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5.9 pm

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on securing this debate. I also want to thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating some of the precious time at its disposal for this afternoon’s debate.

I want to restrict my remarks to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Having previously represented Bury North, my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that thousands of my constituents have a personal concern about the human rights abuses taking place in Jammu and Kashmir. Many have personal knowledge of the problems in that part of the world, while many have families still living there who regularly witness the human rights abuses that are taking place. However, it is not possible in the brief time available to do more than highlight the main points of what we all know is a long-running issue.

The seeds of the current conflict were sown more than half a century ago in 1947, when the partition of India took place. The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which had a Hindu ruler but a predominately Muslim population, was divided between Pakistan and India. The people of the state of Kashmir were denied any say in whether they would join Pakistan or India. They wanted what those in so many areas of the world still want today: to determine their future themselves, in a vote of all Kashmiri people. The United Nations passed resolutions to that effect in 1948, but to this day the situation continues. Kashmir remains divided by the line of control, with thousands of troops ranged against each other on both sides of that line.

From time to time over the past 64 years the conflict has flared up and hit the world’s headlines. There have been several attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but for the majority of the time the conflict has simmered away beyond the public’s gaze and attention. Sadly for the people of Kashmir, the killings and torture continue. The latest figures supplied by the Jammu Kashmir Self-Determination Movement show that there have been more than 93,000 killings since January 1989, resulting in some 22,000 women left widowed and 107,000 children orphaned. I commend the work of the Jammu Kashmir Self-Determination Movement, under its chairman Raja Najabat Hussain, for ensuring that the problems of that troubled territory are not allowed to be completely forgotten.

As we have heard this afternoon, many of the current human rights abuses are taking place under the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978. Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, has said of that Act:

“The Jammu and Kashmir authorities are using PSA detentions as a revolving door to keep people they can’t or won’t convict through proper legal channels locked up and out of the way. Hundreds of people are being held each year on spurious grounds, with many exposed to higher risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also expressed concerns about human rights abuses on both sides of the line of control in its human rights report, issued in May this year.

The people of Jammu and Kashmir are long suffering and patient. It seems that there is always another problem in the world that takes precedence

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over theirs. All they want is to be given the right to determine their future by themselves. Everyone appreciates the huge challenges facing the Foreign Office, particularly in the middle east and Afghanistan. However, I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will use every opportunity to advance the cause of peace in the troubled region of Jammu and Kashmir. We are fortunate to have a Minister who understands the issue, has tremendous knowledge of it and has a general personal interest in the plight of the Kashmiri people. I know that he will do all he can to ensure that one of the longest-running conflicts in the world is resolved.

5.14 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak and I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) on securing the debate. May I say that I agreed with everything he said in his excellent speech? Given the shortage of time, I shall focus my remarks on the conflict in Kashmir. My primary concern is to press the Government, above all, to use their good offices to the maximum to help bring about a just settlement in Kashmir—one that is acceptable to the people of Kashmir. I say this directly to the Minister—a man representing my local county for whom I genuinely have the greatest affection and respect. I think that he will listen to today’s debate and do his very best to move things forward.

Thanks to the many thousands of my constituents from Kashmir, many of whom are close personal friends—some are here today, listening to our debate with great interest—I have long been familiar with the terrible sufferings of the people of Kashmir. Time and again, the appalling things happening in Kashmir have been brought to my attention. One hon. Member spoke of possibly exaggerated figures, while others have mentioned figures that, even if only half true, would be appalling. My suspicion is that the figures are accurate and that the reality might even be rather worse than has been said.

Some 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Azad Kashmir—Pakistan Kashmir. By way of Mirpur and Kotli, I visited a refugee camp. I saw how some people had suffered in Indian Kashmir: they had escaped, but having been displaced from their homes, they were still living in refugee camps. While I was a member of the all-party group on Kashmir, I visited the Foreign Office with other colleagues to press the previous Government to do all they could, first, to stop the human rights abuses and, secondly, to try to bring about movement towards a peaceful and just settlement. I say peaceful and just because a peaceful settlement is not enough; it has to be just as well. It is possible to have a peace that is a peace only because of force majeure, which would not be right. The peace must be acceptable to the people of Kashmir.

It has been said many times by many colleagues that Britain has a special responsibility in this part of the world. It was once part of the British empire; we ruled and governed that part of the world for centuries. When we left, partition took place and a lot of blood was shed. Mistakes were made, and this might be one of the most serious of those mistakes, which lingers on as a legacy of empire in a strange way.

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Steve Baker: As so often, I am surprised at the degree to which I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree, however, that one of the problems of the legacy of empire is that, although it gives us a special responsibility, it is also in many ways a curse because that very legacy is often what makes our word so very unwelcome in various countries, including in India?

Kelvin Hopkins: Indeed. I am short of time, but I hope to come on to the point that Robin Cook said when he was Foreign Secretary that he wanted to embark on a process of ethical foreign policy.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, although we must do everything we can to condemn human rights violations on either side of the line of control, we must also look to whatever means we can to ensure that we support self-determination and a lasting resolution for the people of Kashmir?

Kelvin Hopkins: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and thank her for her intervention. Wherever suffering occurs, we must always support human rights; we have a record in doing so. More than one of my hon. Friends has mentioned that India is a great democracy. Indeed it is, but great democracies can also commit sins and have blood on their hands. In Britain, we consider ourselves to be a great democracy, but recent revelations about the Hola camp and what we did in Kenya, as well as about what we did to certain prisoners in Iraq suggest that even a democracy like ours can have blood on its hands. We must not excuse terrible things just because a country is a democracy.

Shabana Mahmood: Does my hon. Friend agree that no democracy—whether it be the world’s largest or not—should be afraid of a debate, either in the House, like today’s debate, or anywhere else, if that debate helps to shed some light on what is going on in another part of the world?

