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22 Nov 2007 : Column 213WH—continued

We also heard about refugees. Jordan has accepted thousands of refugees from Iraq. I think that it may be more than a million; we could not get a definite answer as to whether it was 500,000, 1 million or 1.5 million. It was interesting to know that those refugees have tended to be quite wealthy or desperately poor. The wealthy ones are getting blamed for pushing up house prices in Amman, so Jordanians cannot afford to buy houses in
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their capital city, but all those who are living in dire poverty are a real drain on the public services in Jordan.

Although initially it was not going to be included in our programme, we insisted—we were right to do so—on visiting Hiteen refugee camp, where there are 45,000 Palestinians. The older ones have been in that refugee camp since 1967 and at the moment they have very little hope of ever leaving it. I have visited refugee camps in Gaza and the west bank and the conditions at Hiteen are probably better than those in Gaza. Even so, those 45,000 refugees have a life of dire poverty and misery.

As the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) said, we must recognise when we meet delegations or go on delegations, that our mature democracy has evolved over centuries. We should never be judgmental. I always apologise for the poor representation of women in our Parliament, but then I say that, actually, when my mother was born, women in Britain did not have the right to vote. It is only in the past 80 years that women have achieved equal rights. It is important that we try to include in our programmes the opportunity to meet women parliamentarians. If, as is so often the case in the Arab world, such women do not exist, I always make the point of saying, “Well, could we please meet women from civil society and opinion formers?” Nowadays, in most countries, as we found in Jordan, women are holding key jobs in education, health and banking, although they may not have a high profile in politics.

There are a couple of other messages that I would like to pass on. It is important for us to appear at least to be a bit more representative than we are and for our delegations to have a good gender balance. Certainly, the delegation to Jordan that I went on has a good 50:50 gender balance, but a number of delegations are all male. That does not convey a good message. There are 880 members of the IPU in our two Houses of Parliament. I am not sure what the gender breakdown is, but perhaps we should do a little bit more to get a few more women parliamentarians to come forward and go on visits.

Finally, I want to plug three great British institutions, starting first with the British Council. I have to declare an interest because my first paid job was with the British Council so I have retained an interest in its work. In the days when I worked for the British Council, we spent most of our time promoting high British—actually, English—culture. I never cease to be amazed and impressed by the quality of the work that our British Council offices do around the world: it is tremendous and is focused on key priorities, such as good governance and equality. That is superb work.

Secondly, I have yet to meet a fellow parliamentarian, whether from Africa, Asia or South America, who does not make a point of saying how much they appreciate and value the BBC World Service. Long may that continue.

Thirdly, I should like to mention the Chevening programme of scholarships. I hope that the Minister is listening, because if we can find the means, we need to expand and extend that programme. A number of countries feel slightly aggrieved because they value those scholarships so much, and over recent years
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fewer of their students have been able to come here and benefit from the advantages offered by higher education in Britain.

If Britain wants to retain a leading role and influence in the world, we have not only to sustain those three great institutions but to promote even more to our fellow parliamentarians the great role that the IPU can play in the world today.

4.36 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to say a few words in this important debate on the IPU. I, too, pay tribute to Ken Courtenay and the staff of the IPU for their dedication and commitment. To follow a theme set by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell), if it were not for the women working in the United Kingdom branch of the IPU, the IPU would grind to a halt. We pay tribute to the IPU’s work.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has had praise poured and heaped on her, and rightly so. She has shown her usual dextrous skills in leading the IPU for the past three years. Her expertise on human rights and the middle east has held the United Kingdom delegation in good stead in many assemblies, meetings and sub-committee meetings of the IPU internationally. We are grateful for her expertise and for the work that she has done on our behalf, so I thank her for that.

I shall pick up on the three issues mentioned by the hon. Member for City of Chester at the end of her speech, because I was going to say something about them. The British Council is superb. Going on outward delegations normally gives us an opportunity to visit the British Council, wherever it happens to be. In some cases, that may be the only visit from parliamentarians that it gets and at which it can display the organisation’s worth.

I was once in Greece and could not work out what a huge queue of young people was doing outside a hotel. I thought that perhaps they were queuing for some form of Greek “X Factor”, but they were doing British Council exams. We should not forget the worth and popularity of the British Council throughout the world. I have been privileged to see its work in a number of countries and think it does a fantastic job, not just in underdeveloped parts of the world, but in fairly well-developed areas. Its encouragement for people learning English is important.

We are in a competitive world. The United States has come in for a bit of a kicking, but it does a lot to get its message across throughout the world. My goodness, the British Council sells our universities well! We are a competing with Australia and the United States, and it does a superb job.

