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Westminster Hall

Thursday 29 January 2009

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Inter-Parliamentary Union

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Gillian Merron.)

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): I am delighted to open the debate and to talk about the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which celebrates its 120th anniversary this year. It was co-founded, as hon. Members know, by William Randal Cremer, a British parliamentarian who went on to win the Nobel peace prize. The IPU has a proud history of promoting democracy and inter-parliamentary dialogue across the globe. It began small, with representatives from just seven countries joining the British and French at the first meeting. As we know, a good idea cannot be kept down for long and, as the work of the IPU became widely known, its membership grew. Today, it boasts a membership of 154 national and 8 regional Parliaments, from Austria to Afghanistan, and New Zealand to Zimbabwe.

The IPU’s declared purpose is to work for peace and co-operation through worldwide parliamentary democracy. Some might say that that is a lofty aim, but it is one that remains as valid today as it was in the 1880s when the IPU started. Parliaments are the cornerstone and the essence of democracy, but the idea of democracy was far from universally accepted at the time the IPU was established. There is no doubt that, today, parliamentary democracy is an ideal and a practice rightly aspired to by a vast number of countries and peoples. At its best, parliamentary democracy puts people at the centre of government, allowing them, through their representatives, to check, challenge and often change the actions of the Government of the day.

In too many places, Parliament does not work as it should and in no country can it be said to be perfect. For all of us, parliamentary democracy is work in progress. We have no one ideal model and no single template to follow and there is no help desk with all the answers that we can call—if only that were so.

We parliamentarians learn largely by doing and from studying the triumphs and mistakes of our predecessors. We can also benefit from the successes and failures of our peers in other countries, allowing us to replicate what works and reject or question what does not. That is where the work of the IPU has a unique contribution to make. The IPU fosters contacts and exchanges of experience among Parliaments and parliamentarians of many countries and represents the true spirit of internationalism. In so doing, it makes an invaluable contribution to the success and progress of parliamentary democracy worldwide.

The chance to contribute is no doubt why a majority of Members of the House join the British branch of the IPU, as I did on coming into the House in 1997. I have seen first hand the added value that the IPU can bring. I was a member of the delegation that visited Croatia in
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2000, which was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who now chairs the British group of the IPU. As you can see, Mr. Bercow, it was quite a delegation. Our visit to Croatia was the first by the British group to that country after it gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, so it is, therefore, one of some significance. I also had the opportunity to visit Cape Verde, which helped to deepen contacts between the UK and Cape Verde. That is particularly relevant as we do not have an embassy there. Again, I saw first hand the value that the IPU can add.

The last debate in the House on the work of the IPU was in November 2007 and since then the British group has been particularly active in furthering the democratic cause. I congratulate the group on that. It has conducted delegation visits to various countries, including Japan, Tunisia, Iceland, Ukraine, Mongolia, Syria and beyond. Delegations from across the globe have also been warmly received: from Moldova, Algeria, Nicaragua, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay. I was fortunate enough to be invited to meet the delegation from Uruguay.

These visits are not the only way that the IPU does its work and not the only way in which it furthers parliamentary democracy. It holds seminars and specialised conferences, and issues handbooks, for example, allowing people to exchange and develop ideas. Topics discussed at IPU meetings during the past year include the participation of women in decision making, the role of parliamentarians in protecting children from sexual exploitation and the challenges of migration in Africa. Handbooks issued recently include those giving advice on eliminating violence against children and taking action against HIV, as well as a guide for reducing violence through parliamentary action. We can see how, through such activities, the IPU has never stood still, but continues to move forward and reflect pressing contemporary issues.

The meetings and handbooks may not generate great media interest, but they are nevertheless influential in areas of policy that touch the lives of millions around the world, using quiet diplomacy and knowledge sharing to tackle such issues. I congratulate the British group of the IPU on and commend all its active members for the hard work and dedication shown over past years.