Kelvin Hopkins: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

I was about to make an important point about Robin Cook’s reference to an ethical foreign policy. It did not make him popular with America, but Robin Cook stood by his position and resigned over the Iraq war. That contrasts with what I believe Palmerston once said, and here I paraphrase—that in politics, there are no such things as rights and wrongs, only interests. We must raise ethics above interests sometimes in politics, as I am sure all Members do. In time, I hope that we will ensure that Pakistan and India come to a moral and ethical solution, allowing Kashmir and the Kashmiri people to determine their own future.

5.20 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): This is a hugely important debate. As we hope that the Arab spring heralds a new dawn, we must be clear that freedom is a right for people in other continents too. I want to focus on the regime that calls itself the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, because I believe it is neither democratic nor—I am sure that Labour Members would agree—socialist.

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The relatively normal relations Sri Lanka enjoys with the west, with little condemnation of its thin democratic credentials or genocide of Tamil civilians, have always mystified me. It is worth looking at the evidence. If we judge a democracy by its rule of law, property rights and religious tolerance, the Sri Lankan Government fails on all three. First, the Sri Lankan military is above the rule of law. As Members have said, 17,000 Tamils are still caged in barbaric camps. We still hear reports of Tamil civilians being summarily executed or disappearing, and that follows the genocide of 40,000 Tamils in the past decade. Secondly, property rights do not exist. Large areas of Tamil land and housing are still occupied by the Sri Lankan military.

Mr Scott: My hon. Friend may have seen the document from the Sri Lankan Government saying to their army that it is perfectly acceptable to take Tamil property. Does he agree that that is a disgrace?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is exactly right. The evidence that he has seen shows, as I am pointing out, that Sri Lanka is not a proper democracy.

Thirdly, there is no tolerance of minorities. An estimated 180,000 Tamils are still displaced, either in transit camps or sheltering, and the names of prisoners have still not been published, so families cannot find out if their relatives are alive.

There is a saying that one judges a man by the friends he keeps. In the same way, one can judge a Government by the allies they keep. In the past decade, Sri Lanka’s key allies have been Iran, North Korea and Colonel Gaddafi. Colonel Gaddafi gave Sri Lanka £500 million in financial assistance for so-called development projects. In return, Sri Lanka strongly opposed the no-fly zone in Libya and offered him sanctuary. Even after Gaddafi was threatening Benghazi, Sri Lanka organised mass rallies in his support, protesting against NATO intervention. We all know the story of North Korea, yet Sri Lanka was happy to sign a major weapons contract with it in 2009. We also know the story about Iran, yet Sri Lanka signed business and oil contracts with that country in defiance of international sanctions. Despite that, Sri Lanka continues to be a member of the Commonwealth and the United Nations.

Mr Virendra Sharma: In the light of all the reports, television coverage and films shown on Channel 4, and the international condemnation, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is the right time to demand that the Sri Lanka Government be expelled from the Commonwealth until they accept the international court?

Robert Halfon: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. As I will say in my concluding remarks, we should also boycott the Commonwealth leaders summit in Sri Lanka in 2013.

As has been highlighted, the genocide of 40,000 Tamils has brought the civil war death toll to 70,000. We must make a distinction between murder and genocide—genocide is scientific, organised killing. Having taught the Sinhalese to hate the Tamil minority, the Sri Lankan Government used the Tamil Tigers, who are opposed by moderate Tamils, and whose systematic

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killing of civilians we all condemn, as the excuse for a litany of horrific events and actions. Let us take a couple of examples.

In 2008, according to Human Rights Watch, the Sri Lankans used rockets to obliterate entire refugee camps full of women and children. In 2009, the Sri Lankan Government’s tactics evolved again. They declared a 35 sq km “safe zone” for Tamil civilians, and dropped leaflets appealing to civilians to move into the safe zone as soon as possible. Immediately after several thousand people had gathered there, near a United Nations food distribution plant, the Sri Lankan military shelled the area heavily, killing thousands of people in a few hours.

The United Kingdom has financial leverage. We have millions of pounds’ worth of business and tourism with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka needs the west. But we have seen what happened in “The Killing Fields”, and we must press for a UN resolution and tough economic sanctions to pressurise the Sri Lankan Government to change their ways. As I said a moment ago, we must boycott the leaders’ summit in Sri Lanka in 2013. I welcome the Canadian Prime Minister’s call for a boycott, because symbolism is incredibly important in politics.

There are very few Tamils in my constituency, so many people may ask why I am here today, but I believe that because of my background, it is my duty to try to support nations that have suffered from genocide. That is why I have been involved in Rwanda and have been there, why I have been very involved in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and why I am supporting the Tamils.

Mr Scott: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Robert Halfon: I will not, because there is very little time. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me.

We must be clear about the fact that Sri Lanka is a rogue nation. It has carried out genocide against the Tamil people, and we must do all that we can to stop the persecution of the Tamils once and for all.

5.26 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I commend the Backbench Business Committee for choosing this topic for debate. I am delighted that we have discussed mainly Kashmir and Sri Lanka. I do not want to detract from what anyone said about those subjects, and I agree with the thrust of the arguments that have been presented. I want to raise a rather different issue.

There are 260 million people worldwide who suffer from massive human rights abuses. Such abuses have continued for centuries, indeed millennia, often unacknowledged and unchallenged. It was only with great difficulty that the issue of caste discrimination, or discrimination based on caste and descent, was raised at the Durban millennium summit, but it massively affects the people of south Asia, particularly India.

I am the chair of the trustees of the Dalit Solidarity Network, and also an officer of the all-party parliamentary group for Dalits. The hierarchical division of a society, ascribing inherent privileges to birth, runs contrary to the United Nations’ universal declaration of human rights, article 1 of which states:

“All human beings are… free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The caste discrimination system divides people on the basis of their background, parents and work, and results in the greatest degree of poverty and discrimination in

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the case of India. The sadness is that the Indian constitution specifically outlaws caste discrimination, and, moreover, was written by the great Dr Ambedkar, who was himself a Dalit person. He tried to prevent the discrimination, and indeed every law in India prevents it from taking place, but it does still take place. Dalits represent one third of the world’s poor. Caste discrimination affects jobs, education, medical care and international aid, and also results in the violent subjugation of communities. Dalits have little access to public health or sanitation facilities.

