The British Government were obviously concerned when the attack on the British embassy took place, and all diplomatic representation has now been withdrawn

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from Iran. I should be grateful to the Minister if he explained what options are now available to people in Iran who want to contact British representatives, because I have constituents of Iranian origin with family members in Iran who want, quite legitimately, to visit family in this country. Under normal circumstances, they would be perfectly able to do so, but they now find it extremely difficult to know how to apply for the appropriate visa. I should be grateful to him if he explained how they could do that.

In this country, we have considerable freedoms to speak, as well as protection for minorities and tough anti-discrimination and anti-racist legislation. All that is absolutely right and proper, and I would want the same for everyone in every country in the world. I therefore support those in Iran who are doing their best to stand up for rights, democracy and accountability in their society. However, I am not convinced that such rights will be won for Iranian people by imposing isolation and sanctions on Iran’s Government, threatening military action or, indeed, attacking Iran. That will not bring about change but make the situation considerably worse for people in Iran.

Will the Minister therefore explain exactly what dialogue is taking place with the Iranian Government and what dialogue took place with civil society before the withdrawal of British diplomatic staff? Dialogue with civil society can be helpful in protecting people, but it can also be helpful in promoting changes in society. I want to see changes, but I also want to see peace. The presence of US warships in the region and sanctions against Iran will not necessarily bring about those changes; in many ways, such things are probably strengthening the regime and its intolerant side, rather than its more tolerant side.

We should pay tribute to those who demonstrated during the election process to call for free and fair elections, those who stand up in universities demanding intellectual freedom and those who stand up for plurality in society. Surely, that is really what the Persian tradition is about—not the intolerance and oppression that all Members in the Chamber have rightly drawn attention to.

3.14 pm

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on securing this important debate. She may be interested to know that Michael Nazir-Ali, a Member of the House of Lords and formerly Bishop of Rochester, was very active on behalf of the Baha’i community in Iran in his recent travels to that country.

I want to echo some of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who talked about the persecution of Christians in Iran, a subject I have raised on the Floor of the House with the Minister. It is important to say at the start that Christianity in Iran is as old as Iran itself. We know from the New Testament that Parthians, Medes and Elamites—all tribes from Iran—were present on the day of Pentecost. Furthermore, some of the earliest Christian missionaries to China were Iranians, and

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there is a lot of evidence that the early Church in Iran went back to the early centuries after the birth of Christ, and to people such as Tatian the Assyrian.

Any idea that the regime in Iran tries to put out that Christians are somehow not intrinsically Iranian, not patriotic or not part of the country is therefore historically wholly untrue and is not borne out by the facts, even though Christians are few in number in Iran. Their numbers are growing, however, and there is considerable growth in the Church. That is despite the fact that eight Christian leaders have been murdered for their faith since 1979. Open Doors, another excellent charity, which looks at religious freedom around the world, says Iran is the second-worst country in the world in which to be a Christian, after North Korea. Some colleagues in the Chamber were at this morning’s debate on North Korea, in which we looked at the position of minorities—Christians and others—in that country.

I was delighted by the Foreign Secretary’s intervention in the case of Pastor Nadarkhani, which was bold and clear, and it was heard in this country and around the world. I agree with the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who said that our interventions do have an effect. Things may not change immediately, but countries do not like justified, evidence-based international criticism. Such debates are worth while in a small way, because when we mention the names of people who have been wrongly treated for whatever reason, we show our concern for them, and that has an effect. Those of us who are privileged to have a platform from which to speak in this place are called to be a voice for the voiceless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough rightly said.

It is right that we go on raising the case of Pastor Nadarkhani, and that of Pastor Fahad, who is in detention. Pastor Fahad’s Christmas service was raided on 23 December, when many of us were enjoying the freedom to go to carol services and so on in our communities. Children in the Sunday school were arrested and taken into detention—what an appalling thing to do to children.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that intolerance in Iran towards Christians and, indeed, other religious minorities, including Jewish people, is outwith the traditions of Persia before the Shah’s time, when there was considerable religious tolerance of a wide variety of faiths?

Andrew Selous: That is a good point, and it adds to some of the historical context that I was trying to give earlier. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for quite properly putting that on the record.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, I want to mention the case of Farshid Fathi, who was imprisoned just over a year ago, on 26 December 2010. He is still in Evin prison, and I have not met him, but I have met Dr Tony Sargent from the International Christian College in Glasgow, who knows him well. Farshid Fathi is a very bright and dynamic young man who is the life and soul of the party, but he is languishing in prison when he should be free to nurture a church, as he feels called to. Similarly, Pastor Behnam Irani was imprisoned in May 2011, and he, too, is someone we should not forget. I agree with the concerns my hon.

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Friend raised about the Islamic Penal Bill. There is still the possibility that the death sentence could appear in it for apostates.

In mid-August last year, 6,500 Bibles were seized in Zanjan province. It is illegal for Christians in Iran to print or sell Persian Bibles, such as the one that I am holding. Bibles have been seized, and there have been reports of some having been burned. Christians around the world rightly condemned the threatened burning of a Koran by a rather fringe and slightly lunatic pastor in Florida some years ago, so some condemnation by Muslims of what we have heard from Iran on the burning of Bibles would be welcome and would give us a bit of reciprocity.

I have had meetings with diplomats from the Iranian embassy, but I do not think that there will be many more, because they are back in Tehran at the moment. I met Mr Mousavi and Mr Sahabi, and got the impression that they were personally slightly uncomfortable with what is going on in Iran, which is perhaps a glimmer of hope for the future. When I met them in the Pugin Room, they gave me a document, which I have with me today, called “Minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. It reads very well, as documents from Governments with poor human rights records tend to, and it says that Christians in Iran should

“Enjoy freedom in holding religious ceremonies and rites.”

We know from what my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough eloquently said that that is not the case at all.

It is right that we keep raising such matters and do not give up. History tells us that the cause of freedom shines through in the end. Whether one is in Islington, Bedfordshire or any other part of the world, such rights, as the hon. Member for Islington North said, are universal. We will continue to raise these cases for as long as it takes.

3.21 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): During the previous Parliament, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs went to Iran in autumn 2007, and in February 2008 it published a report that went into considerable detail on many issues, including the human rights situation. The Select Committee concluded that Iran is a complex and diverse society ruled by a theocratic regime. My impressions are of a young country that wants to engage with the rest of the world, but is prevented from doing so by the policies of the ruling clique. However, another problem is that there is not one ruling group; that touches on the point about how the authorities sometimes move in unexpected ways, because decisions are not taken in a way that is transparent from our point of view.

How we deal with a country such as Iran is a dilemma. On the one hand, we try to encourage a process of openness and reform, but on the other, we recognise its appalling behaviour, whether in systematically breaching obligations under the non-proliferation treaty; sponsoring terrorist actions in other countries; or defending the autocratic, repressive Syrian regime, as it is doing at the moment. We and the European Union had problems with the policy of so-called “constructive engagement”, which has run into the sand. We saw the newly elected President Obama extending

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his hand to the Iranians when he came to office in early 2009 and being snubbed. How do we deal with a country of that kind?

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I, too, was in the delegation to Iran in November 2007. Would my hon. Friend agree that we were given privileged access to, among other things, some of the dissenters? Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), there are quite a number of dissidents who stand up for the things that they believe in—a free, open, democratic and pluralist Iran—despite being oppressed day in, day out.

Mike Gapes: I accept my hon. Friend’s point, but I think that we were not “given privileged access”; rather, our diplomats made it possible for us to engage with some people. It was a privilege for us, but those people were taking great risks in contacting us, and some of them are no longer in Iran and are not allowed to return, due to their activities at that time and because they would not be secure and safe.

