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29 Jan 2009 : Column 149WH—continued

One of the good things that the IPU does is produce an annual “women in politics” map, and the latest shows that globally only 17.7 per cent. of MPs and 16.1 per cent. of Ministers are women. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is one of those and that she is with us today. However, those figures are not particularly good. Rwanda’s Parliament heads the list, with women accounting for 48.8 per cent. of its MPs. The UK is joint 60th with Cambodia, with 19.5 per cent.—I think that we have 125 women MPs out of a total of 646, but I apologise if my maths is wrong. I say in passing that without certain action taken by a certain party before 1997 we would not even have that 19.5 per cent. The point is that more needs to be done on gender
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equality, and the IPU internationally, as well as member Parliaments, would do well to do more to promote it.

I ought to say something briefly about funding. The IPU used to be funded by grant in aid from the Treasury, as was the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but for reasons that I will not go into we are now funded directly by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. As it happens, the agreed formula is that 70 per cent. of the funding should come from the Commons and 30 per cent. from the Lords. For reasons of equity, we therefore seek some kind of balance in our delegations and other activities—perhaps 70:30—between Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. As I say, that is only one guideline, but the funding mechanism means that we are directly funded—as it were, internally.

We have had a successful year. We are always looking for ways to improve what we do, and we would gratefully accept the suggestions of other hon. Members. For example, in April we are organising a disabilities seminar for members of the 12-plus group, following the recent publication by the IPU of a handbook on disability equality. I said earlier that we were beginning to see an increased interest in wider areas of equality. That is an example, and I am delighted to see it. I expect that the 12-plus group seminar will generate some interest. We are always keen to look for new things to do and ideas on how to do things better. As always, suggestions would be greatly welcomed.

We all know that many of today’s important political issues are not susceptible to national solutions. Until recently, we used to rattle off the familiar list. We talked about climate change, terrorism and world poverty. We now have to add financial crises to the list. The planet on which we live is characterised by extensive interdependence between countries. If we are to deal with problems that affect us all, we need to co-operate. It is therefore important that parliamentarians, with their national responsibilities, should take the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences with those from other countries.

The need for internationalism, for dialogue and for peaceful conflict resolution is as great today as it was 120 years ago when the IPU was established. I am grateful for the support that colleagues have given to the work of the British group.

3.2 pm

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): I am pleased to be called to speak in this important annual debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), the chairman of the group, I regret the fact that attendance is pretty sparse.

I consider it a tremendous honour and privilege to have been elected as vice-chair of the British group of the IPU. I do not want to sound too self-congratulatory, but I certainly congratulate my hon. Friend, who has been an exemplary and inclusive chair of our branch for the past 12 months.

I pay tribute to our general secretary, Ken Courtenay, and his assiduous team. I see that three of them are in the Chamber today. It has not been an easy year. There have been a number of personnel changes, but Members seem not to have noticed as we continued to receive an efficient and seamless service from the IPU staff.

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At last year’s annual debate, the Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), then Minister for Europe, made a strong point of acknowledging the valuable work done by members of the IPU in aiding the work of the Foreign Office. It is good to hear the same message being repeated today by the Minister. I believe that the work and activities of the IPU can genuinely help to build trust and respect between parliamentarians from different countries. Often, our more informal contacts and discussions play an important part in helping to build bridges and defusing situations between nations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, in the past year the British branch has welcomed delegations from Algeria, Nicaragua, Moldova, Gabon, Uruguay and, this week, the United Arab Emirates. Common threads have emerged. There is shared concern across the world about the global financial crisis. However, discussions with most of those countries have centred on the challenges posed by climate change and the question of energy security. The subject of mass migration has often cropped up as a major issue, as has poverty. Those subjects arise not only in Europe and the middle east but throughout the world. There is a real need to find a durable, lasting peace in the middle east.

We all know from personal experience that we are more likely to find common cause over a cup of coffee, or even a glass of wine, than in a more formal and stuffy setting. Relationships can often begin at IPU-sponsored events, and can be followed up through the medium of e-mail or by making visits. Those little things can make a significant contribution to advancing our country’s diplomatic endeavours.

When our Ministers visit overseas countries, they are usually on a tight schedule and the Whips often summon them back to Westminster. They rarely have the opportunity to travel beyond capital cities, or to see what life is like for ordinary people. That is the strength of IPU visits. As part of an IPU delegation, one usually has the opportunity to see the bigger picture. One can meet a wider range of decision makers, and politicians from opposition parties as well as the Government party. One may be able to travel, and thus meet regional or provincial governors or Ministers. One can meet representatives from a range of NGOs and from civil society. One can also meet staff from the Department for International Development, the diplomatic service or UN agencies—those who work on the front line.