According to official Indian statistics, 13 Dalits are murdered every week, five Dalit homes or possessions are burnt every week, three Dalit women are raped every day, and a crime is committed against a Dalit person every 18 minutes. Dalits, who were formerly known as “untouchables”, are forced to do the most disgusting, dirty, dangerous, menial jobs, such as carrying human waste around in wicker baskets on their heads, picking up human faeces from the streets and railway lines, and cleaning out sewers—all the dirty jobs that no one else wants to do. When we walk around the glittering town centres of modern India, beneath them the most vile discrimination is taking place against the very poorest people, and the chances of those people’s children escaping from the system are very low indeed. They are discriminated against because of their background and their place within the identifiable Hindu caste system.

It is right to raise this issue in Parliament, and we must encourage the British Government to ensure that their aid system recognises this discrimination and the need to address it. At present there are protected jobs in the public sector for Dalit peoples, but that does not extend to the private sector, and this arrangement has only served to fossilise the levels of unemployment in the Dalit communities. The Department for International Development has recognised this discrimination and, so far as I am aware, ensures that no aid projects perpetuate it.

I want to draw the House’s attention to six key issues. The first two are that a significant proportion of Dalit women face verbal abuse, physical assault, sexual harassment and assault, domestic violence and rape, and that bonded labour is normal, even among Dalit children. The remaining issues are that there is forced prostitution, manual scavenging, limited political participation and non-implementation of relevant legislation.

Our job is to speak up for the UN declaration of human rights and to draw attention to this disgraceful discrimination against so many people.

5.31 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): Millions of British citizens have a family origin from the Indian subcontinent, so it is right for this mother of Parliaments to debate not only human rights there, but security on the Indian subcontinent as well. First, I should add my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for securing the debate, and to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place in the Chamber. It is, however, unfortunate that we are bracketing the bloody civil war that took place in Sri Lanka with the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Now that the civil war has ended, there must be reconciliation, peace and an inquiry into what happened in Sri Lanka.

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I want to focus on Jammu and Kashmir. Having grown up with Indians over many years, I have debated and talked about this issue for some 25 to 30 years. We must recognise that India is the greatest democracy in the world, with 1 billion people having the opportunity to vote. It is often forgotten that there are more Muslims in India than in the whole of Pakistan and Bangladesh combined; it is a truly secular state, which offers equal opportunity to people of all religions. It has also been the subject of many terrorist atrocities, most of which, it is claimed, emanate from the state of Pakistan. Naturally therefore, the Indian Government are concerned about whether Pakistan can be trusted.

The seeds of this mistrust lie in the history of Jammu and Kashmir. We cannot forget the origin of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. As other Members have said, it was this House that made the decision to allow India and Pakistan to secede and set up their own states. Jammu and Kashmir had the opportunity of joining either India or Pakistan. While it deliberated, Pakistan invaded. There is an illegally occupied area of Kashmir, therefore: the area that is Pakistani-controlled. The area that is administered by India represents what was wanted by the people of Jammu and Kashmir at the time of secession. All the atrocities that have taken place on both sides of the dividing line should be investigated, and both sides should be held to account.

Let us compare the two states in their current forms, however. In Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, all political parties can debate and stand for elections. In fact, there was an 85% turnout for this year’s local elections in Jammu and Kashmir. All Members of this House would like to see such a turnout for a general election, let alone a local election. By contrast, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir political parties are allowed to form and agitate only provided they accept Pakistan’s right to rule Kashmir—that is not even-handed in any extreme. We must seek to even out the position and make sure that people understand that the current position is not even. We have heard far too often this afternoon about the position in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, and not enough about Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. We need to make sure that we have an even balance and that the people who are here get the opportunity to air their grievances.

5.35 pm

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted that this House is having the opportunity to debate the full array of issues in the short time available, and I know that we have to hear at least one other speech by a Back Bencher before the wind-ups. It is important that I have the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents who are here to press their strongly held belief that there is a need for greater exposure of the human rights issues, particularly in Indian-administered Kashmir, and for greater attention to be paid to them. I accept that there are all sorts of issues between Pakistan and India, and I am not going to try to take too many sides on these things. However, I have to say to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that it is predominantly in the Indian-administered side of Kashmir that the more severe human rights issues—about detentions, curfews and disappearances, and about many of the other aspects

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highlighted in Amnesty International’s “A ‘lawless law’: Detentions under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act” report, and by the Red Cross and others—arise time and again.

I greatly respect the Minister on these issues. I have been to see him in his office to discuss this matter, and I know that he listens carefully. He has to take a very balanced view on these questions, but I know that he would agree that it is important that the British Government try their best to raise the issue more vociferously and more passionately with Pakistan, but especially with India. What I find most distressing are the reports of this persistent abuse of the Public Safety Act on the Indian side of the Kashmir border, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, which is still in force in the region, and causes so many difficulties and human rights abuses. It is important that we see not only a dialling down of the tensions at the line of control, but a demilitarisation in the Kashmir region. Although the Indian Government have made some efforts, through the high-level committee and in other attempts to amend some of these awful pieces of draconian legislation, the process has been very slow and not strong enough. I therefore urge the Minister to raise these issues more vociferously and to consider the role of the European Commission and whether we can get these issues raised on an international stage. This issue is very important and I hope that he will listen to the very many voices that have been raised.

5.37 pm

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I have only two minutes left, so I am going to speak very fast. I wish to refer to an article written by Dr Angana Chatterji, the associate professor of social and cultural anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Along with her cameraman and a number of other people, she went to Jammu and occupied Kashmir. Her article states:

“Dirt, rubble, thick grass, hillside and flatland, crowded with graves. Signifiers of military and paramilitary terror, masked from the world. Constructed by institutions of state to conceal massacre. Placed next to homes, fields, schools, an army practice range. Unknown, unmarked. Over 940 graves in a segment of Baramulla district alone. Some containing more than one cadaver. Dug by locals, coerced by the police, on village land. Bodies dragged through the night, some tortured, burnt, desecrated. Circulating mythology claims these graves uniformly house ‘foreign militants’. Exhumation and identification have not occurred in most cases. When undertaken”—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Sadly, we have to start the wind-ups now, and I apologise to the hon. Lady.

