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The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) referred to the continued absence of the United States of America from the IPU. I am astonished that despite the fact that the IPU boasts 146 member Parliaments and seven associate member nations, the USA is not
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currently one of them. It is extremely disappointing. The US’s reason, if that is what it is, appears to be that it has simply allowed its subscription to lapse. I am afraid I am probably not the only person in this House to think that that tells us a lot about the Bush Administration’s views on foreign policy issues. Has the Minister discussed the matter with any representative of the US Government or had the chance to point out what a great help the US might be to newly established democracies around the world?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: It is a little bit unfair of the hon. Gentleman to blame the Bush Administration’s foreign policy for American non-participation in the IPU. If there were enough of a push from Congressmen and Senators, I am certain that the US would become a member. Also, it is not a recent development. I understand that it has been the case for some years, so the current regime is not necessarily solely responsible.

Mark Hunter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but it is incumbent on the current Government, if they believe that there is a wrong, to put it right. How to do so is fairly obvious. What I actually said was that it says a lot about the Bush Administration’s views on foreign policy; I did not use the words that the hon. Gentleman used.

One of the matters on which the IPU spends considerable time is safeguarding fellow parliamentarians’ human rights. Parliamentarians have a mandate to represent the people of their countries, but to do so effectively they need to be able to do their job without persecution or threat of imprisonment or violence. Without such freedom, democracy cannot function: representatives are unable to speak out, hold Governments accountable for their actions or raise many of the issues that their constituents might wish them to. Ensuring free speech for politicians is a vital first step in embedding democracy and human rights in a country. It is shocking how many cases of human rights abuses against elected representatives still occur. I congratulate the IPU on its continued and excellent work on that issue. I understand that during its July session alone, the IPU’s committee on the human rights of parliamentarians examined public cases concerning 198 legislators in 18 countries—a shocking figure.

This year the IPU has continued its excellent campaign in Burma, calling for the release of elected MPs jailed by the country’s ruling military junta. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have worked with the IPU on that issue during this difficult time for Burma, and whether there is any sign that the situation there is improving?

Finally, as a Liberal politician I believe strongly in the need to talk to our neighbours and to establish dialogue with them, even when we disagree, as it is the best way for conflicts to be resolved. It is to the IPU’s great credit that it gives national Parliaments the opportunity to do so. By encouraging us to talk and work together on a variety of issues, by improving the democratic nature of international politics, and by encouraging democracy across the globe, the IPU plays a vital role in today’s changing world. I congratulate it, and I hope that it will be able to continue its good work long into the future.

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4 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I pray your indulgence, Sir Nicholas, but as I explained to you at an earlier meeting this week when we received a report from the IPU delegation to Albania, I am still suffering from “Groganitis”, a particularly virulent infection that one can catch from the leader of the IPU delegation, after whom the condition is named.

Since becoming a Member of the House in 2005, I have become ever more aware of the fact that while there is a general lack of understanding among constituents of the range of tasks and responsibilities that fall to a Member of Parliament, people are generally cynical about and have a limited knowledge of our involvement with other Parliaments and Governments. They tend to see such involvement and such visits as a jolly, as something that is undertaken lightly—a way of getting out of Westminster and of travelling the world.

At some point, we need to use debates such as this about the role, the depth and the importance of the Inter-Parliamentary Union to explain to our constituents how vital that work is, and to explain that the dialogues that have been mentioned this afternoon are crucial to raising the development of women, to promoting the role of civil society in many countries, and especially to supporting developing democracies and opening up and tackling many of the issues that they find difficult.

Today, I want to consider how my experience in Albania—a small and relatively unknown country—reflects the critical world role that the IPU is playing. I went there this year with five others; the delegation was cross-party, which is itself an important aspect of the work of the IPU as it provides more than just one representation of how democracy works or what it can encompass. It allows other countries to see that the different parties in this place can work together, share ideas and even conflict without things breaking down into animosity and civil war. It is a very important message that we take with us.