I want to conclude by making a contrast. BBC journalists are not allowed to report in Iran, and the Iranian authorities make systematic efforts to jam international broadcasts and satellites, including the BBC World Service Persian television service, which has been very popular with the Iranian people. The regime tries very hard to keep from the people the truth about the atrocities in June 2009, when protestors against the rigged election were on the streets in huge numbers, and about what subsequently happened to protestors’ families. Propaganda is broadcast to Iranian homes by state-controlled Press TV, including broadcasts from London of people who claim that the demonstration against tuition fees was parallel to the protests of June 2009.

Will the Minister say something about the anomaly of the BBC not being allowed in Iran and foreign broadcasts systematically being prevented from getting through to Iran—so far as the regime is able to prevent that—when we allow representatives of the Iranian Government, through their mouthpiece, Press TV, to broadcast propaganda about this country that completely distorts what is happening in the world? Given the current crisis, and the fact that diplomatic relations are broken, I find it difficult to see why we do not take steps to prevent Press TV from behaving in such a way. Would we have allowed Nazi media to broadcast from London in 1939? I ask that question as a serious point for us to think about for the future.

3.26 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. Perhaps I might be helpful: the Front-Bench spokespeople have been flexible about time, so I will not cut off Back-Bench speakers at half-past 3, as I originally said I would.

Martin Horwood: I am now even more grateful to serve under your extremely lenient and enlightened chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on choosing a subject that is even more topical today than she probably realised it would be

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when she secured the debate. It is clear that the human rights situation has worsened since the contested elections in Iran in 2009. Amnesty International’s recent report states:

“The authorities maintained severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Sweeping controls on domestic and international media aimed at reducing Iranians’ contact with the outside world were imposed. Individuals and groups risked arrest, torture and imprisonment if perceived as co-operating with human rights and foreign-based Persian-language media organizations. Political dissidents, women’s and minority rights activists and other human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and students were rounded up in mass and other arrests and hundreds were imprisoned. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were routine and committed with impunity. Women continued to face discrimination under the law and in practice. The authorities acknowledged 252 executions, but there were credible reports of more than 300 other executions.”

It is almost inevitable that the true total is higher.

The situation for human rights defenders, lawyers, protestors, trade unionists and ethnic minorities seems to be getting worse. The regime’s intolerance of not only dissenting political beliefs, but, as many hon. Members have pointed out, dissenting personal beliefs is increasingly clear: secular teachers at universities have been purged; Ahwazi Arabs have been sentenced to death for enmity to God; and Amnesty has drawn attention to the plight of Sunnis, dissident Shi’as, Christian converts and evangelists, and the Dervish and Sufi communities, who all suffer discrimination, arbitrary detention and attacks on community property.

By drawing attention to the plight of those of the Baha’i faith, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside has shown that she is particularly well informed. The faith is not even recognised as a legitimate religion in Iran, so the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was right to say that discrimination against the Baha’i is systematic and institutionalised. My small group of Baha’i constituents have shown me great hospitality in my constituency, and I promised them that I would take every opportunity to support the rights of the Baha’i in Iran. I am happy to fulfil that pledge today.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): My hon. Friend reads out a devastating roll-call of abuses. However, the situation is even worse than he outlined. He mentioned 252 executions, but in 2011 that number included the execution of a juvenile. There are currently 143 juvenile offenders on death row in Iran, in complete defiance of international law.

Martin Horwood: My hon. Friend makes a devastating point in support of her argument.

The last faith group in Iran that I shall mention is the Jewish community, which is extremely long-established. There is a history of tolerance of the Jewish community in Iran, but there is increasing evidence that anti-Semitism is growing there, and that the small Jewish community there is being blamed for the actions of the Israeli Government. Those actions are beside the point; an unfair collective punishment is, in effect, being imposed.

I support the consistent calls from the United Kingdom Government and the European Union for an improvement in the human rights situation in Iran. Certainly, the decision by the EU in October to increase targeted

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sanctions on officials—those identified as responsible for particularly grave human rights abuses—was exactly right. The sanctions regime is interconnected with the nuclear programme in Iran, but targeted sanctions relating to human rights are every bit as justified, in my view, as those relating to the nuclear programme.

It is important, as the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned, that we do not pursue a path that leaves the regime no escape route and inadvertently strengthens the hands of the hard-liners in the regime. Iran is not North Korea. Iran is not a monolithic society; it has human rights defenders, courageous and independent-minded writers, filmmakers, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and young campaigners; it does, in effect, have opposition; and, above all, it has a young population that is quite aware of what has happened in the neighbouring Arab countries in the Arab spring, and is aware of what democracy really looks like—and what oppression looks like.

Of course, Iran has a tradition of vigorously contested elections, even though they are not democratic in the sense that we would recognise. That tradition of independent thought and resistance should be reinforced and supported wherever possible. That means that the exercise of soft power can have some effect, can still be deployed and is likely to have positive effects.

The jamming of international radio and TV broadcasts—I cannot remember which hon. Member mentioned that—is an important issue. I draw attention to it again and ask for ministerial support to raise it at the International Telecommunication Union world radio conference in Geneva, which begins on 23 January. The jamming of the BBC Persian TV service has resulted in that service being taken off the Hot Bird satellite, which is the main satellite for the region. That illegal censorship is, in effect, denying freedom of information and human rights to the Persian-speaking population. I welcome Ministers raising the profile of that issue in advance of the conference.

The Persian people, like their Arab neighbours, have the potential to tackle the human rights issue once and for all themselves, through their own resistance and traditions of championing freedom. We should do everything we can to support them.

3.33 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for securing this debate. I do not intend to touch on the issues that she raised with regard to the Baha’i faith, because she did comprehensive justice to those and we will hear the Minister’s response. We also heard from the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the plight of Christians. Both issues have been raised with me on a number of occasions by local campaigners, including members of the Baha’i faith and the Christian community in Bristol and on a wider scale.

I join hon. Members in paying tribute to the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which was also mentioned earlier today during a debate on human rights in North Korea. CSW does sterling work campaigning there, as

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well. It is testament to that organisation’s powerful campaigning on this issue that so many hon. Members have mentioned it.

I was going to mention the BBC World Service Persian TV service being jammed, but that has already been mentioned by hon. Members. Will the Minister comment on what representations have been made? That has been going on for a couple of years, and since 2009 there has been almost consistent jamming of the service and only intermittent ability to broadcast. I should be grateful if the Minister said a few words about that.

It is 17 years since Iran last submitted a report to the UN human rights committee. As we have heard, the scale of human rights abuses in the country is vast. It is not just people of religious faith who have come under threat: political activists, women and ethnic and sexual minorities live under the real and ever-increasing threat of arbitrary arrest, torture and even death. The UN has called on the Iranian Government to engage with the international community in strengthening human rights safeguards and we fully support this approach.

A key area of concern is the deplorable attack on the British embassy in Tehran last November. The Iranian Government have blocked access to the embassy’s website, which detailed Iran’s human rights obligations and important information about how Iranians could travel to the UK. Given that the Government have now closed our embassy in Iran—a measure that Labour spokespeople supported—will the Minister say how they intend to continue to monitor human rights violations in the country? Does the Minister accept the concerns of some human rights campaigners that the embassy’s closure will inevitably have an impact on the UK’s ability to appeal to the Iranian Government regarding ongoing and future human rights abuses? Will he also say what impact the closure of the embassy will have on our work with civil society groups within Iran?

Although the attack on the embassy was utterly deplorable, we should not allow that to deter us from trying to find ways to continue to promote human rights and hold the Iranian Government to account for their abuse of those rights. The campaign to save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani from being stoned to death has already been mentioned; that is a compelling example of how international pressure can have an effect on the regime. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, there are small signs that such things have an impact, even though they may not deliver overnight the ideal situation that we would like. The campaign to save her life continues. There is still a threat of death by hanging. It is important to try to mobilise international opinion on such issues.