5.39 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I join other hon. Members in welcoming this important debate, and congratulate the hon. Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) on sponsoring it and Members on both sides who have participated in it. In particular, I commend the Backbench Business Committee for providing this opportunity.

In recent meetings with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I have discussed the role of promoting human rights in British foreign policy. There is a very clear message about the need for consistency on human rights and that is central to the debate. The

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other theme of the debate is the importance of engaging diaspora communities in our foreign policy. It is very encouraging to see a crowded Gallery on a Thursday afternoon, reflecting the concerns in the Kashmiri and Sri Lankan communities in this country as we debate these important issues.

We approach the subject in a year where we have seen momentous events in north Africa and the middle east. Those events have had at their hearts demands for freedom, democracy and human rights. We as a country have a responsibility to play a positive role both bilaterally and multilaterally in promoting human rights, using, for example, soft power through institutions such as the BBC World Service and the British Council. The British Council operates programmes in the Indian subcontinent, including in Sri Lanka. It is an important tool in our soft power armoury and tonight I want in particular to commend the courage of the personnel of the British Council, who are doing great work to promote human rights across the Indian subcontinent.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that although good things are happening in those countries, the press here is very silent about both Kashmir and Sri Lanka and much more needs to be done not just by politicians but by the media to bring the issue up the world agenda?

Stephen Twigg: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

A number of hon. Members referred to the Channel 4 film, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, which was broadcast in June, bringing images of atrocities committed against civilians in Sri Lanka in the concluding months of the decades-long war. The footage was truly appalling and the 25-year conflict has left Sri Lanka scarred. The military conclusion of active hostilities between the Government and the LTTE was reached in 2009, but only after mass atrocities and alleged war crimes by both sides. This leaves Sri Lanka with dual tests of accountability and reconciliation. Civilians, be they Tamil, Sinhalese or Muslim, have paid the heaviest price. For them, justice must be realised.

Beyond the sphere of domestic Sri Lankan politics, the international community has a responsibility to secure justice. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), the former Foreign Secretary, visited Sri Lanka during the closing period of the war in 2009 to bear witness to the chaos and suffering that had been inflicted on civilians. Assessments made at that time of wrongdoing by people on both sides of the conflict have since been verified and Government forces are alleged to have been responsible for deaths by shelling the so-called safe zones, as described by a number of hon. Members. The LTTE belligerents had forced internally displaced persons to act as human shields, and those seeking to escape were simply killed.

Justice must be sought because that is the right thing to do, but it is also right that we should pursue justice as a means of deterrent. Writing recently in The Times, Lord Ashdown made a poignant observation:

“The point about law is that it exists not just to deliver justice after the event but also to govern behaviour beforehand”.

Restrictions on journalists in Sri Lanka meant that this was a war without witness. Testimony brought about through the mechanism of accountability will shed light on the dark events that have scarred Sri Lanka’s recent

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history—testimony that reveals the human rights atrocities that were committed in Sri Lanka and testimony that leads to justice.

Although the tactics of the LTTE, an organisation that has rightly been labelled as terrorist by the European Union and the United States, were abhorrent, the legitimate grievances of the Tamil people will not be resolved without a lasting and just political settlement. Can the Minister share with the House any recent discussions the Government have had with the Sri Lankan Government on their plans for reaching a political settlement and devolving power? Has the Minister made any representations about the number of people still being held in so-called rehabilitation centres? Is he satisfied that there is sufficient media freedom in Sri Lanka?

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised the very important issue of the death penalty and the case of Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, which he has championed for many years. I echo what he said both about Mr Bhullar’s case and more broadly on the question of the death penalty. As a fellow friend of India, I press it to abolish the death penalty. Of course, as we are having a debate on south Asia, we should similarly press Pakistan to abolish its death penalty; there are 8,000 people on death row in Pakistan today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) made the point that we have had a very big contribution to our country from the Kashmiri community that lives here. We saw that reflected in the powerful and passionate speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood). Hon. Members in all parts of the House have reflected the concerns of their constituents.

In government we sought to urge both India and Pakistan to bring about a lasting resolution to the issue of Kashmir that takes into account the wishes of the people of Kashmir. I welcome some of the developments that have been referred to: the visit of the Pakistani Foreign Minister to India, improvements in cross-border trade, and talks between India and Pakistan. Will the Minister update the House on recent discussions with counterparts on the formation of a lasting political settlement that takes into account the wishes of the people of Kashmir?

A number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have voiced very serious concerns about the human rights situation in both parts of Kashmir. For example, the limits to media freedom in Indian-administered Kashmir have been described by a number of hon. Members. Have the Government raised that matter with the Indian Government?

My hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) highlighted Amnesty’s recent and very disturbing report about unmarked graves and the need for an investigation by the Indian authorities. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) raised the issue of irregularities and a lack of openness in elections in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, and that, too, is an important question which I encourage the Minister to raise with Pakistan in our bilateral relationship. We must continue to work both bilaterally and multilaterally with India and Pakistan, and urge all sides to seek a lasting resolution to the issue of Kashmir, which takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

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If I may finish where I started, the Arab spring has reminded us that the thirst for freedom, democracy and human rights is not western but universal. It also reminds us that in many parts of the world there are real concerns about double standards in the policies of the major powers. It is vital that we take a consistent approach to human rights, and the desire for that consistency has been reflected in this debate.

5.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I thank all colleagues for their participation in the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for his thanks to the British Council, which does such excellent work for us abroad, and for his reminding us of the increasing importance of the diaspora in British politics and the contribution that they can make, not only to debate here but, in many instances, to reconciliation and support in the communities from which they originally came.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Steve Baker) and for Ilford North (Mr Scott) for securing the debate and to the Backbench Business Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe spoke in measured tones on a difficult subject, plainly putting to the House the views and anxieties of his constituents. I shall of course deal with Kashmir during the next few minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North spoke with passion in support of his Tamil constituents and reminded the House, as did one or two others, why we have such an obligation to speak here, without fear or favour, on the matters that concern us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), in describing his colourful arrival in Pakistan and Kashmir, reminded us of how we are seen in many parts of the world—an honour to this House that we respect by the way in which we conduct ourselves here by dealing with difficult subjects in moderation, sometimes in tricky areas.