The IPU visit was the first official delegation from the United Kingdom to Albania. The aim was to create bilateral contact as part of the IPU’s cornerstone activity, the pursuit of worldwide parliamentary dialogue for the furtherance of peace and co-operation—and, I would add, education and understanding. I last visited Albania in 1996 as a representative of Aid in Action, an organisation set up in my constituency by Father Cashin. It aimed to reach out to two communities—Kruje and Rubic, one Muslim and one Catholic—to create a dialogue to improve their quality of life and to demonstrate that the west had an interest in that new democracy and in the people.

That involvement continued until my visit to Albania in October this year, and it ended with an Albanian Minister being handed a £40,000 study: a hydrological assessment of the river Fani. I hope that that study will bring Albania greater electricity supplies and greater economic development. I hope that it will give the communities around the river Fani greater capacity for a programme of economic development, which is currently impossible because of the lack of electricity in the country.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I would be most interested to know the hon. Lady’s impression of the situation in
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Albania. Under Enver Hoxha, it was one of the most closely controlled communist regimes in the world, and it contained some of the world’s poorest people. Is her overall impression of an improving regime, with better prospects for the people of that country, or is it too early to say?

Mrs. Moon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. My visit in 1996 was a deeply distressing and depressing experience. The quality of the hospitals and schools that I visited was dire. I met people from the newly formed political parties there, and we discussed how to promote dialogue in a country that had never experienced it and that had never known the capacity to have a debate that allowed more than one opinion. That, for them, was unique, and they were struggling to come to terms with it.

Albania in 2007 shows greater prosperity, and certainly the concept of dialogue and of differences being tolerated has grown. However, there are still problems, as I hope to explain. Our trip came at an important time for Albania’s progress towards becoming a fully fledged, modern democratic country. Only recently, our Parliament ratified the European Union standardisation and association agreement with Albania. That was critical for Albania. Two of the goals on the path towards democracy are entering the EU and NATO.

Despite its poverty, and despite its many, many problems, Albania has sought to play a major part in the world. It has sent troops to Iraq and to Afghanistan. It has tried to demonstrate its desire for dialogue and engagement with world problems, and to move forward. In early 2008, at Bucharest, it hopes that its request for entry to NATO will be considered.

These discussions are important. They are essential in aiding Albania in its journey on the difficult road towards democratic accountability, good governance and transparency. If we do not have these discussions, if we do not raise these difficult questions, it makes that road so much more difficult to tread for countries such as Albania.

It is also important for countries such as Albania, which have no track record, no history of individual or media freedom and no capacity to have an opinion outside that of the state, to develop those processes. While we were there, we met a group called MJAFT, the principal civil rights organisation in Albania. It is characterised by a new generation of well-educated Albanians, who are determined to create open dialogue, in which criticism and accountability will be central. I was most impressed with what we saw there, and with the desire to move the country forward. As we know, it is never easy to be criticised or to be held to account, but it is one of the central tenets of democracy—and Albania is embracing it.

We visited a trafficked women’s rehabilitation centre outside Tirana. We were advised that although trafficking of Albanian women had virtually ceased, there was still both an historic problem and one of women in transit. As we know, Britain is a destination for transited women; 4,000 women are known to have been transited into the UK, and 150 have come to Wales.

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We in Wales are sometimes content to think that the world’s wider issues pass us by, and to believe that we live in a very comfortable and closed world of villages and close-knit communities. However, when a brothel of whose existence many people in my constituency did not even know was raided by the police in Operation Pentameter, it emerged that there were women in the brothel who had been brought into the country for sexual exploitation. We cannot ignore such issues in our communities. They are an essential part of the IPU’s work. We should bring them to the attention of our constituents so that they understand that not only are we working on them at every level but that their importance is also being conveyed to our counterparts around the world at every level.

I was impressed by the Albanians’ national strategy for combating trafficking of human beings. Again, from a world of poverty, they are attempting to tackle issues that impact greatly on their country, in relation to organised crime. Criminality is a central problem that Albania must tackle.