Jeremy Corbyn: At some point, Iran will have to submit itself for an in-country review of human rights at the UN Human Rights Council. I do not know when that will be, but it cannot be that far away, because it is near the end of the first tranche of in-country reviews. That would be an ideal time for the concerns that hon. Members have raised here to be rearticulated by the British representative in Geneva.

Kerry McCarthy: It is important that Iran is subject to such intense international scrutiny.

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The UN special rapporteurs have difficulty coming up with authoritative statistics. Figures show that 252 officially announced executions were carried out in 2011. However, Amnesty International, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, and the UN have reported that more than 300 people were secretly executed in Iranian prisons in 2011. There is a strong suspicion that the real figure is probably far higher.

Among those secretly executed were women and a great number of foreign nationals, particularly from Afghanistan, the majority of whom were accused of drug trafficking offences. Testimony from relatives and other inmates reveals that the majority of the victims were not informed of their sentence until a few hours before the execution was carried out and that most executions occurred without families being given prior notice. Most deplorably, as has already been mentioned, Iran continues to execute children, who are widely reported to have been tortured into making confessions. It is suggested that 143 children remain on death row.

Jim Shannon: In respect of the figures that the hon. Lady mentioned, approximately 550 and 600 people were executed in Iran last year—and probably every year for a period of time. Iran is second only to China in that regard. Does its being number two in the world league of executions lead to concern?

Kerry McCarthy: We oppose the use of the death penalty in any circumstances, but the crucial starting point is that information on executions that are carried out should be transparent. We should know the figures for what people have been convicted of and how many executions have been carried out—half the executions I mentioned were carried out secretly, and most people would regard it as inappropriate that offences such as drugs trafficking should carry the death penalty. The issue is significant, and one on which we should continue to put pressure on the Iranian Government.

Mr Stewart Jackson: The hon. Lady is giving a good overview of the difficulties. Does she concede that, because of its role as a state sponsor of terrorism and other activity in the middle east, in particular in support of despotic regimes, Iran is in many ways exporting human rights abuses throughout the region?

Kerry McCarthy: There is certainly concern about the international role played by Iran. I do not want to stray into the territory of its foreign policy, particularly because Iran does not fall under my brief in the shadow foreign affairs team, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the influence of the Iranian regime, in particular in the region, and the wrong message being sent to other regimes.

We have not debated in much detail today the impact of human rights abuses on women in the country. Officially, under article 20 of the Iranian constitution, there is equality between men and women. It states:

“All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

As a recent report by the UN confirms, however, Iranian law provides an insurmountable barrier to gender equality. To give a few examples, under Iranian law, a woman’s testimony is worth only half a man’s testimony; the age

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of criminality starts at the age of nine for girls, whereas it is 15 for boys; mothers may never have guardianship of their children, even if they are widowed; and women do not have equal inheritance rights. For some time there has been growing concern about the crackdown on women who fail to adhere to the traditional dress code in public. For example, the number of women applying to university has declined since measures taken by the regime to enforce the dress code there.

Disturbingly, Iranian authorities blame women who have been raped for inducing their attackers to sexually assault them. In June 2011, 14 women were kidnapped and gang-raped, but the Government claimed that the women had brought the attack on themselves and that the manner in which they had been dressed was reason enough not to bring the attackers to justice. Recently, we have seen the imprisonment of women’s rights activists who signed the “One Million Signatures” campaign to repeal discriminatory laws. One activist was sentenced to nine and a half years in jail for assembly and collusion against the regime and to a further two years for participating in a protest against laws discriminating against women. Another women’s rights activist was given three and a half years in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons in May 2011.

Three gay men are known to have been hanged in Iran in 2011, and two teenage boys, in a case that drew widespread international attention, were hanged in 2005 for the same offence. Some observers report that that is only the tip of the iceberg, because in many cases the families are not prepared to make public the fact that their relatives were executed under the sodomy laws.

I finish with a few words about the role of social media in Iran. We heard from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about how a fairly well organised, well educated opposition movement exists in Iran, and how it is struggling to break free from the regime’s grasp. According to Harvard university, the rate of growth of internet usage is higher in Iran than in any other country in the middle east. An estimated 700,000 active blogs come from the country. In 2009, the regime was quick to blame the use of the internet, social networking sites in particular, for the outbreak of protests following the disputed presidential election. Today, the regime does all it can to block access to websites promoting democratic change. For example, in September last year, a blogger received a nineteen-and-a-half year prison sentence for propaganda against the regime, and the UN’s recent report on the state of human rights in Iran gives numerous examples of bloggers and journalists imprisoned for similar activities.

It has now been reported that internet cafés have been asked to record customers’ online footprints and to install security cameras. As recently as Monday this week, the Iranian regime announced that it intends to introduce its own internet operating system, to enable it to block websites considered unsuitable and to monitor online activity. As we saw in other countries during the Arab spring, social media are incredibly important in spreading democratic ideas and in enabling people to mobilise opposition to human rights abuses and undemocratic practices. I urge the Minister, in his discussions on human rights in Iran, to stress that freedom of

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expression is an important human right, and that access to the internet and to social media is now a fundamental freedom that should be protected.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I echo the sentiments of others, Dr McCrea, that it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank all colleagues who have spoken, in the spirit of a collective Parliament speaking across party lines on matters about which we think similarly. I appreciate the challenge offered by one or two colleagues and will do my best to respond.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman)—an old friend in such matters over the years—on securing the debate and on how she raised the issues, from deep knowledge. She mentioned a series of individual cases, and I might touch on some during my remarks, although there were too many for me to comment on them all. She spoke for all of us when she hoped that such debates shone some light on the situation of the Baha’i community for instance, or others under pressure in Iran. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) said, we collectively act as a voice for the voiceless and for those minorities known and unknown to us, in what we do here. Colleagues have certainly lived up to such obligations.

The human rights situation in Iran continues to deteriorate sharply. The United Kingdom, together with the international community, continues to urge the Iranian regime to respect its human rights obligations and to improve the situation of its people. Our efforts and those of Iranian and global civil society ensure that the international spotlight remains on the serious human rights violations taking place in Iran today. Before I comment on some of the individual items that came up, let me refer to one or two general issues raised by colleagues.

Concern is not felt simply by those outside Iran, and I pay tribute to the bravery of those operating in Iran. In September last year, The Times ran a good seminar entitled “Imprisoned in Iran”, to raise awareness of the plight of victims of human rights abuses. The event was well attended, raised a large number of issues and was addressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Among his remarks, he said:

“2011 has shown that demands for human dignity are irrepressible. Iranians should take solace from this… Iran is very different from its Arab neighbours. But the lessons of the Arab revolutions hold true for Iran just as they apply to repressive countries across the world. Simply refusing to address legitimate grievances about human rights or attempting to stamp them out will fail.

While some governments across the region are waking up to this truth, Iran is moving in the opposite direction. The actions of the Iranian regime are holding Iran back, isolating its people and suffocating their immense potential, and preventing Iran from enjoying normal and productive relations with the outside world.”

My right hon. Friend conveyed the sense of how well we understand the dynamics. Iran is a complex society, not a monolithic one. At one and the same time, we can condemn the activities of the regime and express support for the Iranian people. When relations with the regime have necessarily to be rather more restricted than they were, it is still possible to engage the Iranian people and

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to have contacts with the regime itself. Colleagues said that they wanted the United Kingdom Government to be aware of that sentiment, so let me elaborate.

I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her support and that of her Front-Bench colleagues in relation to the appalling attack on the embassy. When there is a problem and an embassy must be evacuated, neighbours step in to provide support. We are working actively to find a country that will take on the obligations and we are in negotiation, but until that is done, under the Lisbon treaty—if a Minister may mention that—EU partners can provide support for one another in such circumstances. We are grateful to other EU member nations that have been able to provide support.

Jeremy Corbyn: If a family of Iranian origin living in Britain wants to invite a family member to an occasion here, or the other way round, to which specific embassy in Iran should that family address its inquiries?