The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) reminded us that, before we get too moralistic and righteous in what we say here about other countries, we should acknowledge our own human rights failings, both past and present. The fact that the House listened with respect to voices that challenged some of the more popular sentiments represented by many who are watching the debate shows that the House can listen to both sides of a complex debate. That should reassure any Government looking at the work of the House of Commons that they should not fear our debates, if transparency, accountability and justice are as close to their hearts as they are to the hearts of parliamentarians here today.

The Government have been clear since they took office that the protection of human rights is crucial to both the values and the interests of the UK. When the Foreign Secretary set out his vision for the future of our foreign policy in a series of speeches last year, he said that those values were part of our national DNA and that they would be woven into our foreign policy decision making. We cannot achieve long-term security and prosperity for the UK unless we uphold them.

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Few parts of the world are as important to the promotion of our values and our interests as south Asia. The region's giant, India, is the world's largest democracy— vibrant, pluralistic, secular and multi-ethnic—but it has faced significant problems with domestic insurgency, communal violence and caste discrimination. Some of the toughest human rights challenges in the region are exacerbated by the dispute between India and Pakistan. The latter country, which has only recently come under civilian rule, is facing arguably the greatest existential threat from terrorism of any nation in the world. To the north and south, Nepal and Sri Lanka continue to grapple with the legacies of decades of destructive insurgency. Bangladesh is affected more than almost anywhere else by the pressures of population, poverty and climate change. The smallest country in the region, the Maldives, is the world's newest democracy.

Despite that challenging context the UK does not shy away from engaging frankly with our partners in the region, holding Governments to account when human rights standards slip. The UK is all too familiar with the challenges of balancing personal freedoms and the rule of law, with the first duty of Government to protect their citizens. Our approach is idealism tempered with realism. We are absolutely clear about what is right and wrong and what foundations are required for truly free societies, but we also recognise the limitations on our ability to enforce change anywhere in the world. Societies progress at their own pace and the UK will continue to work with them, utilising our strengths but without arrogance, on what can be a long and difficult road to freedom, security and prosperity for all.

Let me make a few remarks about the two main issues that have come up today—Kashmir and Sri Lanka. I fully understand the sense of frustration felt by many people in the UK about the situation in Kashmir. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) reminds me, the context of that is the years I spent both growing up and living in Bury North and representing many Kashmiri citizens and friends there.

I have answered a number of questions tabled in the House asking for the UK to take a more active role in resolving the dispute. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) accurately described the cost over the years of the long-running problem to the communities in that area. The position of successive British Governments has consistently been that any resolution must be for India and Pakistan to agree, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. As India and Pakistan are currently making efforts to build confidence in all aspects of their relationship, I believe it is important that they be given space to determine the scope and pace of that dialogue. No matter how well intentioned, any attempts by the UK or other third parties to mediate or prescribe solutions would hinder progress.

We continue to monitor developments In Kashmir closely, especially as reports of human rights abuses on both sides of the line of control continue. We are all aware of the violent protests that occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir during the summer of 2010. More than 100 civilians were killed and a number of security forces personnel were injured. During the unrest there were allegations of excessive use of force by security forces against protesters and allegations that protesters themselves had used violence. We are also

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aware of the large number of detentions that have since been the subject of an Amnesty International report. However, we welcome the renewed engagement by the leaders of India and Pakistan to grope towards, perhaps for the first time in a long time on a personal basis, answers to this issue. We also note that the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that human rights abuses by security forces in Kashmir would not be tolerated, and we welcomed his appointment of three interlocutors to engage with a wide range of interested parties to help to resolve the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir. We understand that those interlocutors will publish their recommendations soon.

Our officials in our high commissions regularly discuss and regularly raise difficult issues in Kashmir with both the Indian and Pakistani Governments and with contacts in those areas. Our resources from the conflict pool also support work promoting human rights, conflict prevention and peace-building efforts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) reminded us.

I thank hon. Friends for raising various issues relating to Sri Lanka. I assure the House that I have a regular and very frank relationship with Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris. We discuss all the significant issues that have been raised today. The allegations of war crimes and other human rights violations committed by both sides in the military conflict are of great concern to us. The UK has consistently made its position clear: Sri Lanka needs to address accountability through an independent, thorough and credible process that meets international standards and allows the people of Sri Lanka to move towards reconciliation and lasting peace and security.

Sri Lanka has faced enormous challenges during the many years of war and its aftermath. Its Government have made important progress in some areas. We hope that all those displaced by the conflict who have returned to their home areas will be resettled in permanent accommodation in the near future. De-mining and reconstruction of key infrastructure in the north is progressing. However, just as it is fair to note progress, so it is fair to note that it has not been complete everywhere and that serious challenges remain, as I saw when I visited Jaffna earlier this year.

Steve Baker: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Alistair Burt: No. My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to speak in a moment.

We believe that further action is required to make peace sustainable. In particular, minority political grievances need to be resolved, the mechanisms for protecting and promoting human rights need strengthening, and Sri Lanka’s communities must collectively deal with the legacy of such a long conflict. Sri Lanka has begun to address some of these issues. We hope that the Government will set out their view of a political solution to the causes of the conflict and rapidly demonstrate their commitment to resolving minority concerns sustainably. The LLRC report, which will be published in November, must set out clear steps towards accountability in respect of allegations of war crimes.

Under international law it is the primary responsibility of the state concerned to investigate and, where necessary, prosecute credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Experience has shown that countries that take concrete action to address conflict issues through a process of truth, justice and

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reconciliation are more likely to achieve long-term peace. By corollary, those that do not take such action will not achieve peace. We want to see Sri Lanka take those actions. While we share international concerns about the credibility of the LLRC, it is a Sri Lankan-led process and we want the Sri Lankan Government to use it to address allegations effectively and allow their communities to live and work together.