In particular, I want to place on record my admiration for the successful role played by my hon. Friend—my delegation leader—who chairs the British group and led the delegation that attended the IPU’s 118th assembly in Cape Town in April last year. Through his hard work and diplomatic skills on behalf of the British group, the assembly agreed a presidential declaration that was critical of the Government of Zimbabwe’s handling of the election held some three weeks beforehand.

In that declaration, the IPU president spoke on behalf of 700 parliamentarians from 135 countries when expressing deep concern for the plight of the Zimbabwean people. The declaration called for the people to be allowed to exercise their right to determine their future through free and fair elections and urged the Zimbabwean authorities to release the results of the elections, restore freedoms of assembly and speech, and exercise restraint. The IPU’s work in respect of Zimbabwe still goes on, as is the case with all of us.

When all is said and done, the real value of the IPU is in its ability to do things that others cannot do, because it has special access and a special way with building
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parliamentary contacts into personal relationships, directly nurturing and supporting fledgling democracies and realising common aims by combining efforts with those of others.

I am keen to see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office work more systematically with IPU delegations coming into and going out of the UK. The IPU focuses on parliamentarians meeting parliamentarians, and those people can do things that the FCO simply cannot do. I have discussed this with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and I am keen to make progress. I hope that this debate will allow us further to develop how we do our work.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Bercow, and pleased to hear what the Minister has to say.

Unsurprisingly, I shall raise the issue of Sudan, because this is a crucial period in that bedevilled country’s history. One thing we could do is to ensure that we build capacity in that country. There is a series of elections leading up to the referendum on the potential of secession in 2011, in which the IPU is engaged. It would be interesting to hear what the Government could do, particularly for a country such as that.

Gillian Merron: Of course, good governance and building capacity and institutions in countries such as Sudan and many others across the world is at the core of our work. I am sure that we will hear in the debate that it is about strengthening not only parliamentary democracies, but the institutions that work with Parliaments.

I look forward to the debate, the contributions of hon. Members and our continued working with the IPU.

2.39 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in a debate when you are in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I saw you striding across Westminster Hall a few moments ago and I wondered whether it would be our good fortune to have you chairing the debate. I am delighted that you are—[Laughter.] I would have said that to any other person present this afternoon, because we are a little thin on the ground.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her opening comments, which demonstrated her long-standing interest in the IPU, her commitment to it and the importance that she attaches to the work that we do. I very much appreciate those remarks.

This is my first year as chair of the British group of the IPU and the first time, in that capacity, that I have reported in a Westminster Hall debate on our activities. I should like to place on the record my thanks and the thanks of the group for the work of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who not only served for three years as chair of the British group but served for five years on the IPU’s committee on human rights and chaired it for three years. More recently, she has taken over as chair of the IPU’s committee on middle east questions. It has to be said that that committee is not one of the IPU’s greatest achievements thus far. It has been a little tardy in
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engaging in activities, but I am sure that, with my right hon. Friend as chair, it will become more involved in what is an extremely important situation and that the period of inactivity will come to an end.

I am also pleased to report that another previous chair of the British group, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin), has recently been re-elected unopposed as chair of our geopolitical group, the 12-plus group. That reflects the great esteem in which he, too, is held by colleagues in the IPU for his contributions. I thank my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend for their ongoing contribution. They are both great internationalists and make an enormous contribution through the IPU and in other ways. I am sure that the House recognises their efforts.

I thank the members of the executive of the British group, the officers and all the Members of both Houses who have participated in our activities in the past 12 months. I also thank our general secretary and our secretariat. Ken Courtenay and his colleagues provide an excellent service. We greatly appreciate their expertise and good humour. We are very grateful for all that they do on our behalf. It goes without saying that we could not function without such an effective secretariat.

Finally, I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. Without the work of Ministers, officials and staff in embassies and high commissions, we could not have such well-organised inward and outward delegations. We thank them for the very helpful briefings that we occasionally need at very short notice at IPU assemblies and for all the support that they give. We thank Ministers for agreeing to meet inward delegations. When the British group sends colleagues to other countries, we are invariably received with great hospitality, which involves meeting Ministers and senior political figures. It is very good that we can reciprocate when we receive inward delegations to the UK. I am very grateful to Ministers for all that they do in meeting visiting delegations. As this Minister said, she has been doing that again recently.