The IPU is the focal point for worldwide parliamentary dialogue. It works for peace and co-operation among peoples and for the firm establishment of representative democracy. That work is critical to Albania. As has been mentioned, Albania emerged at the start of the 1990s from the destructive grip of one of the most authoritarian and undemocratic political regimes in Europe. That legacy made it difficult to establish political stability and respect for government and the rule of law. Albania remains the poorest country in Europe. At present, only 20 per cent. of the population live below the national poverty line of $2 a day. It is that sector of the population that suffers most from the lack of access to basic services such as education, water, and health and social assistance.

As I have said, Albania has made impressive progress. The pyramid savings scandal in 1997 wiped out 60 per cent. of the country’s private savings and plunged it further into poverty. The collapse of the scheme caused widespread destruction of infrastructure. Guns became widely available. The country is still struggling to recover and regain the lost ground.

Despite Albania being the most isolated country in Europe, its Parliament has not benefited from any structured programme of assistance since the beginning of democratic change. Nevertheless, it has sought to play an international and humanitarian role, in particular in relation to Kosovo, which is especially relevant at present as on 10 December we shall be considering the future role of that country. At a time of huge poverty, Albania opened its borders and took in refugees. Far from seeking to deny its responsibilities, it sought to act responsibly at a time when Europe was yet again plunging into holocaust. We should recognise that Albania has clearly attempted to fulfil its human rights obligations.

Albanian parliamentarians have faced difficulties in fulfilling their legislative oversight and representational functions. Without the necessary financial support for the relevant infrastructure, it is difficult for a Parliament to remain honest and transparent and to avoid corruption seeping into democracy. Visits from organisations such as the IPU will help achieve progress in that respect.

A legacy of the extended period of Stalinist oppression has been public suspicion of and lack of confidence in
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government as an ally or effective provider of services. Successive Governments have had only a decade to adapt both to democratic norms and market economics and to gain the trust of the people. It is right that there is wide acceptance within the country that Albania’s future is as part of a democratic Europe. Albania joining Europe is about changing attitudes, about the ordinary Albanian’s belief and trust in democracy, and about a wider European peace. Past European history has demonstrated how instability in the Balkans can have a huge effect on peace in Europe.

In my short time in this House, one of the things that has frightened me most has been how little many of our young people know of the long road that brought this country to democracy, of how the House works, and of why we conduct our business as we do. If people do not understand democracy, it is so much easier for them to lose it. So many people take this country’s human and civil rights for granted—rights towards which Albania is still working. Let me list some issues: religious and sexual freedom; promotion of children’s rights; disabled people’s rights; the status of women; press freedom; the rule of law; an independent judiciary; freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment; parliamentary processes of accountability; good governance and transparency; the development of civil society; economic development; and access to health and education. Dialogue on those matters is central to the work of the IPU, and that is why our work with the IPU is among the most important that we undertake. It is sad that that work remains hidden from the general public.

4.16 pm

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): Let me begin with my own tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has shown excellent leadership of the British branch of the IPU during the past three years. For a long time—ever since she was a Member of the European Parliament—I have admired the way in which she has championed human rights around the world.

Let me also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of Ken Courtenay—he is not here today—and of his hard-working staff. In the past 12 months I have been able to take part in an outward delegation and also in a number of inward delegations. The energy and commitment shown by the London IPU staff is tremendous. They work some very antisocial hours, and we should record our thanks to them.

The IPU is the parliament of Parliaments, and it is as relevant today as when it was first founded 118 or so years ago. Whether we live in the developed or the developing world, 21st century issues such as globalisation, climate change, energy security, mass migration, conflict, and the fact that well over 1 billion people in the world still live in dire poverty affect us all. A great strength of the IPU is that it gives us an opportunity for dialogue on those important issues with our fellow parliamentarians from around the world.

I have been crossing out in my notes several of the comments that I intended to make, because other hon. Members have covered them and I am aware of the time and that other hon. Members who are present may wish to contribute. Another great strength of the
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IPU is its role in improving parliamentary democracies and promoting good governance and the rule of law around the world.