The international community can also provide support to Sri Lanka. The comprehensive report of the UN panel of experts is most welcome, and we welcome the UN Human Rights Council’s consideration of those recommendations. We understand that this, and the disturbing Channel 4 footage, on which I made some fairly straightforward comments at the time, will be considered by the LLRC before it produces its report in November. It is a step in the right direction that we wish to encourage.

The passion and commitment of Members who have spoken in today’s debate and the balance achieved through different Members speaking their truth on difficult areas should, I hope, persuade any constituent that we care about these issues, that they matter to the UK Government and that foreign Governments have nothing to fear from our honest inquiry springing from the values that we know they profess to share.

5.58 pm

Steve Baker: It is an incredible honour and privilege to open and close the debate today. It has been a debate on the most exquisitely sensitive of subjects, and I think that Members on both sides of the House have at least sought to be even-handed. I know that some Members perhaps felt that the balance swung one way or another, but I think today we can all be proud of Parliament. As happens so often, I found myself agreeing with the hon. Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Luton South (Gavin Shuker). I find myself recognising that although we in this House often disagree on means, we so often agree on ends. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) made a passionate call for action—a call that I confess I did not have the courage to make. I congratulate him on making it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) reflected powerfully on his visit to Kashmir, and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), in talking about his long involvement, demonstrated his passionate commitment to the issue. The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mounted a passionate and even-handed defence of India. The hon. Member for Brent North was absolutely right to talk about the structure of the resolution. In the end, in this House and elsewhere we need to move away from fault and look at how prosperity, peace and progress can be delivered for people, wherever they may be. I am proud of Parliament today because we have represented all our constituents in the best possible way.

Mr MacShane: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order to ask you, sir, to pay a tribute on our behalf to Sir Malcolm Jack, as he rises for the last time in the chair as chief Clerk of this our House of Commons? That funny triangle of you, Sir Malcolm and his colleagues is one that the public do not know much about, but I certainly pay tribute to the fact that Sir Malcolm has

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been a constant source of advice, friendly help and courteous consideration. I am sure that his successor will be every bit as good.

Sir Malcolm is an expert on Portugal and has written a very fine book on it, which I can recommend to everybody who wants to understand mediaeval and renaissance Portuguese history—undoubtedly very helpful as he tries to steer his way through our Standing Orders and “Erskine May”. I invite you, Mr Speaker, as one of the last acts of this two-week session, to say just a word of thanks to him on behalf of all of us.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I endorse every word that he has just uttered, and I am delighted indeed to volunteer on behalf of the House the tribute sought by him.

Malcolm Jack has served this House with dedication, passion and intellectual flair for 44 years. His is a quite outstanding track record of selfless public service in the interest of Parliament and of the country. It has been a superb record. Malcolm is a brilliant man, not given to issuing press releases to advertise the fact. He rejoices in helping the House, he has exceptional interpersonal skills and he commands the loyalty, respect and affection of literally thousands of people who work in the House and who observe the House from outside. As he retires, he will do so with the affection and goodwill of everyone who works here, and we hope that he has a long, healthy, happy and, I suspect, very industrious and enterprising retirement.

6 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Business without Debate

delegated legislation (Committees)

Motion made,

That the motions in the name of Sir George Young relating to the Electoral Commission and the Local Government Boundary Commission for England shall be treated as if they related to instruments subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees) in respect of which notice has been given that the instruments be approved.—( Sir George Young .)

Hon. Members: Object.

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Royal British Legion (Princes Risborough)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

6.2 pm

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): It is a huge pleasure to have the opportunity to address the future of the Royal British Legion hall in Princes Risborough, which I believe is a subject only slightly less fiercely contested than those that we have dealt with this afternoon.

I know that you, Mr Speaker, have taken an extremely close interest in the issue, including through extensive correspondence, as the hall falls within your constituency. The Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), being a resident of Princes Risborough, has taken a very close interest also, so my sense this evening, given that it turns out my regional Whip is quite interested too, is that the public have had a four-for-one offer on the subject.

The Royal British Legion was founded in 1921 to provide help and welfare support to those who had fought in the first world war. It currently boasts 380,000 members and about 2,700 branches throughout the UK. On 9 October 2008, the new legion club was launched. It was the culmination of a £5 million project by the Royal British Legion to replace older legion clubs with a new generation of professionally run social clubs.

Twelve months later, with nine clubs, including Princes Risborough, trading under the new legion club name, the project was declared a failure. Contributing factors included the smoking ban, changes in consumers’ drinking habits and the economic downturn, and the nine revamped venues were put up for sale. I understand that Princes Risborough is the only remaining branch that has not been closed and/or sold.

Princes Risborough Royal British Legion hall was erected in the 1950s. Crucially, it was built and paid for by members of the local community for the benefit of the branch and its activities. The premises are on two floors, with the ground floor providing a bar and dining facilities and the first floor a large hall with stage. This facility has served the purposes of the branch and the wider community for over 50 years. Throughout that time, the club made a trading profit year on year.

Just over two years ago, the branch was approached by New Legion Clubs, which requested that the branch transfer the lease of the premises to it. In return, NLC promised a refurbishment of the premises, a membership recruitment drive, professional management, and future security for the branch and the club facility. The branch subsequently agreed to this request, the refurbishment was undertaken, and the premises reopened. As part of the memorandum of understanding between the parties to this arrangement, it was clearly stated that

“in the unlikely event that NLC should fail as a business, the lease would be surrendered to RBL HQ and the Branch”


“be given the option to re-open as an Original Legion Club”.

Some 12 months after the reopening, the branch received a letter from Royal British Legion HQ stating that New Legion Clubs was a failing business and that it was to be put into administration, with all nine NLC premises, including Princes Risborough, to be sold for

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the maximum return. The branch requested that the memorandum of understanding be honoured and that it should be given the option to reopen as an original legion club or as a facility offering wider community use. The request was denied and the premises were put on the open market. However, it was agreed that the branch could continue to operate from the premises and hire out the facilities, provided that there were no alcohol sales.