As has been said, the IPU exists to promote dialogue between parliamentarians, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and representative democracy—parliamentary democracy. It is worth saying in parentheses that a country does not have to be democratic to be a member of the IPU. I shall resist the temptation of naming names, but the criteria for becoming a member of the IPU are that a country is a sovereign state and has a functioning Parliament. Sadly, there are a fair number of sovereign states with Parliaments that can hardly be described as democratic, but engagement is the name of the game. The IPU, as an international organisation, is committed to promoting parliamentary democracy and human rights, and many of the activities, conferences and publications on which the IPU focuses are concerned with issues of parliamentary democracy. That probably explains why, although there are not, by any sensible definition, 150 democracies in the world, there are 150 countries that are members of the IPU. The need for dialogue and the promotion of democracy is as great now as it was 120 years ago when the IPU was established.

There is a distinct difference between intergovernmental relations and relations between parliamentarians. Governments have their jobs to do, and Ministers, officials and ambassadors do them. Parliamentarians
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have a distinct job, but if we are to take a serious interest in the international community, as we must, our relations with parliamentarians from other countries become very important, so that we can learn from one another and share our views about tackling some of the important international issues of the day, but also share views about how parliamentary democracy can operate better.

So, what has the British group been doing since our last debate just over a year ago in November 2007? There have been the usual two IPU assemblies: the annual assembly in Geneva and the major assembly elsewhere. As the Minister said, the major IPU assembly was held in Cape Town in April. As it took place so soon after the Zimbabwean elections, it was hardly surprising that both informal and formal discussion at the assembly focused heavily on the situation in Zimbabwe. The only additional comment that I shall make on that is that in many respects what happened in Cape Town illustrated the importance of parliamentarians and not just the IPU.

At the opening of the assembly, the then South African President, President Mbeki, managed to give a lengthy speech without referring to Zimbabwe at all. However, Mrs. Mbete, the Speaker of South Africa’s National Assembly, who, following protocol, was president of the IPU assembly because South Africa was the host country, was forthright in her comments on Zimbabwe. In her words, democracy had gone wrong and

It is to the credit of the Speaker of South Africa’s National Assembly that she said that at the opening of the IPU assembly, and that she invited a small group of delegates to draft a presidential declaration. That it came out as, from all our perspectives, a good, strong declaration owes an enormous amount to the fact that Speaker Mbete had set it up, that the South African delegate on the committee was passionately behind a strong declaration and that there was support from other southern African countries, not least Botswana.

It became clear to me, both at the IPU assembly and during a bilateral visit in the lead-up to that assembly with South African colleagues, that a very large number of South African parliamentarians, including a very large number of members of the African National Congress, for example, were appalled at the situation in Zimbabwe and were prepared to speak out about it. Those parliamentarians deserve enormous credit. Without Speaker Mbete’s support, the resolution would not have been carried at the IPU assembly. If one is perfectly honest about the situation, it was the big assembly of the IPU in Cape Town following a few years of democracy in South Africa. Anyone who was going to speak against South Africa at that assembly would have to be pretty courageous—and foolish. None the less, the enormous prestige that South Africa had at that assembly was used to good purpose to challenge directly the situation in Zimbabwe, and all those South Africans involved deserve enormous credit for that, not least Speaker Mbete, who led that challenge.

At IPU assemblies, as hon. Members might know, there is invariably a general debate on one topic, and this time it was on pushing back the frontiers of poverty. Those general debates tend to go on for three days, with between 190 and 200 speeches. Each country has about
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15 minutes, and I shrewdly shared ours with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), the Opposition vice-chair. Apart from his contribution, the others were often mind-numbingly boring—we have all been to international conferences at which everyone has to do a set-piece speech. I have been to World Trade Organisation meetings and heard such speeches, and it can get really quite tedious, but every country has to have its 15 minutes.