Alistair Burt: At the moment, they can take the matter up with any other EU embassy. In due course, one designated embassy will take on responsibility as a protecting power. That process must be negotiated not only with the country willing to take that on, but with Iran—that may explain the time that has been taken—but for the time being a partner EU nation can take on that request. I hope that that explanation is helpful.

Despite the invasion by regime-backed paramilitaries and the subsequent closure of the embassy, our wish to maintain strong support for and friendship with the Iranian people remains. We have always stated that our disagreement with Iran on human rights is with the Iranian leadership regime, not the people. Human rights are universal, and Iran’s failure to meet its obligations is punishing and stifling the fulfilment of the wishes and aspirations of millions of people.

Dialogue continues, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), spoke about the importance of continuing a dialogue using social media and the like. Again, the Government are well aware of that. We have a good system of direct contact with people in Iran. We have a Farsi service and can communicate directly with people in Iran. They are savvy and open to the world; they know what is going on; and they know the limitations of their own regime. We are also aware of how we can continue to contact and work with them. We have a Farsi spokesperson to speak directly to the Iranian people, so colleagues may be absolutely sure that we will do that.

The embassy is not the only way in which to make representations to Tehran. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside was right to raise the matter, because closure of the embassy makes that more difficult but not impossible. Our contacts through other channels and with other agencies will certainly be kept up. The balance is difficult to maintain, but we are endeavouring to do so.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) speaks with a deep background of the issues and raises the awkward and realistic ones that need to be raised. It is clear from our contact with Iran on the nuclear issue that an offer of negotiation is available. We urge Iran to respond to the latest letter from Catherine

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Ashton, the EU High Representative, because we will not be caught out by the Iranians saying that they have been backed into a corner. The opportunity exists for them to talk. We oppose the killing of civilians, and we want a negotiated solution to the problem. We are also alert to the fact that human rights issues in Iran may often be more powerful than the nuclear one, which is why we are concentrating on the matter today.

I shall respond to some of the specific issues raised. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the situation of women in Iran. In 2010, we opposed Iranian membership of a specific UN women’s committee because of Iran’s discriminatory practices in relation to women. In June last year, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke out about the arrest of women activists and praised those whose conscientiousness and achievements should be celebrated but who are instead behind bars. We will continue to highlight and to encourage Iran to address gender discrimination in Iranian law.

Iran’s excessive use of the death penalty is a major cause of concern. In 2011, reliable sources reported that about 650 people were executed, although because of the opacity of the Iranian judiciary and penal system, it is quite possible that the number is much higher. That maintains Iran’s inauspicious record as the country witnessing the highest number of executions per capita in the world. Iran’s use of the death penalty shows little regard for minimum international standards in the application of the death penalty, including a lack of fair trial and the execution of juveniles. We should not forget other brutal punishment methods, including stoning. Fourteen people still live under sentence of stoning.

On freedom of speech and assembly, last year Iran was described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the

“biggest prison for journalists anywhere in the world”.

It finished the year with more journalists and bloggers in prison than anywhere else, including China. The traditional forms of media in Iran are all run by the state, with satellite television banned and most foreign journalists denied entry. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) raised that matter. Iran blocks more than 10 million websites and is pursuing a separate and highly censored Iranian internet, disconnecting Iran from the world wide web.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the contrast between Press TV and everything else. The contrast is this: we do not control and we do not censor through Government as such. The law does that. Press TV may be investigated by Ofcom. That is the appropriate regulatory body. That is how we do it here, not through Government diktat. That is the contrast between the two nations. Press TV must obey the laws of this country, but is handled independently, as we all know.

In 2011, we have again seen brutal crackdowns by the Iranian state. During the first one in February, several people were killed by the security forces. In April, more than 30 people reportedly died during protests in Ahwaz in southern Iran. In August, security forces attacked people who were protesting peacefully against the neglect of a natural salt lake in Azerbaijan province in northern Iran, and several deaths were reported. The range of activities that a repressive regime may clamp down on is extensive.

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The majority of colleagues wanted to raise the issue of minorities, including the Baha’i and Christian communities. In 2011, we saw increasing patterns of violence and intimidation against minorities. The authorities have continued to crack down on Kurdish and Baluchi groups, as well as those mentioned today. Religious minorities have been subject to arrest and intimidation, as we have heard. Christians and Baha’is in particularly have suffered harassment, and I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for their remarks. I echo the tribute to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

We have spoken in the House about both issues a number of times, and the Government have made representations on them. I have met the Baha’i community in the United Kingdom, and I made representations direct to Iranian representatives when they were here. We continue to raise the matter, and we have done so also in relation to Christian persecution, about which colleagues spoke movingly. We particularly deplore the pressure that has been put on the Baha’i community in Iran, and the attacks on the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, and its closure. We will continue to raise all those issues.

A general point about the protection of religious minorities is that protection of an individual minority must be done in company with all. In our experience, those who oppress one minority usually oppress others, and it is collectively safer if we raise the issue on behalf of all—the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, women, Christian minorities, Muslim sect minorities and Baha’is. If we seek to protect the rights of all, we are doing the best that we can.

On UK action at the UN and through the Human Rights Council, colleagues can be assured that we press other countries to support resolutions that we have co-sponsored. The result of a vote in December showed how effective lobbying had been because the margin was the largest ever in relation to a country-specific resolution against Iran. That showed how successful some of the work had been, and we will continue with that. The next periodic review when Iran must deal with the issues will be in 2014, and we will press at the council in March, as we do at every council, for Iran to deal with the record against it that colleagues have spoken about. There is no doubt that the issues raised here will continue to be raised by colleagues, but they may rest assured that their concerns are echoed by the Government. We will continue to stand up for the rights of those who are oppressed in Iran.

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Sergei Magnitsky

4 pm

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to initiate this debate under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. Today I want to deal with the tragedy of a lawyer who worked closely with and for a British company—and its British chairman who is present in Westminster Hall—and who was done to death under the most atrocious circumstances. If a British lawyer working for an overseas firm had been arrested and so mistreated in the UK, all hell would break loose. This tragedy, however, happened in today’s Russia, and my charge is that the British Government have been singularly lax in dealing with the case, and lacking in adequate and necessary measures, not only to obtain justice but to send a clear message that putting to death a lawyer who represents British interests is not cost free. I do not claim a new policy of “advocatus Britannicus sum”, but the idea of civilisation and the rule of law, as well as the clear rules in the European convention on human rights to which Russia is a signatory, provide a special place for lawyers to represent their clients without facing prosecution or persecution unto death.

The details of the tragic death of Sergei Magnitsky are somewhat well known. Mr Magnitsky was the Moscow lawyer of British businessman William Browder. Mr Browder was born American and is the grandson of Earl Browder who was leader of the Communist party in the United States during the 1930s until he fell out with Stalin in 1945. Earl Browder’s grandson decided that capitalism was a better bet than communism, and over a decade beginning in the 1990s he built up the largest investment fund in Russia with billions of dollars of assets. However, not all went well for young Browder when he started publicly complaining about endemic corruption in Russian state companies, and in 2006, President Putin expelled him from Russia as a “threat to national security”. I would like to recommend to the House the remarkable documentary by Ms Norma Percy on the early Putin years. It will be shown on BBC 2 next Thursday and it illustrates the interface between politics, state bureaucracy and business.

Once the Putin regime decides that it does not like a business leader, it does not operate in half measures, and when it decides to turn on someone, it does so in spectacular fashion. After Browder’s expulsion, Putin’s tax police raided his offices in Moscow, seized all his company stamps and seals and stole his investment holding companies. Browder hired a bright young Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, to try to stop this continuing state-sanctioned crime. Magnitsky investigated all the police actions and discovered that Browder’s companies had not only been stolen but had subsequently been used by the tax police to fraudulently refund from Government coffers the $230 million in taxes that Browder’s firm had paid in the previous year.