With the full support of the branch, Princes Risborough town council submitted a bid of £400,000 to purchase the property for use as a community facility, while pledging to allow the branch a permanent presence on site. RBL HQ rejected this bid. Its preferred purchaser was, I understand, a developer that intended to convert the site to residential usage. However, when the developer realised that it was not likely to obtain “change of use” planning permission, its offer was withdrawn and the property was put back on the market. The branch made a direct bid of £350,000 to purchase the property. That bid, which was supported by a professional business plan, the town council and the wider community, was rejected in favour of selling the property to a developer. That, too, fell through. The third time the property was offered for sale, there were only two bidders: W. E. Black Ltd, which bid £475,000; and the locally based Chilterns Christian Fellowship, which bid, we understand, a materially higher amount.

I want now to concentrate on the memorandum of understanding. In his letter of 3 August to Councillor Alan Turner, Andrew Axcell, the commercial head of RBL, acknowledged that when the branch agreed to the transfer of the lease to enable use by New Legion Clubs, the briefing notes that were in use contained the statement that if NLC failed,

“The lease for the building would be surrendered back to the Legion. The Branch would then have the option to form a Club Committee, if it felt that a club could be successfully run by its own members. The Club Committee would be able to lease the building from the Legion and open another club in the traditional manner.”

However, Mr Axcell then went on to explain that the trustees of RBL had decided that they had legal grounds to ignore the MOU on the basis of

“the duties which are placed on them by the trust document or by charity law”.

In your letter of 22 August, Mr Speaker, to Chris Simpkins, the director general of RBL, you said:

“you have simply not addressed the point that I made in the fourth paragraph of my letter of 3 August—namely, that the Princes Risborough Branch asked that the commitment in the Memorandum of Understanding...be honoured. That commitment has been dishonoured, and it should not have been. If the Royal British Legion nationally did not intend to honour the MOU, it should not have signed it. As your organisation did sign it, my constituents and I are entitled to expect that you honour it.”

This point has not been addressed in any of the correspondence that you, Mr Speaker, have received from Mr Simpkins’s office. The building ran into difficulties only following its relationship with New Legion Clubs.

In his letter to you, Mr Speaker, of 17 August, Chris Simpkins said that

“charity Trustees have a statutory duty to act, at all times, in the best interests of the Charity’s beneficiaries. In so doing, Royal British Legion Trustees are bound by the terms of our Royal Charter. Whilst the importance of the contribution which the premises at Princes Risborough makes to community life is

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appreciated, this is not a consideration that Trustees are entitled to take into account when evaluating offers for the sale of the premises. Trustees are required to secure best value in the disposal taking all relevant factors into account and therefore ignoring all irrelevant factors. I appreciate how difficult this fact might be for local people to understand and accept, but there is no escape from it.”

You, Mr Speaker, local councillors and Risborough residents feel that if the hall is sold to the Chilterns Christian Fellowship, it will cease to be a resource for the community, at least in an equivalent way. I do not know this particular fellowship, but as a Christian I would be disappointed if a church turned out to be a net loss to the community. Although such considerations are material to the decisions that might be taken by property owners, I would like the Government to respond to the objective questions of law that this matter raises in the context of localism and the big society.

It seems to me that local attitudes to the development of a church are somewhat tangential from the law and this House in a free and open society. However, the Royal British Legion signed a memorandum of understanding that it subsequently decided not to honour. The principle of that action should be a matter of concern to this House. The hall was built and paid for by local people and the memorandum of understanding was material to the decision by local people to permit New Legion Clubs to take over the facility. Such matters of trust are fundamental to a good society and to a civilisation based on voluntary action and co-operation.

It is very much to be regretted that the Royal British Legion appears to have fallen short of the standards of honour that are customarily associated with its members. I wish to know whether that apparent dishonour has been forced on the RBL, perhaps by the law or by bad legal advice. If the RBL could have honoured its memorandum of understanding within the law, of course it should have done so. The RBL has refused a public meeting in Risborough with the New Legion Clubs review board to discuss this matter further. I would therefore be grateful for the Government’s advice, in particular on the matters of law at hand, on the implications for the Government’s big society programme and on the Localism Bill and the community right to bid.

6.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): I am pleased to be responding to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) not only on securing this debate, but on speaking on behalf of you, Mr Speaker, and making it very clear what the issues are. When I was first told that I would be responding to this debate, I had a moment of self-doubt, but the Secretary of State assured me that I am exactly the right person to respond. I hope that any deficiencies will be forgiven on this occasion.

There is clear and passionate concern in the community of Princes Risborough over this issue. I have read the correspondence and heard what my hon. Friend has said. There is a strong belief that a better outcome was possible within the constraints of charity law. I hope that I can address that particular point. My hon. Friend, I think, invited me to give a Government view on a legal interpretation. I am sure he will understand that it is not possible for me to do that. Perhaps in the course of my

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remarks I can give him some pointers that he can take forward. Princes Risborough is evidently a very fortunate town, given that so many Members of this House are so strongly engaged in securing it a better future. I and the Government are sympathetic to the concerns that have been raised. I applaud the efforts of the local community and the town council to save the hall on behalf of the local branch.

My hon. Friend has set out the rollercoaster of events that have taken place and brought us to this situation. All too often, when hon. Members bring issues before the House by way of Adjournment debate, it is a case of spilt milk. On this occasion, as well, I have to say that it is not possible for the Government to come along and put the milk back into the bottle. Of course, the underlying problem is that, as a charity, the Royal British Legion is required by charity law to act in the best interests of the charity and obtain the best price it can when disposing of land, and it would be inappropriate for the Government to intervene and cut across that process. I note, however, that it would have been lawful for the Royal British Legion to transfer the property to the local branch provided that the local branch was set up as a charity and had the same objectives, broadly speaking, as the legion.

That brings us to one of the crucial points that has been in dispute between the legion and those who support the efforts of Princes Risborough’s residents. Where land or property is held in trust for charitable purposes, special rules apply under charity law once charity trustees decide to sell. In general, the charity must obtain professional advice and seek the best price it can get. That approach is designed to maximise the funds that can then be reapplied to the charity’s purposes in other ways. Charity trustees cannot sell land or property at less than best price unless to another charity with compatible charitable purposes or where the land is to be leased to a beneficiary of the charity.