That point is well illustrated by the excellent IPU delegation that I had the fortune to go on last year to Mongolia. It was ably led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). Hon. Members will know that Mongolia is a vast country. It is about six times the size of Britain, but it has a population of only 2.5 million, about half of whom live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. During our visit, we had the opportunity to go beyond the capital and visit Erdenet, a large industrial city. There, we met the regional governor. We also visited the world’s largest copper mine. We then travelled on to Darhan, where we visited a hospital and met local politicians.

If anyone thinks that going on an IPU delegation is a jolly—I am sure that no one here today does so—they should have been with us on our trip to Mongolia. The seven-hour journey back, through blizzards and appalling
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climatic conditions, to Ulaanbaatar, would be a worthy contender for the award for scariest journey ever undertaken by man or woman.

In previous annual debates, we have recognised the huge contribution made by the British Council, which does not have an office in Ulaanbaatar. However, it has helped to organise a scheme funded by the Department for International Development. It has put in place a couple of people—I am not sure of their titles—advising and supporting Mongolian peacekeepers. Mongolia punches above its weight in the world community on peacekeeping missions, and it was nice to find there those two British guys on two-year assignments helping to train Mongolian peacekeepers. I hope that I am crediting the right people—I apologise if I am not—but I think that the funding is provided by DFID and the work organised by the British Council.

On IPU visits, we sometimes have time to see the valuable work being done by our non-governmental organisations. On a hospital visit in Mongolia, we met six volunteers with Voluntary Service Overseas, some of whom were on two-year secondments from the NHS. They are very dedicated people. One lady, Robin, was a recently retired nurse who had given more than 30 years to the NHS in Cambridge. She had gone out to Mongolia for two years. It was wonderful to see the work that they were doing. We also met the Mongolian Red Cross, whose workers were so grateful for the amazing and generous support that they received from the British Red Cross. It has established, in that vast country, almost a complete network of first responders. I think that most of its financial support comes from British donors, including the British Red Cross. That was very good.

We also visited Save the Children UK. Mr. Bercow, you would have been delighted had you been with us. In the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar, it is running an inspirational assessment centre for youngsters with physical disabilities, learning difficulties and behavioural problems. In Mongolia, there is almost no state provision for children with special needs, and I think that Save the Children UK has invested nearly £1 million in that wonderful project—I have visited several projects and centres supporting children with special needs, and this one was exceptional. I came back with a sense of the appreciation that the people of Mongolia have for British NGOs—an aspect often overlooked when we talk about their work.

I planned to mention other activities in which I have played a part, but our chairman has mentioned them all, so I shall not repeat the points that he made. In conclusion, therefore, I encourage all Members in both Houses to participate in, and engage with, the work of the IPU. It is a truly great institution giving a global voice to parliamentarians from more than 150 countries. Working in isolation, we cannot solve the great challenges facing the world at the start of the 21st century, but by working together, through the United Nations, standing up for human rights and the rule of law, nurturing fledgling democracies, defending the rights of parliamentarians, promoting social and economic justice and encouraging the greater representation of women and minority groups in our Parliaments, the IPU can make a significant contribution to bringing peace and prosperity to the world.

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3.16 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a great pleasure, Mr. Bercow, to serve—for the first time, I think—under your gimlet eye. The last time that we debated the Inter-Parliamentary Union, it was under the gimlet eye of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). I know, Mr. Bercow, that you will resist the temptation to step down from the Chair and participate in the debate, but I know that you feel very strongly about a number of the issues raised.

Like the Minister, I congratulate our chairman, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). I have never been on an IPU delegation with him, but I have been on an all-party trip with him, and I know how seriously he takes all the issues under discussion. At times, there is a cynical view that our IPU delegations go on surf-and-sand trips abroad. Although some of them are in what could be regarded as desirable parts of the world, many of them are not, and from talking to colleagues who have participated, I know that they involve a considerable amount of work.

I was struck by the mention made by the Minister and the hon. Member for Kingswood of the remarkable man who co-founded the IPU. I have done a little research on him. William Randal Cremer—he preferred to be known as William Randal—was a Liberal Member of Parliament, although I suspect that if the Labour party had existed then, he would have been a Labour MP. He left school aged 13; he was self-taught and eventually became a carpenter. He worked incredibly hard in many social areas. What is particularly cheering is that he did not become a Member of Parliament until he was aged 57. An article on him states:

Most of us here would say, “Amen to that!”

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): With the exception of the Minister.

Mr. Simpson: Well, of course with the exception of the Minister. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who is embarking on his fourth political career, would also say, “Amen to that!” The serious point is that William Randal was a confirmed pacifist who believed in parliamentary co-operation, for which he worked until the end of his life. We owe him a great debt for co-founding the IPU with his French colleague.