Magnitsky did what any lawyer would do on behalf of his client: he filed criminal complaints and testified on the involvement of the tax police in that enormous theft. That was a big mistake. He was subsequently arrested by the same tax police officers against whom he had testified, and blamed for the fraud himself. The scams that the Putinocracy arranges are not just for a few high-up people—everyone gets a cut. To shut him

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up, Magnitsky was flung into one of the roughest prisons in Russia and essentially held a hostage. Because the Russian state could not get at Mr Browder, who, as a British citizen was now safe in London with his family, they went for his lawyer to send a signal to other firms operating in Russia saying that when the tax police—or anyone else demanding a cut—knock at the door, co-operation is wiser than insisting on the rule of law.

Sergei Magnitsky was brutally treated in prison. He was tortured for 358 days by sleep deprivation, freezing temperatures, the withholding of food and other torments left over from the Stalin era of torturing people whom the Kremlin did not like. After six months of such treatment he became extremely sick and was systematically denied any medical treatment. Eventually, Magnitsky’s beleaguered body began to give way and his condition became critical. Instead of sending him to the emergency room, his jailers put him in an isolation cell and allowed eight riot guards with rubber batons to beat him until he was dead. In November 2009, he was found lying in a pool of his own urine, dead on the cell floor at the age of 37.

Since then, the Russian Government have tried to cover up the cause of Magnitsky’s death, and a network of named officials in the tax, police, public prosecution and prison departments of the Russian state has been identified as part of that cover-up. Many of those involved have bought property abroad at prices that would be impossible on their declared salaries.

None of those facts are secret and they have been reported by journalists in Moscow, as have the details and names of those involved. The names have been listed by US Senators, Congressmen and Congresswomen, and by parliamentarians in some EU member states and in the European Parliament. The Magnitsky affair has also been the subject of a Council of Europe report. I, together with a number of right hon. and hon. Members, as well as Peers, have asked questions in Parliament and sought to highlight this assault on a respected British business, and show the terrible insight that the Magnitsky death gives us into how Russia operates. I had the luck to secure this debate, but that could have happened to any number of interested colleagues who support me on this affair, some of whom are present in the Chamber.

Vasily Aleksanyan was another young lawyer, and former general counsel to Yukos. In 2006, Mr Aleksanyan was arrested as part of the persecution of those involved in Yukos. He rapidly developed serious health conditions due to AIDS-related illnesses, but was denied antiretroviral treatment or chemotherapy in prison. In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights intervened and ordered Russian authorities to release Aleksanyan. The damage done to his body during his detention was too great, however, and he died last year as a direct result of the denial of treatment in jail.

That is the Magnitsky story. We must now turn to the Whitehall story and ask the Minister why the Foreign Office and Home Office have been so lax in taking up the Magnitsky case, and unwilling to take action against the named officials who were involved in theft via the tax system and the crime that Magnitsky sought to reveal. Will the Minister explain why some of the principals involved have been allowed to enter the UK without let or hindrance? Lieutenant Colonel Artem Kuznetsov

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from the Russian Interior Ministry was named in Magnitsky’s testimony as having orchestrated the theft of the Hermitage fund’s investment companies. Kuznetsov was also accused of perpetrating the $230 million tax fraud, as well as Magnitsky’s false arrest and persecution in detention. Public records—let me stress that—show that shortly after the $230 million was paid from the Russian Treasury, Kuznetsov’s family acquired $3 million worth of high-end apartments in Moscow, land plots outside the city and several luxury cars. Kuznetsov travelled to the UK twice in 2006.

Major Pavel Karpov, also from the Russian Interior Ministry, was named by Magnitsky as a close accomplice of Kuznetsov. Karpov initiated the criminal case against Mr Magnitsky that was used as a pretext for his false arrest. Public records in Russia—again, I stress that—show that Karpov’s family acquired $1.3 million in real estate assets and luxury cars following the completion of the fraud. Mr Karpov travelled to the UK four times between 2006 and 2007.

Dmitry Klyuev is the owner of Universal Savings bank through which the $230 million proceeds of the fraud were laundered. He was previously involved in a number of other tax-refund frauds, and in 2006 was convicted of a $1.6 billion fraud relating to the attempted theft of shares from Mikhailovsky GOK, a Russian iron ore company. Mr Klyuev also travelled to the United Kingdom at least five times in 2008. As I have said, all these names are on the record in Russia and on Capitol hill in Washington.

The following Government officials also played a role in the tax fraud that Magnitsky uncovered, his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, the persecution of Hermitage lawyers and executives, Magnitsky’s continued detention, the denial of medical care, torture, the denial of fair hearings, and finally his death in custody and the subsequent cover up: from the courts service, Judge Yelena Stashina, Judge Alexei Krivoruchko, Olga Egorova; from the Interior Ministry, Mr Oleg Silchenko, Oleg Urzhumtsev, Alexei Anichin, Oleg Logunov, Boris Kibis, General Major Tatiana Gerasimova; from the FSB—the Russian secret service and the successor to the KGB—Mr Viktor Voronin; from the tax offices, Olga Stepanova and Elena Khimina; from the prison services, Dmitri Komnov, Fikhet Tagiev and Yuri Kalinin; and from the General Prosecutor’s Office, Andrey Pechegin.

I ask the Minister to agree that those people should now be banned from entering the UK and their names circulated via Interpol and Europol. We need to sharpen up our diplomatic tools by declaring that the functionaries linked to Magnitsky’s death are unwelcome as visitors in Britain, thus copying what the US State Department has done under pressure from the US Congress.

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con) rose—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) rose—

Mr MacShane: I give way first to my hon. Friend.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman and I are probably about to say exactly the same thing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is not much point in just banning these people secretly behind closed doors? It is important that we say publicly that they are not welcome in this country.

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Mr MacShane: I think that I may just have hinted at that.

Mr Raab: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that in addition to highlighting the tragic case before us, it is time for a British equivalent of the US Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would hold to account more generically foreign officials responsible for grotesque human rights abuses, through travel bans and asset freezes, and also that, as in the US, this a matter not just for the Executive, but for Members of this House and for Parliament?

Mr MacShane: I would support that. Perhaps some right hon. and hon. Members present might combine to ask the Backbench Business Committee for a longer debate, which might allow a slight pause for breath and more development of some of these themes. In particular, it would show the Russian authorities that this is a cross-party affair, with support from a considerable number of Members of both Houses.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I just want to add Canada to the list. It has also passed legislation in similar terms to the United States, so it is not just one country but many countries taking a strong stand against these appalling acts.

Mr MacShane: Poland and, I believe, the Netherlands have done so as well, but the addition of Canada, which is a great beacon of democracy and a Commonwealth country, is most welcome.

Yes, I believe that we should be doing what has been set out. We should not need to have a debate, because I hope that when the Minister replies, he will tell us that he fully accepts that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will put a statement, a note, in the Library tomorrow, with those names on it, saying that they are not welcome in the UK, and will pass the names on to Europol and Interpol. So far, the FCO has resisted that idea and has constantly sought to downplay the Magnitsky affair. The FCO position or, more accurately, the Whitehall position has been to shelter behind Russian bureaucracy.

On 15 November 2011, the Minister for Immigration finally replied to a letter that I sent him in August on the idea of a visa ban. That was a very discourteous gap between my letter and his reply. He wrote:

“The Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights presented to President Medvedev its report on Mr Magnitsky’s arrest and treatment”

and the

“Minister of the Interior has announced that its own internal investigation has not found any evidence of abuses by their officials”.

Well, that is a surprise—a bureaucracy defends its own people. Nevertheless,

“the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation chaired by Alexander Bastrykin”

would report by 24 November. To my knowledge, no such report was issued, and it is time for the FCO and Home Office to stop parroting Russian excuses for inaction and instead to follow the example of the United States, Canada and Poland and make it clear that those who

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stole the money that Magnitsky was investigating and then colluded in his death should not be given a permanent status of impunity by Whitehall fiat.