A charity’s trustees are ultimately responsible for running the charity. Their freedom and independence to act in the best interests of the charity and its beneficiaries within the law and the terms of the charity’s governing document is a fundamental principle of charity law. It is the trustees’ decision whether to dispose of land at below best price to another charity with compatible charitable purposes or whether to sell it on the open market for the best possible price and use the funds generated to further the charity’s purposes in other ways. I suggest that the crucial point is the option that the Royal British Legion had to take the former course rather than the latter.

A review of the Charities Act 2006 is due to begin shortly. That Act requires the Government to carry out a review of its working every five years and to report to Parliament, and the review will consider the rules around the disposal of charity land. It is expected to take between six and nine months and it will report to Parliament. In all probability, there will be an announcement about that next month.

It is worth asking what the rules are and which issues my hon. Friend might want to consider raising during that review. Existing charity law dictates that trustees must always act in the best interests of their charity. How they demonstrate that is usually left to their discretion,

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but when it comes to selling, leasing or transferring their charity’s land, the law sets out clear requirements to ensure that those important transactions are properly managed in the charity’s interests and that the trustees obtain the best price that is reasonable in the circumstances.

In most cases, the law enables trustees to proceed without approaching the Charity Commission for specific approval before they carry out the transaction. Trustees must think carefully before disposing of valuable assets of the charity. They might be useful in the future and therefore the trustees must be satisfied that any disposal would be in the best long-term interests of the charity. They should consider whether it would be better to retain the land for longer and perhaps continue to take any income from it so as to earn more from it later; to consider continuing to use it for the benefit of the charity in spite of the money that could be realised; or, as I just said, to decide to transfer it to another, parallel charity.

In most cases, charities can undertake a disposal of land without the need for prior authority from the Charity Commission. In cases where the trustees have decided that it is in the charity’s best interests to dispose of the land, the trustees must ensure that they have obtained and considered a written report from a qualified surveyor, advertised the disposal following advice from the surveyor and satisfied themselves that the proposed terms are the best that can be reasonably obtained in the circumstances of the disposal. Those requirements were referred to in the correspondence from the representative of the Royal British Legion that my hon. Friend read into the record a few minutes ago.

This is not the first case in recent years where a charity has decided to sell a property against the wishes of the local community. In many cases—this is one—the local community might want to take over the assets at below best price for continuing charitable purposes. The important point is that that is not possible unless they are similar charitable purposes to those of the selling charity. Disposal at below best price is permitted only where the property will continue to be used for charitable purposes that fall within the disposing charity’s purposes. In some cases, even where the local community wants to use the property for the same charitable purposes—this might well be such an example—the trustees may decide that selling at below best price would still not be in the charity’s best interests and may proceed to sell the property on the open market. Ultimately, that is a decision for the trustees of the charity, having sought suitable professional advice.

As I said, the Charities Act requires the Minister for the Cabinet Office to appoint a person to review that Act within five years of its enactment. The review is expected to be broad in scope and will consider the charity law provisions regulating land transactions. The review is expected to take between six and nine months and must report to Parliament on its conclusion. It is unlikely that the review will recommend changes that would undermine the fundamental principles of obtaining best price for disposals to recycle funds to the specific charitable purposes, except where, as I have said, the charity has compatible purposes. It is also unlikely that there would be a change reducing the freedom and independence of charity trustees to make decisions, with professional advice where appropriate, that are in

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the charity’s best interests, within the law and the terms of the charity’s governing document.

I know that my hon. Friend and you, Mr Speaker, are articulate, persistent and ingenious, and I would be disappointed if hon. Friends and Members were not able to draw from this incident the strength and determination to make a submission to that review of charity law—perhaps one that uses this case as an object lesson and draws attention to how important it is that a charity, when reconfiguring its assets, has regard to the opportunities for other charities in the locality with a common purpose to continue to provide a charitable service using those assets.

Perhaps also a representation could draw attention to the provisions of the Localism Bill—by then it might be an Act—which my hon. Friend drew attention to and asked me to comment on. When the Localism Bill becomes an Act, it will introduce a community right to buy. I want to make it clear that it will not be an absolute right to buy, but there will be a window of opportunity for community organisations—the town council, for example—to make a bid for community assets. The Government are well aware that the most common problem that communities face when trying to save a building or amenity is a lack of time and not being given enough notice to do anything about the issue.

Over the past decade, communities have been losing local amenities and buildings of great importance to them, such as village shops, the local pub or community centres. The Localism Bill is introducing measures that will provide people and community organisations with a fair chance to bid to take over assets and facilities that are important to them. Any submission made in pursuance of the review of the Charities Act might want to draw particular attention to the community right to buy, and to consider whether it might be appropriate to draw lessons from this experience.

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It is certainly the Government’s intention that it will be much easier for local communities to save important community assets, enabling them to tackle real social need and build up resources and employment in their neighbourhood in more innovative, enterprising and cost-effective ways. There is no doubt that, under the provisions in the Bill, the community and the town council in Princes Risborough would be able to nominate the British Legion hall as an asset of community value, and when the British Legion decides to put the hall up for sale, the town council and the community would have additional time to raise additional funds and develop a robust business case.

I realise that this issue has created a great deal of difficulty and tension in the community in Princes Risborough, but I want to pick up on one of my hon. Friend’s points about what might happen, should the premises be transferred to the Chilterns Christian Fellowship. Both he and I hope that the fellowship would play a full and active part in supporting the community of Princes Risborough and making the facilities available. I understand that it has indicated that it would be willing to support the activities of the local branch, possibly including hosting some of its activities. Speaking in personal capacity, I would welcome that, and I want to encourage constructive dialogue between all parties to ensure a satisfactory outcome.

As I said earlier, there is no way that I, on behalf of the Government, can put the milk back into the bottle, but I hope that I have done something to assure the House that there will be a better route in future, and that there are still positive outcomes to be had in Princes Risborough.

Question put and agreed to.

6.28 pm

House adjourned.