I was struck by a number of the points made by the Minister and by the hon. Members for Kingswood and for City of Chester (Christine Russell). The crucial one that I want to home in on is the IPU’s role in promoting democracy. At times, we in the House can, quite rightly, get very exercised over our privileges and what might happen to us in our representation of our constituents. I do not need to tell you this, Mr. Bercow, but hundreds of parliamentarians throughout the world would love to fear only the raised eyebrow of their Whip. They would love to fear merely that a tabloid was attacking
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them, and that in an election there was a chance only that they might lose their seat.

However, hundreds of parliamentarians have faced the worst kinds of danger. They have been assaulted, beaten up, imprisoned and, in some cases, killed by their own Governments. We know that because we frequently receive delegations of parliamentarians who have been through such experiences. Both the Minister and the hon. Member for Kingswood raised the specific case of Opposition Members of Parliament in Zimbabwe. I give great credit to the hon. Gentleman and the IPU for what they did in South Africa. They highlighted the situation in Zimbabwe in which thousands of people have suffered badly. Parliamentarians in particular have been the object of the hatred and violence of the Mugabe regime.

The hon. Member for Kingswood emphasised the different activities of the British group of the IPU. I take note of what he said about trying to encourage more Members from both Houses, in particular female Members, to participate. He also mentioned that this is his first year as chairman of the British group of the IPU, and he thanked his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I, too, should like to place on record the appreciation of Her Majesty’s Opposition for all the work that the right hon. Lady has done through the IPU and in many other areas. She has been very outspoken on human rights, and she has never resiled from both criticising and praising her own party in government, which is never an easy thing to do.

The hon. Gentleman said that a country does not have to be a democracy to be a member of the IPU. Some of us in the Chamber are old enough to remember the occasions during the cold war when we had the opportunity to meet Members of so-called Parliaments under communist rule. There was a strong argument at the time that one should not engage with such people—after all, they were puppets, apparatchiki, and placemen and women of one kind or another. I was not a Member of Parliament then, but whenever I met such people I believed that one should engage with them. At times, they did not like to hear what we had to say, but in the drip, drip, drip of engagement, I am sure that it was absolutely crucial. We should redouble our efforts to deal with countries that do not have the full party democracy that we have.

Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for City of Chester said that many issues are not easily resolved in a national context, and the Minister emphasised the importance of the IPU with regard to discussions and negotiations that go beyond the Foreign Office and Governments. The IPU plays a very useful role. We should encourage Members who not only have specific knowledge and experience of an issue, such as mass migration, global finance or whatever it is, but who also feel passionately about issues such as human rights, and are prepared to speak up. We should also encourage Members from all parts of the House who have experience in Government. They, too, have an important role to play.

The hon. Member for City of Chester pointed out that Ministers rarely get to travel outside capital cities. Without appearing to be parti pris—I can translate that for the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, it means partisan—

Stephen Pound: Thanks, guv.

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Mr. Keith Simpson: The hon. Gentleman’s presence in debates is always a pleasure, and I hope that he has finished making his paper aircraft. I am sorry, Mr. Bercow, I shall return to the subject.

The hon. Member for City of Chester said that Ministers rarely travel outside capital cities. I am not absolutely sure whether the Foreign Secretary would approve of that statement given the fact that he travelled outside the capital city in India, although he probably feels that his overnight visit to that village is something he would rather forget. However, the hon. Lady’s point is obviously correct. Moving from one InterContinental hotel to another is not the way to find out about a country.

In conclusion, I thank all the support staff of the British branch of the IPU. They are the unsung heroes and heroines who make certain that our parliamentary delegations can travel abroad and, equally important, that we receive parliamentary delegations in the UK. I hope that the funding of the British branch will continue even in difficult financial circumstances, to enable all of us to do our work, and that the visiting delegations are impressed by the vibrancy and openness of our parliamentary democracy.

It is very easy to think that our parliamentary democracy is inadequate, out of date and full of corrupt people. Without appearing to be pretentious, however, I think that our democracy, in continually having to renew itself, is something of which all of us should be proud. At the end of the day, our ancestors literally fought for the privilege for us to be represented in this place and to debate here.

3.27 pm

Gillian Merron: With the leave of the House, I know that you, Mr. Bercow, are a great supporter of and contributor to the IPU, so I hope that you share my view that we have had an insightful and thoughtful debate this afternoon, by which I am heartened. I am particularly heartened by the sharp focus that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) gave to the intrinsic value of parliamentary democracy. In the United Kingdom, we parliamentarians can act and do our job as elected representatives without fear.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Members of Parliament in Zimbabwe. In view of today’s debate, perhaps it is appropriate to recall the number who have been subject to post-election harassment. In August, five MPs were arrested on what appeared to be trumped-up charges. All were released on bail within a month, and all charges were dropped by the end of last year. We know that at least five MPs are currently on trial, and that one of them was charged on 15 January under anti-terrorism legislation and denied legal representation and bail and will be in custody until the end of this month. That reality stands in stark contrast to our experience in the UK.

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