In an earlier reply to a parliamentary question from me on 13 July 2011, the Minister for Immigration—I welcome the Under-Secretary from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but this is as much a matter for the Home Office as it is for the FCO—confirmed the following:

“The Secretary of State for the Home Department…does have the power to exclude foreign nationals whose presence in the UK she judges would not be conducive to the public good”,

but he added that

“the duty of confidentiality means that the Government are unable to discuss the details of individual immigration cases.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 398W.]

I am sorry, but that will not do and it is not true. Her Majesty’s Government have regularly published the names of those to whom they deny visa entry. They include or included the TV cook Martha Stewart, the actor George Raft, the Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard and even a Nobel laureate, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who wrote:

“Death is the stone into which our oblivion hardens.”

It is the wish of the Russian authorities that Magnitsky’s death hardens into oblivion, but as another great writer who lived under communism, Milan Kundera, wrote:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Let us not hear from the Minister today that the Government cannot publish the names of the people whom they ban. We should not allow Magnitsky to be forgotten. If the Home Office can publicly ban a cook, an actor, a loopy and a poet, surely it can ban those Russian officials named as associates in this massive theft, then the arrest and ill- treatment to the point of death of a lawyer representing a British citizen and his company.

Modern Russian apparatchiks like to visit, buy flats in and educate their children in London. If we name and shame and announce that they will lose those privileges if they break the law and allow a lawyer representing a British firm to die in agony for having defended his client’s interest, diplomatic pressure will be focused and sharp and will send a clear state-to-state signal that Russia cannot live above the law.

This is not just about Russia, however. We need to find ways of sending signals to mid-level officials in other authoritarian regimes that when they break the law, the doors of Britain are not easily open to them. A new approach is required to create a new tool of democratic diplomacy—namely, the precisely targeted travel ban that is made public so that all law-abiding state officials in Russia and elsewhere can see that corruption and collusion in murder are no longer crimes without sanction. That is what more and more decent Russian citizens want.

A further signal could be sent. Just as Mr Putin is not welcome on the streets of Moscow today, Britain should say that he is not welcome at the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics. In 1980, Mrs Thatcher had the guts to say no to a formal British endorsement of the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the Prime Minister wants to emulate the Iron Lady,

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he should say no to Mr Putin, who will use the London Olympics and the winter Olympics in two years’ time as events for self-promotion.

Of the 20 years since the end of communism, Russia spent the first decade being plundered by oligarchs and the second decade being robbed by state functionaries up to the highest level. It is time that Russia became a normal rule-of-law nation and its tax collectors levied taxes for the good of the people, not their own offshore bank accounts.

4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on securing this very important debate. The high-profile case of Sergei Magnitsky is of serious concern to Her Majesty’s Government and one in which there is a clear need for Russia to act. As the right hon. Gentleman made clear, Mr Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer, went into pre-trial detention and died in state custody nearly a year later. Before his arrest, he had been working to uncover an alleged tax fraud against the Russian state by certain Russian law enforcement officials, a number of whom are alleged to have been involved in the investigation and detention of Mr Magnitsky.

In July 2011, the Russian presidential council on human rights published a report that found that Mr Magnitsky had been denied medical treatment and had been beaten while in detention, which directly contributed to his death, yet no one has been held to account by the Russian authorities. It is deeply disappointing that the Russian investigative committee appears to have made little progress. The publication of its findings in relation to Magnitsky’s death was postponed a number of times during 2011. They are currently due to be issued on 24 January. It is vital that the Russian authorities complete a thorough and transparent investigation into his death without further delay, as the case has wider implications for the rule of law and respect for human rights in Russia.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What confidence does the Minister have that the Russian authorities will be able to complete that kind of transparent, thorough and fair investigation in this case?

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening. Of course, it is disappointing that the Russian investigative committee has made so little progress. It is also very disappointing that its report has been postponed on three occasions, but we are putting on all the pressure that we can and understand that the report will be issued on 24 January. We will keep up the pressure and look forward to publication on that date.

On HMG action, we have made our concerns very clear to the Russian Government. I should like to point out to the right hon. Member for Rotherham that the Prime Minister discussed this case with the President during his visit to Moscow in September, when he also outlined the need for confidence in the rule of law in Russia. This case is an unfortunate reminder that Mr Magnitsky’s death in pre-trial detention is not an isolated incident in Russia: approximately 50 to 60 people die in pre-trial detention facilities annually.

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Our embassy in Moscow is providing financial support to the important work of the Social Partnership Foundation—a human rights non-governmental organisation—to look at the underlying causes of such cases and to help prevent further cases occurring.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Government subjecting Russian officials allegedly implicated in Magnitsky’s death to punitive measures in the form of visa bans. He will be aware that the immigration rules enable us to refuse a visa where information on an individual’s character, conduct or associations makes entry into the UK undesirable. However, the UK has a long established global practice, which has been followed by all recent Governments, including the one of which he was a member, of not commenting routinely on individual cases.

The right hon. Gentleman named a number of individuals whom he says were involved in the case. The Home Office and I will look into the cases of those individuals and will write to the right hon. Gentleman in due course.

Chris Bryant: I hope the word “routinely” was important in that sentence. The Minister for Immigration has, on several occasions, done a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to me to say, “Look, these people aren’t going to be coming into the country.” Frankly, though, we need more than that. If the Minister was prepared to provide a list of people who would not be welcome in this country, that would be a significant step forward.

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It is not something on which I can give a guarantee this afternoon, but we will be in a better position to do so once the investigative committee has issued its report on 24 January.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): There is nothing routine about a murder closely connected with a British enterprise. Although Mr Magnitsky was not a British citizen, this case really is on a par with the Litvinenko murder. The reason why these things keep happening is well known: these people are crossing the Russian state. If the Russian state does not want to be seen as a gangster, surely it should stop killing journalists, lawyers and dissidents.

Mr Bellingham: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point in his own inimitable way. I would not want anyone to have the impression that I was describing this case as routine, because obviously it is not. What I said was that the Government have a policy of not commenting routinely on individual cases. Obviously, this is an incredibly serious case, and I take on board what he has said.

On visa action taken by other countries, we are aware of media reports that the US has imposed sanctions on implicated officials and added them to a visa application watch list. Although Bills have been introduced in the US Congress and some other countries’ Parliaments, such as in the Netherlands and Canada, and motions have been passed in support of visa bans against Russian officials allegedly implicated in Mr Magnitsky’s death, we are not aware that those states have taken such action.

What we ultimately want—as all Members will agree, I believe—is the Russian Government to take the initiative in ensuring that justice is achieved in this case and in

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putting in place measures to prevent further such cases occurring. To that end, we are urging the Russian Government to conduct a full and transparent investigation into Mr Magnitsky’s death, and we continue to raise the case at the highest levels.

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for what he says about the action that the Foreign Office is taking and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) for raising the issue in the first place. This case is of the utmost importance. Will the Minister act in concert with his European colleagues, so that all the nations of the European Union can show their anger at the way in which this lawyer has been treated and at the abuse and violation of human rights in Russia today?

Mr Bellingham: I will certainly make sure that the hon. Gentleman’s strong comments are passed on to the Minister for Europe, so that he will speak to his European counterparts about this case at the next appropriate Council. He has already raised it with them, and similar action has been taken by other European countries. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman says, we will ensure that the case is raised again.

I should like to say a few words about the wider situation in Russia. The FCO’s annual human rights report makes it clear that we remain concerned about the rights afforded to Russian citizens and the strength of democracy. The Russian Government’s support for human rights often appears ambivalent. As President Medvedev has acknowledged, there is a pressing need to strengthen the rule of law in Russia. Legislative changes to reduce corruption represent a tentative step in the right direction. Reports of grave human rights abuses in the north Caucasus continue, and Russian human rights defenders and journalists remain at high risk. In some cases, though, we have seen some minor positive developments.

