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Mr. George: It is all there, it is all there. I could list all its failures—fraudulent elections, preventing candidates from contesting elections, what it has done to non-governmental organisations, the unfortunate disappearance of heads of NGOs and journalists and so forth, without even mentioning what it is doing in relation to foreign affairs and defence. I only hope that the declaration issued half an hour ago that Russia was, if not repenting—that would be the wrong word—reconsidering is correct. At this point in time, however, Russia is becoming rather more obstreperous, and we need to be more and more careful.

I have mentioned the important role of international organisations, but national Governments also have an important role. We know what is being done by the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, and, in the United States, by the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, but the same can be said of almost every country. I spent a good deal of time conducting a survey of 30 countries, 25 of which responded. I have just sent off a reminder to the others. I examined the way in which national Governments fund their own NGOs as well as international organisations such as the UN and the OSCE, and what international NGOs are doing. It is rather ironic that the United States, which has a rather low reputation at the moment, has such an incredible number of first-rate NGOs. We know of most of them, including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the Eurasia Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Let me issue a plea for excellent NGOs in democratisation and human rights that are desperately in need of funding. Oh yes, we fund them initially, but subsequently we rely on the private sector to do so. Some countries are hanging on to democracy by their fingertips. Civil society and NGOs are the essential link between foreign countries that seek a greater expansion of democracy. In whatever capacity I can do so, I plead with our own Government to fund more and better organisations. That does not just mean giving four million quid to the Westminster Foundation, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), excellent though that organisation is; there is more to be done, even by the Foreign Office and DFID, to help to sustain countries that seek to be democratic.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman lists organisations that are doing great work in promoting democracy. Perhaps he will say a word about the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, two organisations that do a great deal to try to help in this context.

Mr. George: I can only apologise on the grounds that I am writing a book on the subject, which will include a chapter on what Parliaments and inter-parliamentary assemblies are doing. I agree that what the IPU and the CPA are doing is truly extraordinary. Members of a delegation from Botswana who are in the House today are guests of the CPA. The whole network of international organisations, national Governments and Parliaments, NGOs, universities and individuals plays an enormous role in establishing and sustaining democratisation.

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In the final three or four minutes of my speech, I wish to raise an issue that causes me great concern. I have headed 18 short-term missions to observe elections—for instance, the sequence of rose revolution elections in Georgia and orange revolution elections in Ukraine. The Russians are convinced that I am an employee of the CIA, MI5 or MI6. What they cannot recognise is that their mates in those countries ran totally corrupt elections. It was not only that we declared that those elections failed to meet international standards; our findings merely verified what the populations were thinking. We did not deliberately spark something. We were not there to create a peaceful revolution. It was people in those countries who said “Enough is enough. Thank you for confirming what we already know—that our Government are a bunch of crooks who are cheating at elections.”

Election observation is a vital element of the promotion and sustenance of democracy. There are so many wonderful organisations, domestic and otherwise. Some of the best that I have seen are in developing countries such as Kenya. I am on the board of one in Kazakhstan. We must pay tribute to the countries that are sustaining democracy through election observation and democracy projects albeit that they are not natural democracies. My great anxiety is that election observation by ODIHR is under considerable threat. It is hard enough observing elections and producing, hopefully, correct reports based on evidence, but there are two hurdles, obstacles or mountains that ODIHR must surmount.

There is, for example, the opposition of Russia, which does not wish ODIHR to go there and, inevitably, say “These elections fall well short of international standards.” Russia and the other “great democracies” in the Commonwealth of Independent States such as Uzbekistan and Belarus are ganging up on ODIHR. They are trying hard, throughout the OSCE, to get ODIHR busted or, worse, reduced to the standards in the CIS. That would be the end of legitimate, intelligent, professional election observation. If anyone has the stomach to read some of the things I have written on the matter, I would be delighted if they wrote to me.

We would expect the Russians to do that. We would not expect a fellow OSCE institution, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, to collude with the Russians in order deeply to damage ODIHR, which, as I said, is the jewel in the crown of the OSCE system and the gold standard of election observation. A part of the OSCE system wishes to supplant ODIHR as the principle election monitoring organisation, or, if that is not possible, to set itself up as an independent election observation body. I have the evidence. A lot of brown envelopes are heading my way on what it is doing.

I hope that this debate will have an impact on the Foreign Office and on DFID, which obviously had a part in instigating it, and that hon. Members will say, “You are doing a good job, but there is a lot more to be done.” I congratulate the Electoral Commission, which is doing a very good job not only in following what is going on internationally but in helping to ensure, with those in government and Parliament who are on the same wavelength, that we put our own house in order.