I think that the work that took place outside the main plenary, however, was more important. We had a significant number of bilateral meetings, and some colleagues served on standing committees looking at issues such as national security, foreign aid, migrant workers and trafficking. Several colleagues in the group drafted papers for those standing committees and made significant contributions. At Cape Town we had 10 bilateral meetings, which I think was a useful way to spend our time. I mean no disrespect to the other speakers at the plenary, but I thought that those meetings were a better way of spending our time than listening to speeches as bland and general as mine was. We met with representatives with Iran, Russia, Thailand, China, Iraq, Serbia, South Korea, Kenya, Turkey and Pakistan—a varied collection, but all countries that wanted to engage with us and with which we wanted to engage. Without exception, all those bilateral meetings were useful. We did not always agree, as might be self-evident, but they were useful meetings that at least promoted understanding and certainly a commitment to further dialogue.

The assembly in Geneva in October also involved delegation colleagues taking part in standing committee discussions on a range of issues, including nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and freedom of expression. We had further bilateral meetings, including one with Russia, and we parliamentarians in the British group are keen to continue to have such discussions.

There was an emergency item at the Geneva meeting on the global financial crisis. The downside was that I was again put on the drafting committee, and the bad news was that everyone was trying to blame everyone else. The United States, of course, is not a member of the IPU, so there were no representatives present to be blamed. You can imagine the kind of conversations that took place, but despite that, I think that a sane resolution was produced. It drew attention to the fact that, although the global financial crisis might have originated in the United States and other rich countries, we should be particularly concerned about poorer countries. They are bearing the brunt of the crisis in a way that does not correspond to their responsibility for it. Many countries are now suffering that cannot be accused in any way, shape or form of having any responsibility for the crisis, and they are mainly poorer countries, so the debate was significant.

As the Minister has said, the British group engages in several bilateral exchanges each year, usually with between six and nine inward delegations and a similar number of outward delegations, and she has mentioned those that have taken place since we last debated the IPU in this Chamber. Sadly, there has been slightly less activity over the past 12 months on that area than we had planned, but frankly, that was because of short-notice cancellations, which are beyond our control. Each year we normally plan to do seven, eight or nine inward delegations and a similar number of outward delegations, but if other countries, for whatever reason, have to drop
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out at the last minute, that obviously reduces the number. This year the figure was more like six inward delegations and six outward delegations, so we are anxious to do more in the current year.

We are also anxious to encourage more hon. and right hon. Members to apply to take part in IPU delegations. Some delegations are very popular, and some less so—we are on air, so I will not name names—but I urge hon. Members to encourage their hon. Friends to apply, because as an organisation we want to be able to send good delegations that are diverse. I particularly encourage more women parliamentarians to apply as we really would like to see more women participate. When in South Africa I was interviewed by the local radio station, and the interviewer asked what I thought of the fact that only one member of our delegation to the assembly in Cape Town was a woman—my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. I answered that I thought that it was shameful, which it was, and said that I would try to do something about it. The only thing we can do is to encourage more people to apply, especially our women colleagues, and I strongly urge us all to do so.

In our delegations we try to get not only some kind of gender balance but a balance between new and more experienced Members. Clearly, we are looking for people to lead a delegation who have some experience of the topics or know the relevant country, but we also want to encourage people for whom the visit would be their first. That is a point I keep making to people—they should not think that they have to have done something like that previously to apply for an IPU delegation. We are always keen to encourage Members who have not joined us on delegations in the past to do so in future.

A large number of all-party groups on countries are affiliated to the British group of the IPU. We provide financial support and assistance where possible and have done so in several cases in the past 12 months, in particular for the all-party groups on the Philippines, Finland, Palestine, Liechtenstein and Sudan. We send delegates to specialised conferences, as the Minister has said: in the past 12 months delegates have attended conferences, for example, on HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, the World Trade Organisation and gender equality. Indeed, the IPU has taken a great interest internationally in gender equality. I would like to see it take a greater interest in wider issues of equality, and maybe that will happen soon, but gender equality is clearly extremely important.

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