratic deficit. The introduction of supranational organisations such as the UN, the EU, the World Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation means that the decisions most relevant to individuals are often taken at a level where there is little direct democratic accountability. National Parliaments’ involvement in international issues through the IPU allows the people’s directly elected representatives access and influence on crucial matters. I was extremely pleased that this year’s parliamentary hearing at the UN is the first to be organised as a joint event with the IPU, and that the IPU plans to set up a special committee on UN affairs, albeit on a trial basis. That shows how closely the two organisations can and should work together.

Parliaments must have a key role in the UN and must co-ordinate with it if international problems are to be resolved satisfactorily. One of the biggest challenges facing the world today is that many international issues such as development, human rights and climate change can be dealt with only by using co-ordinated strategies. Many Governments, agencies and organisations of all
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kinds are doing their best individually to tackle such problems, which is of course extremely laudable and should be encouraged, but every organisation must consider how it can interact with others in the same field and whether they can be stronger and have more influence by co-operating, while avoiding reinventing the wheel.

I am pleased to see developed co-operation between the IPU and the UN on a range of projects and issues, and would very much like to see the IPU working more formally with other organisations, such as the EU. The EU has a vital role to play in development, international peace and security and human rights, and it can only benefit from a closer working relationship with the IPU. Will the Minister tell us how often he or the Government meet with representatives of the IPU, and whether he is aware of any programme of interaction between the IPU and the EU?

The IPU also has a role to play in spreading and improving democracy throughout the world by sharing best practice between national Parliaments, encouraging burgeoning democracies and promoting human rights. By being a focal point of worldwide parliamentary dialogue, the IPU allows national Parliaments the opportunity to promote democracy throughout the world without imposing it. For example, the British group has taken part in 16 inward and outward delegations so far in 2007, as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley described. Through such visits, parliamentarians can spread their influence—in the form of best practice on scrutiny, procedures, good governance and election oversight—as well as engaging in discussions on how best to interact and work with citizens and civil society.

I know from my own experience of meeting fellow parliamentarians from emerging democracies that such contact is incredibly important. Not only do they appreciate advice and support from Members of this House, they are grateful for encouragement, especially as for many the road to democracy is fraught with trouble and, in some cases, great individual danger. As we know, Iraq is struggling to establish itself as a democracy. Will the Minister inform the Chamber whether he has met IPU representatives to discuss how we might seek to improve democracy and human rights in Iraq?

I am not saying that our own system is perfect; far from it. Britain has much to learn from our partners in the IPU, especially in matters of representation of women and ethnic minorities to make our voting system truly representative. It is a sad fact that fewer than 20 per cent. of the seats in the House of Commons are held by women. Frankly, it is a pretty dismal record that reflects badly on all of us. We could certainly learn a lot from Parliaments around the world about promoting gender equality. I notice from my research for today’s debate that the female composition of the lower chamber in Parliaments as far apart as Rwanda and Sweden is nearly 50 per cent. Has the Minister had any discussions with the IPU about the issue or used its vast stock of knowledge and experience to improve the representation of women in this place?

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