The state Duma parliamentary elections have been the key recent test of Russia’s democratic credentials. The conduct of those elections confirmed our concerns about human rights and democracy in Russia. Before the elections, NGOs and media organisations were routinely harassed. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe was permitted to observe the elections. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded that they had been

“slanted in favour of the ruling party”.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said on 6 December, those conclusions underline the need for alleged electoral violations to be investigated rapidly and transparently and to ensure that all democratic institutions, including the media, civil society and opposition political groups, can operate freely in Russia.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I apologise for being slightly late. I very much appreciate this debate. Does the Minister acknowledge that it is not just the conduct of the elections but the whole functioning of democracy in Russia that prevents anyone who could challenge the system from getting nominated, never mind elected, as a presidential candidate? Will Her Majesty’s Government

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not make it clear that pluralism requires a much more open access to democracy than is currently available in Russia?

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that strong point. In light of what he says, I can tell him that our wider work on human rights in Russia focuses on a number of key areas: democratic rights, including supporting free and fair elections, freedom of expression and freedom of the media; support for those seeking to resolve conflict in the north Caucasus; support for those seeking to increase monitoring, reporting and prosecution of human rights abuses; better support and protection for human rights defenders; support for those seeking a stronger rule of law with improved access to justice; and making progress towards greater equality and reduced discrimination.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. In early 2010, I visited Chechnya with Lord Judd to investigate the human rights situation. Will the Minister, in his discussions with Russian colleagues and his ministerial colleagues, impress upon the Russian Government that this is also an issue of security? It was clear from our trip to Chechnya that, without the proper upholding of human rights, the security situation and the terrorism issues faced there would not be resolved.

Mr Bellingham: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I agree with what she says, and we will ensure that that is taken up at the highest level.

In addition to the Magnitsky case, it is important that the Russian Government fully investigate the unresolved murders of journalists and human rights defenders. We remain concerned at the lack of progress in prosecuting those responsible for the 2009 murder of Natalya Estemirova. The murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya remains one of the most worrying cases of recent years. More than five years after her tragic death, the case still remains to be concluded. In October, Russian prosecutors announced new charges against suspects allegedly involved in organising her murder. The Prime Minister raised this case with President Medvedev during his recent visit to Moscow, calling on the Russian authorities to take further steps to bring all perpetrators to justice. There is a low success rate in investigating and prosecuting these crimes, thus perpetuating the perception of impunity, which undermines freedom of expression and human rights in Russia.

Mr Raab: I thank the Minister for giving way again. He is eloquently making the case for the kind of legislation that the US wants to enact. He mentioned the Bill that has gone through Congress. It looks likely to become law and is unlikely to be vetoed by the President. Given the evidence that he has adduced here before us today, would he be open to that kind of Bill being introduced in the House of Commons?

Mr Bellingham: If that Bill gets through Congress, we will certainly look at it very carefully. We will look at whether there are any appropriate lessons for this country, and we will consult parliamentary colleagues from all parts of the House. I cannot give any guarantees, but we need to watch very carefully to see whether the Bill becomes law in the US.

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In conclusion, I hope that what I have covered today illustrates the Government’s concern and action, both on the wider issue of human rights in Russia and on the specific case of ensuring justice for Sergei Magnitsky. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said:

“Human rights are part of our national DNA and will be woven deeply into the decision-making processes of our foreign policy at every stage”.

That applies to our dealings with Russia as much as with any country. We will continue to engage Russia on human rights through bilateral contacts, including our annual human rights dialogue, which will take place in London this year—in the summer, we hope—as well as through multilateral channels, such as the EU, the UN and the Council of Europe.

I thank the right hon. Member for Rotherham for bringing Parliament’s attention to this issue and giving me the chance to explain the Government’s position. We will continue to push for the respect of human rights and the rule of law in Russia and achieving justice for Sergei Magnitsky.

4.29 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Technology (Primary Schools)

4.43 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I begin by apologising to the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), because they have had to listen twice in a week to my meanderings on the curriculum. I also apologise the people who have advised me on this debate and might be reading it in Hansard, because I have to confess that on this subject I am relatively untutored. However, I do speak with passion and enthusiasm, which might to some extent compensate for my lack of precise knowledge.

It is sometimes helpful to put things in an autobiographical context. I am the victim, as many people are, of the traditional British approach to design and technology. Like you, Dr McCrea, in primary school I did craft, the rationale for which was always slightly fuzzy, the practice somewhat varied, and the results certainly diverse. In my case, the only achievement of note that I can remember was a papier-mâché giraffe that my mother loyally put on the mantelpiece for a few years until, presumably, it toppled off. Then one went on to grammar school, and although some traditional craft skills were always put in one’s way in the early years, if one was considered to be relatively clever one went off and did Latin and Greek. Pupils continued with practical subjects only if, in some sense, they were not making the grade.

I was brought up in Kent, where there were three categories of school: grammar school for those people who passed the 11-plus; secondary modern schools for those who failed it; and technical schools for those who were somewhere in the middle. The theory was, essentially, that pupils did the hands-on, practical stuff if they were not academic, even if they were highly numerate. It was rather like the Confucian model of education that they had in China in centuries gone by, which had a disdain of things that had a technical aspect to them. Consequently, we ended up with the problem we are all familiar with, and about which I will not go into any depth, which is that we have a dearth of engineers in the country, a decline in manufacturing, and even a loss of some basic craftsmanship at many levels. That is not entirely due to the school system; it has something to do with how the workplace has reacted to apprenticeships and financial pressures. However, the school system certainly plays a part, and it differs markedly from the German one, in which there has been a better element of technical education for some time.

We have woken up to this mistake, but to some extent we still see technology as an escape route from serious academic study for the less able—something that is bolted on to or plugged into the curriculum as we get towards the school-leaving years. There are very adverse consequences of that line of thought. Fundamentally, we fail to recognise that human intelligence is very diverse, and that people have enormous undiscovered potential. Even people who have been academically very successful—those who, in the schools’ terms, are successes—have latent abilities that they have not had the chance to explore. We deprive children, including

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the academically able, of the challenge that technology presents, and to some extent we allow the academically able to consider it not a failure to be bad at technical matters. There are people, certainly of my acquaintance, who would be appalled at some minor slip of grammar, but who openly own up to not being able to put on a plug or do anything of practical utility at all.

More contentiously—this is the more difficult bit of what I want to say—we alienate some children, particularly some boys, from the education process, or if we do not alienate them we do not adequately engage them. I was reading recently the biography of Steve Jobs, who was a disruptive and singularly uninspired pupil in the early years of his education.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important matter. I want to make a point about aspiration, and about inspiring boys and girls. It comes down to the fact that the curriculum provides the opportunity under aspects of science for the creative teaching of design and technology. For example, Byron primary school in my constituency was the winner of the 2007 design and technology competition for schools. It built go-karts, with the help of BAE Systems, and raced them competitively—so there was competitiveness in there, and working with outside technology departments as well. It all came down to having excellent teachers and to using the curriculum to provide creativity. That is a clear example of how the curriculum can provide opportunities, if they are taken to a greater extent, to inspire people in technology. Byron school has excellent teachers, including the head, Jim Fernie.

John Pugh: I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention, because there is a need to pay tribute to the awful lot of very good practice in this area. I have been inundated with exemplars of schools that have done astounding things under the banner of design and technology.

The point I wanted to make with my reference to Steve Jobs was that technology can be a catalyst in a child’s education, in the early years. In pre-school education, that should be a fairly familiar concept to us, because we recognise that as well as introducing little children to books to encourage their development, there is also a need to introduce them to constructive toys and toys out of which they can make constructs. Technology, almost from the word go, plays an appreciable part in a child’s general cerebral and educational development.