There is nothing more embarrassing to me than going to countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia as an international observer, giving a beating around the head to countries that held fraudulent elections and then
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having, at conferences where I have spoken, my own words thrown back at me. For example, people have said, “I understand what you are saying, Mr. George, but why don’t you allow domestic or international observers to observe your own elections?” That is a legitimate point and it is irrefutable. Thankfully, legislation has amended that, and I hope that planeloads of Belarusians and Kazakhs will head to our elections when they are held, just to show that, even though we may be prepared to advise them about their elections, we at long last have put our own house in order.

Daniel Kawczynski: The right hon. Gentleman mentions the Electoral Commission. I join him in congratulating the commission on its work, but it has expressed publicly its frustration at its lack of teeth in forcing the Government to implement certain of its recommendations. Does he agree that more powers need to be given to the commission to force those changes through?

Mr. George: I think so. The organisation has been going now for eight or nine years. I wish that I had applied to be head of it. It is a part-time job with a salary of £150,000. By God, I would have been out of here in a flash, but I would probably be tainted by my political views. It is an excellent organisation, but it is going to undergo substantial change. A report has been written by another organisation. I hope that it will be subjected to the same scrutiny as it gave the Electoral Commission, which does a great job but has to remind us constantly that corruption is a problem—albeit not a major one—and that the major problem we, the United States and almost every democracy face is raising money to fight elections. I was going to mention Iceland, but it does not have any money any more—it had most of ours. The sad thing is that, in whichever country we are talking about, legislation is passed, only for it to be ignored.

Mrs. Moon: Does my right hon. Friend accept that one can monitor an election and find it to be fair or reasonably fair, but that unless the people who are elected have the skills to promote democracy and human rights, voice their opposition and know how to use the system to promote the human rights issues that we would like to be taken forward, it does not work? A group of women parliamentarians from the Labour Benches went to Pakistan, where we met groups of women who were elected to their local councils. They were told by the men, “You have been elected but now you do not have to do anything. You can stay at home, or you have to do what we tell you.” DFID has invested in training for those women, which will help to promote that democracy.

Mr. George: I agree, as a converted male chauvinist pig. Having been beaten around the head for 25 years, I have succumbed to the pressures. The role of women in Parliament is undervalued. Including our illustrious official, there are four or five women in the Chamber, which is a low proportion. That is not enough. It is not good enough.

Some countries are amenable to influence, want NGOs and Governments to help and want embassies to fund democratisation programmes. They are prepared to allow George Soros and the National Endowment for Democracy to give them money. They are almost easy, until we say,
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“Are you serious? Despite all the assistance we are giving, this Parliament is almost as supine as it was”. At that point, perhaps we should put our money into countries that are listening and that do wish to democratise. There are difficult countries; we should not give up on them.

The index in DFID’s annual report and in the Foreign Office annual report show that they are doing a very good job, but it is not enough. If only a fifth or sixth of countries in the world can be classified as democracies, we realise how many more resources we need to put in. I wonder what the effect will be. We know what happened to struggling democracies after the Wall street crash following the first world war, and what happened to them after the second world war. Many went under. If there is a cataclysm—I hope there will not be—I hope that it will not result in fascist, Nazi, extremist-type parties putting all the blame on democracies and sweeping them aside. That is one of the great anxieties, but I am pleased with what is being done. There is consensus between Government and Opposition, but we should refine our processes to ensure that we are more successful, because the work to be done is almost limitless and there is no scope for complacency.

6.18 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I too welcome the Minister to her new position. I look forward to our exchanges both here and in Westminster Hall, although I hope not to spend quite so much time with her as I did with her predecessor now that the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 is on the statute book.

It is an important time to have this debate. As has been mentioned, this year, we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. The global values of equality, justice and the rule of law are as essential now as they were in 1948 when the horrors of world war two were fresh in people's memories.

Despite the strides forward that we seen over the past six years, the catalogue of human rights abuses that are going on across the world hangs like a badge of shame around the world community's neck. This will be, and has already been, a wide-ranging debate so it is impossible to cover everything, but first, picking up the point made by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), I want to talk about the importance of promoting democracy and human rights within the UK. I also want to discuss the role of women within human rights and then talk about the position in various countries.

Like many hon. Members, I am a member of Amnesty International, and I find that when its magazine drops through the letter box every couple of months, I need to be in the right mindset and have a strong stomach to open the pages and to read what is inside. However, it is important that we do that, and do not turn a blind eye to the horrendous crimes that are being committed across the world. Not only is that daunting, but there are so many dreadful and appalling practices taking place in so many countries that it can be difficult for one individual to feel that they can make a difference—perhaps it is somewhat easier for us as Members of Parliament to feel that we can make part of a difference than it is for our constituents. However, it is important to remember
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the values of organisations such as Amnesty, who say that when people join together it is possible to achieve improvements in human rights, and also to remember the well-documented impact that the letters received by prisoners of conscience around the world have on their day-to-day ability to get up and continue going through their dreadful existence.