My first involvement in an IPU activity was back in 1998, I think, when, as a new girl, I took part in a delegation to Guatemala, which was only just emerging from many years of civil war. The delegation was concerned that it would have to ask probing questions—sensitively—about continuing human rights abuses, which it did. We met some very brave politicians, not in formal meetings but by allowing them entry through the back door of our hotel at 6 am so that we could hear first-hand about the abuses still being perpetrated on parliamentarians. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a very important point: when we return from such outward delegations, we have a responsibility to stay in touch and follow them up. In fact, I am still in touch with one of those brave female politicians whom I met 10 years ago. I recently sent her a dossier on the improvements to our legislation on domestic violence.

I recall another significant IPU event—the 2001 assembly in Marrakesh—when I think that our chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, had just been appointed to the IPU human rights committee. We were without her during the very long hours of our plenary sessions, because she was attending hearings of the human rights committee. That assembly was significant because it sat in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. As hon. Members will know, the United States and the United Kingdom follow each other alphabetically. I was really impressed by the number of members of delegations from all around the world who expressed their condolences to us, because they thought that we were members of the US delegation—we happened to be sitting next to where they should have been sitting. I was appalled: I thought that if the Americans were serious about making friends and influencing people, they should have attended that assembly.

I think that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) may agree that, increasingly, football is becoming the international language of diplomacy. That is probably an inappropriate thing to say after last night. Nevertheless, I recall arriving in Marrakesh and, as other members of the delegation checked in, looking at the big screen and seeing that Manchester United was playing West Ham. I rested for a few minutes to watch the match and was joined by a group of fans, who turned out to be members of the Libyan delegation.

Our initial conversation about the achievements of Beckham and Giggs developed into a broader conversation, and the next day we met again. That was significant because it was, I think, one of the first contacts between UK and Libyan representatives, at a time when the Libyans were still subject to UN sanctions; Libya was a pariah state. It was quite clear to us that there was a serious wish on the part of the Libyans to restore diplomatic relations with the UK in particular; of course, we dutifully got that message through loud and clear to the Foreign Office on our return to Britain. When such delegations return home, or following really good dialogue with parliamentarians on inward delegations, it is important that we convey such messages, whether to the Foreign
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Office, the Department for International Development or individual Ministers, to the British Council or to other relevant bodies.

This year I joined an IPU delegation to Jordan, which as hon. Members will know is in a very precarious location in the middle east, surrounded as it is by Iraq, the west bank, Syria and Lebanon. The former king, His Majesty King Hussein, played a key role in brokering the peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the 1990s. There are, of course, many similarities and close ties between Jordan and the UK: both are constitutional monarchies and, as a number of Jordanian parliamentarians pointed out, our upper Houses are both appointed, not elected.

The visit was immensely worth while. I was so impressed by the amount of time that the Prime Minister, Dr. Marouf al-Bakhit, the Foreign Minister, and other politicians gave to meeting the delegation. He hot-footed it back from an Arab League conference in Cairo for a few hours and then returned to Cairo. I am sure that the Minister will have heard the key message that in the view of the Jordanians and, I suspect, most other countries in the middle east, there will be no peace in the region, nor security in the world, until there is a lasting peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. Interestingly, we also heard an extolment of the European Union, which I had not expected. The Foreign Minister pointed out to us that it was easier for Jordan to trade with Britain than with its neighbours and that Jordan views the EU as an ideal model for economic development throughout the middle east, which I thought was an interesting observation.

In recent years, the IPU has become increasingly concerned and interested in environmental issues and refugee problems. In Jordan, we were given a good insight into how those issues are impacting on a relatively small country with few natural resources. Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), I hasten to add that on my return everyone asked, “How was Petra?”, and I said, “We did not go to Petra.” This was not a tourist trip, but five days of jolly hard work and wall-to-wall meetings. However, we went on two excursions out of Amman, one of which was to the Dead sea. Sometimes, one must see with one’s own eyes the environmental impact of what is happening. To see the Dead sea, which has shrunk by more than 30 per cent. probably in no more than 30 years, was a real revelation. We also heard about the immensely ambitious and costly plans to pipe water, which is desperately needed, not only for agricultural use but for drinking water for the Jordanians, from the Red sea all the way up to the Dead sea. I am sure that our Government will be called on to support that plan in a forum such as the World Bank.

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