The hon. Lady mentioned the Chevening scholarships, and in a small way, I shall show their worth. We took a delegation to Colombia, where we met President Uribe. We do not always meet Presidents when we go on delegation visits, because the most important thing is parliamentarian-to-parliamentarian communication, but on that occasion we worked out that President Uribe is a Chevening scholar. He spent more than an hour with our delegation, and one could still see and hear his enthusiasm for, and memories of, the time that he spent
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on his Chevening scholarship. I am therefore a doughty fighter for that organisation; it has great worth, particularly when we can meet future leaders of countries and get them into the United Kingdom, so that they gain a better understanding of us, and on returning to their country think more friendly thoughts about us. It is as simple as that, but it works, so three cheers for the Chevening scholarships.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the BBC World Service. People throughout the world listen to the BBC on the radio, and increasingly, where they have access to television, they can watch the BBC World Service, too. It is superb, and I hope that we can continue to support that aspect of the BBC in its excellent work.

Mrs. Moon: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the frightening things that one hears on delegations is how many people throughout the world have risked their lives listening to the BBC, because they see it as the only source of truth and honesty from which they can find out what is going on in the wider world? It has been banned for opening up people’s minds to ideas and to the desperate need for change in their countries.

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned Burma, and the hon. Lady is right. When people seek the truth, they will go to almost any extent, including risking their lives, to access it. When I tried to access the BBC’s website from China earlier this year, many pages had been blocked. That was a great shame, and I hope that the Chinese authorities reconsider that policy, particularly in the run-up to the Olympics next year. Do they really expect to keep one aspect of the press hidden from the people of China when they open their arms to people from throughout the world? I hope that the authorities think long and hard about that aspect of Chinese life, and I hope also that the Minister will be able to use his good offices to influence the Chinese Government.

The United States has come in for a kicking, and when we turn up to meetings, some delegates—in particular, those from Venezuela at our previous meeting—waste no opportunity to kick the United States, and sometimes it is left to the United Kingdom to say, “Hold on, you’re being a bit unfair.” However, it would be useful if the USA played a full role in the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I do not blame George W. Bush, but he has not made the situation any better during the period that he has been President of the United States. However, as my hon. Friend said, Congressmen should use their influence to ensure that they become full members of the IPU. They do not have to wait another 12 months, but I hope that whoever occupies the White House after the presidential elections ensures that the US is properly represented at the IPU. It would do their Congressmen the power of good to welcome the delegations that we receive through the IPU, and to attend the outward delegations that we have experienced, and about which we have heard. It is vital to go to countries—developing countries in particular—that one would not otherwise visit to talk informally and sometimes formally with members of Parliament. Congressmen would get an eye-opener.

We went to Gabon one year and, after talking to its politicians and looking around the country, the one thing I came away with was an idea of what the
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Chinese are up to there. They are active in Gabon, by providing international aid and constructing its parliamentary building, and it opens many doors for them. Gabon’s resources are valuable to a growing economy like China’s, and it is not the only example. If Congressmen were full members of the IPU, they would see more fully what is going on there.

The other important factor is inward delegations. We received one from Burundi last year. I shall leave it to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) to discuss his recent outward delegation, but I hope that he will refer to football, as it was mentioned earlier, and to the good aspects of the visit, such as the footballs that he gave to the young, poor people of Burundi. Football is a diplomatic tool: we have very good relations with Croatia, for instance, after last night.

Jeremy Corbyn: We used to.

Mr. Evans: No. We have had good relations with Croatia, but I suspect that they love us at the moment. I am not too sure how huge a diplomatic tool football can be, but the hon. Member for City of Chester is right: when we talk to people from abroad, whatever their favourite football team, Manchester United tend to be high on their list.

Last week, Sir Nicholas, you will remember that we received an inward delegation from Cuba, and again, many Members do not have the opportunity to talk to MPs from that country. Members’ visits to Cuba are perhaps not as good as they could be, although there is a very strong all-party Cuba group. I hope that we can facilitate more dialogue between Cuban parliamentarians and ourselves. We have already made many inroads on health, so there are good bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Cuba. I hope also that we can use our influence over the United States to question why the Cuban embargo still exists. The logic really does defy me; it went out of the window a long time ago, and proper relations would benefit not only the United States and Cuba, but the world.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley mentioned Iran. One bilateral meeting that we had at the previous full IPU assembly was with some Iranian MPs, and she mentioned one case that we raised with them about two young lads who were hanged after they were accused of being gay. The conversation was surreal to say the least, because there was an attempt to defend the action. Much has been said about the educative aspects of the IPU, but goodness me, didn’t I get an education that day? I am not too sure, however, whether there was any education the other way around. I find it hard even to begin to think that parliamentarians could defend the public execution off the back of a lorry of two young lads because they were accused of being gay. At one point, an Iranian MP said, “What they do in private is up to them, but if it is done publicly, they will be tortured.” I said, “Tortured? They were executed,” although I suspect they were tortured first. It is unacceptable for such things to take place in this day and age. A public execution in any event is fairly barbaric, but to do so because those men were accused of being gay is numbing.