Obviously, if we in the UK are going to lecture on, promote or encourage democracy and human rights, we must first be careful to ensure that our own house is in order, otherwise we will lose any authority we have on the world stage on these issues. There is sometimes a danger of that, particularly when our liberties here at home are being eroded. I therefore very much welcome the fact that the UK was one of the first countries to undertake the United Nations Human Rights Council universal periodic review, and that it did so in a constructive way to try to act as a benchmark to encourage other countries to embrace it positively as well. The way in which the UK dealt with that was picked up. A variety of recommendations were made.

Reading through the report, I was interested by the fact that listed in brackets after the recommendations are the countries that suggested them. I particularly liked the one that suggested having a strategic body to tackle violence against women. I have raised that with the former Prime Minister and other Ministers on various occasions in the House, and the End Violence Against Women coalition is calling for that. Topically this week, another recommendation was that we should consider the legality of corporal punishment against children. Sadly, last week we did not have the opportunity to discuss the amendment to the relevant Bill, but I am sure that that subject will come up at a future date.

I was also interested in the recommendation that we should have strict time limits on pre-charge detention. Interestingly, that was suggested by Russia. When Russia is giving us good advice on human rights, it is time to worry. I wish to take the House back to 1 July 2004. At around the time when Robert Mugabe had extended detention without charge to 28 days in his Public Order and Security Act, the then Foreign Secretary said:

I think we should— [Interruption.] Yes, only a month. We should muse on that: there are countries that are not where we might want them to be on human rights, but we have been criticising them for doing things that we have later done ourselves. This subject is, of course, topical today, with the other place considering the issue of detention for 42 days. We will see what the result of the vote is, although there is a great deal of hope among some Members, certainly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, that that proposal will be turned down by the House of Lords—and if reports in the media are to be believed, that might be accepted by the Government.

I could go on, as there are a range of other issues on which I think we should be putting our own house in order. The ambitious ID cards database goes far beyond what any other country is doing. Given the confidence that the public have at present in databases and the protection of their liberties, that idea should be thought through again. There is also the DNA database: 3.4 million
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people are on our database—a proportion five times greater than the proportion of the population on a DNA database in any other country in the world. That figure includes 25,000 children who have never been charged with any offence. The Government might want to learn from Scotland, where the DNA of innocent individuals cannot be held indefinitely.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): As a fellow Scottish MP, the hon. Lady will know that one of the biggest democratic debacles we have witnessed in the past few years was the Scottish parliamentary election in 2007. Will she support the calls made only last week in the Scottish Parliament to have those elections repatriated to the Scottish Parliament so that we never get in such a mess again?

Jo Swinson: Absolutely. When the right hon. Member for Walsall, South was saying how wonderful the Electoral Commission was, I had last May’s elections in Scotland in mind, which were not excellent, and I believe that one of the recommendations made in the aftermath of those elections that the Government should take up is the suggestion that it should be up to the Scottish Parliament to look after its own elections.

On democracy, it has been 18 months since this House discussed House of Lords reform and voted overwhelmingly for an all elected upper House, yet it has taken more than a year to get to White Paper stage, and the Government seem to be dragging their feet.

Therefore, although I will focus the rest of my remarks on human rights and democracy abroad, there is no room for complacency on these issues at home either, and if we were to assume that we had it all sussed, that could be perceived as arrogant, and be counter-productive in international negotiations on this topic.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Before my hon. Friend moves on to discuss specific countries abroad, will she agree that one of the things we can do is build up the organisations based in the UK that allow a reciprocal exchange of best practice? The British Council does that, as do the World Service and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Many places are willing to exchange staff, young politicians of the future and Clerks from Parliaments, and they are not just new democracies, but countries that have become democracies and are still learning the ways but are very willing to share their experiences—countries such as Ukraine, which is going through difficult times, but which is clearly determined to get this right.

Jo Swinson: I agree with my hon. Friend. Through the exchange of individuals—whether parliamentarians or staff such as Clerks—we can all learn from each other. I am thinking now of the occasions when I have been abroad; I went to Sierra Leone with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I hope I added value to that country and the parliamentarians I met there. I certainly came back from that experience with a much better understanding and much more knowledge about the situation there, which I have found useful since. Such exchanges are, therefore, valuable.

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