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That was not the only subject raised at the assembly, and I am delighted that the right hon. Lady raised several issues about the maltreatment of women in Iran, which takes place simply because they do not abide by the dress code that is imposed on them. We were grateful for the opportunity to discuss that. The IPU a year earlier sent a delegation to Iran to talk to its parliamentarians. I was not sure whether it was the right thing to do, but looking at the issue in the round, I think that parliamentarians talking to parliamentarians and trying to get our message across must be better than turning our backs on them. If we continue at least some form of dialogue with the Iranian parliamentarians, they might stand aside from the regime from time to time, and that is the important thing. When we go abroad and talk to parliamentarians, we are not there to defend or represent our Government; we talk to them about what we do and the issues that we deal with, and they respond to us in the same way. It is important to carry on with such dialogue.

Another important matter is the specialist work that we do on HIV and AIDS. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) is our specialist on that. He chairs the all-party group on AIDS, and as we speak we are being represented at an international seminar on the issue by the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). Those two Members have taken a keen interest in the subject. For goodness’ sake, we know that HIV and AIDS attack developing countries in particular in the most monstrous way, depleting their most economically active work force and robbing young children of their parents. Millions of orphans throughout the world have been denied their parents because of HIV and AIDS, and either their grandparents or the children themselves have to go to work simply to get their families through the day. It is important that we try to get the message across to parliamentarians about how they can better ensure that their Governments treat the issue seriously. Some Governments are clearly either in denial or not taking it as seriously as they might.

The No. 1 issue—climate change—was properly debated at our last assembly meeting. I can therefore understand why the right hon. Lady felt able to give way on the climate change debate at the Geneva conference so that we could put an emergency, urgent resolution on Burma at the top of the agenda. I am glad that she did so. As parliamentarians, we are all horrified to see what has happened in Burma—the degradation of relationships between the hideous regime and its people, the elected representatives and monks. A society cannot be allowed to turn weapons on monks who are peacefully protesting about the appalling economic conditions under which the people live or to lock away democratically elected politicians, in many cases under house arrest—Aung San Suu Kyi is a perfect, iconic example—or for a long duration in solitary confinement.

One of the more important aspects of our role is how MPs themselves—parliamentarians in this country—can stand up for the rights of other parliamentarians throughout the world who find themselves at the boot end of a regime of dictatorship operating in their country. Long may we continue to be able to stand up in this Parliament and negotiate with other parliamentarians to get their freedom, so that they can speak in their Parliaments with the same freedom that we enjoy in this one.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Before I call the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), I think that he is aware that we want to try to give the Minister about 20 minutes to respond to the debate. I call Jeremy Corbyn.

4.53 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I have done a semaphore exchange with the Minister, and we have reached agreement. I always seek to reach agreement with my own Front Benchers, as he will be well aware. Sometimes, sadly, these things are beyond all of us, but we try.

I welcome the debate and thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for her introduction and her work as chairman. I add my thanks to all the staff of the IPU in London for their work. They are incredibly hard-working, efficient and good at arranging outward and inward delegations and taking up often complicated causes when we ask them to. Having recently spent three days at the IPU offices in Geneva on a seminar, I saw that the professionalism and the quality of work done there is superb. The preparations for a report were superb, and we should value that.

I agree with my right hon. Friend’s scepticism about the value of the IPU’s subsuming itself into the United Nations. I am not being anti-United Nations, quite the opposite, but there is an important role for parliamentarians to play, possibly separate from the UN, but working with it. To subsume the IPU within the UN system might mean that it simply gets lost as yet another UN agency and finds it difficult to get the hearing that it currently gets and the relative freedom to take action on behalf of parliamentarians around the world who are in difficulties because of their views.

The IPU was founded in the period of the 19th century when the idea of holding unaccountable executives to account was fairly new. The idea of a strong Parliament did not really develop anywhere in the world until well into the 19th century, and one must say that those who founded the IPU were visionaries in many ways. It was initially small, because most of the world was made up of colonies of European nations. It started in European nations and has been an important element in promoting democracy and accountable government in Europe. It has been a huge influence in the anti-colonial movement around the world and in a whole lot of things that were spawned from that. We would do well to record our thanks for what the people involved did.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley rightly drew attention to the plight of parliamentarians around the world. An ultra-cynic could say, “Here we go again—British Members of the House of Commons defending other parliamentarians around the world.” Yes, we do; not because we think that parliamentarians are exclusively good or special people but because if we cannot defend those who have been elected to represent others and to defend a point of view and other people, how can we defend anybody? That is why it is important that we make an enormous fuss about parliamentarians anywhere in the world, whether or not we agree with them. They have been elected and should be defended.

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