A point that eluded me before I started looking further into the subject—a point that is not particularly well understood—is that technology is a catalyst. It not only gets people into technology, but gets them comfortable with areas of education with which they had previously not been comfortable—mathematics and literacy, for example—because the design elements of the design and technology curriculum have a real drive on presentational as well as constructive skills. Many additional gains, aside from pure technological ability, are driven by good design and technology education. There are many excellent examples of that, including those mentioned by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti).

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It is not my supposition that every child will be technically gifted in the same technologies. There is a huge diversity of potential and of things to be good at, which is why we want the curriculum to be as varied and imaginative as possible. I do not think that that is disputed; there is wholesale agreement right across the board that that is a worthy ambition—one that I think the Minister would be perfectly happy to own and espouse.

The difficult thing is the technical question. Although we can all agree that fulfilling every child’s potential and stimulating their talents is a laudable ambition, there is an interesting debate about how to do that, and what the Government and the forthcoming curriculum review can do to encourage it. There is excellence in technical education, but it is fair to say that although there is a constant stream of improvement in both primary and secondary schools, there is also some patchy performance. Errors can be made. If we look at information and communications technology teaching, which the Secretary of State touched on today, we see that quite a few significant errors have been made in how ICT is used in the classroom. I will return to that in a minute or two.

We must also acknowledge that, however good design and technology might be, there are other equally good things, such as numeracy, literacy, imagination, music and all sorts of other things, that the Government wish to encourage and schools wish to incorporate in their curriculum. A further dimension to the problem is that even if we have the most laudable ambitions, we still need a work force who are trained to implement them effectively. Of course, the poor old primary school teacher is meant to be a jack of all trades and to be equally good at an astounding number of things, which is a tough call.

In passing, looking at the wider implications, some of the greatest successes in technical development often take place outside the school curriculum, rather than in the classroom. Reading about the development of the IT industry in California, we find that boys leaving school and going off to things such as the Homebrew Computer Club—Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were among them—made significant developments that ultimately had spin-offs for the whole culture of California. That was not necessarily in the curriculum, and it could not necessarily have been easily incorporated.

The design and technology sector has genuine fears of the educational world. The principal fear is that, in slimming down the curriculum, technology may suffer. In other words, if we reduce the demands of the national curriculum in total, which most people would support, technology may drop out or be put on the back burner. Some people argue that the absence of a standard assessment test or rigorous measurement will not do much to improve the overall quality of the subject. There are complementary and opposed fears that heavy-handed state intervention or diktat will have perverse effects, particularly if, as we all believe, design and technology is a blend of both technical skills and genuine creativity.

There are certain dilemmas involved in ensuring that present good practice is further built on and developed. Ofsted has recorded significant progress in recent years,

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but I worry that that might be lost in curriculum revisions simply because it is not fully assessed or seen to be assessed.

I turn to two other connected issues. One is the speech by the Secretary of State today on the state of the ICT curriculum. I entirely echo his sentiments. In a Guardian article I wrote after tabling an early-day motion, I said:

“we will end up with second-rate education for pupils, who will have no understanding about how IT is developed or is likely to progress. The future of IT in business in the UK is not going to be just about using PowerPoint presentations.”

Pupils must

“become innovators of software, rather than people who just punch data into keyboards.”

That article was published in 2007, so I like to think that I am five years ahead of my time.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The picture that my hon. Friend paints is an accurate and grim one. There are 100,000 IT vacancies in this country at the moment, and the people are not there to fill those posts, because the number of people taking computer science courses at university has halved since the year 2000, and the number of drop-outs has risen. That is because the basic science in schools is not being taught, which is why I think the Secretary of State’s speech today is timely, if not long overdue, as my hon. Friend would say.

John Pugh: I certainly subscribe to the general view that a crash-course in Boolean algebra is probably more useful to the future of IT in this country than learning how to use Word or any other Microsoft product, but the insistence that ICT and technology education are about using applications shows how sometimes, when the state or organisations associated with it weigh in, they can get things wrong.

A lot of what we have is in part, although not entirely, a consequence of distinctly poor procurement, encouraged by the defunct Becta—Bringing Educational Creativity to All—which the Secretary of State had the wisdom to abolish. There are lessons to be learned. I genuinely think that when we intervene to advise schools, we must accept that schools, from their own practice, might wish, for good reasons, to be diverse and different, rather than aligning themselves with some common curriculum idea that could perish as rapidly as it emerged.

The second issue is a little contentious as well. Part of what I wanted to say today and might not have expressed adequately involves gender. I suggest, tentatively, that boys in general might benefit a little more than girls from good technical education. That might play some part in addressing the problem of children leaving schools without any qualifications, a disproportionate number of whom are boys.

In saying that, I accept that girls are and can be excellent technologists, and that technology is much more varied than the sorts of thing that boys first fixate on. I accept that gender is a spectrum and that boys and girls are all different. I also accept that the Department for Education has invested in efforts to prove that I am speaking nonsense, and that what I say can be both challenged and refuted. I have studied the Department for Education’s website, which has some excellent documents, largely written by female members of staff,

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suggesting that much of what I will go on to say is mythology, and that in fact boys and girls approach the curriculum in broadly similar ways. The similarities are far more important and prevalent than the differences, but I am not convinced by the argument that there are no differences. Although some views can be challenged, they are not necessarily refuted.

It is a basic biological fact that male and female brains are structurally different—males and females are, obviously, hormonally different as well—and that, irrespective of social conditioning, the two behave quite differently. That can be evidenced not only by anecdote, but by the performance of girls at any linguistic task; their abilities are far in excess of the abilities of boys, both in the UK and elsewhere. We have to recognise that and ask ourselves whether technology, if properly construed, might do something to balance out the attainment levels of the sexes in that respect. I make that proposal in the knowledge that, to some extent, it is controversial, but I think that it would benefit from some examination.

The essential problem remains that if we want design and technology to be embodied adequately in the curriculum, as we do, and if we genuinely want to spread good practice as best we can, how will we do it within a narrowing curriculum, and in an environment where teachers face a variety of demands? Moreover, how will we do it at a stage at which it is immediately relevant to children? My supposition is that some children who attend primary school, and who are not naturally bookish or who do not come from bookish homes, may find it difficult at times to engage with what they are offered and therefore detach themselves from the curriculum. That will eventually lead to poor attainment and to them being transferred to secondary school as underperformers. Giving them a series of other activities simply because they are not very good at what the school has to offer is less likely to be successful than finding out at an early stage where their talents lie and giving them an opportunity to explore them through design and technology. I believe that that opportunity exists, and we have to capitalise on it.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response, particularly on how he sees D and T fitting into the curriculum and its revision, as planned.

5.2 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate and on his interesting opening speech. He need not apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) or me for a second contribution on educational matters—these are important issues and it is always a pleasure to hear what he has to say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport is right to say—we need to reiterate this—that design and technology is absolutely not just an alternative for those young people who are not academically inclined; it is an important subject in its own right. Indeed, the expert panel that we appointed to look into evidence from around the world for our national curriculum review recommended in the report that we published before Christmas that design and technology should become a basic curriculum subject,

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with greater freedom for schools to teach what they want, free from the constrictions of a programme of study, to encourage innovation and an individual approach. The national curriculum review will consider that before providing final recommendations to the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend has strong views about the importance of technology in primary schools and schools in general, and has voiced his concerns about the risk that too rigid a policy on the provision of technology to schools can stifle the very innovation that we all seek. Of course, technology can never supplant good teaching, but the effective use of digital technology can support good teaching and help raise standards in schools. We need to support the effective and innovative use of technology in schools, with good practice being developed and shared between them. That means not only exposing children to technology and encouraging them to feel comfortable with it, but promoting technology as a useful tool in itself and as a means to help develop general teaching in schools.

We do not seek to micro-manage the application of technology. As we stressed in the schools White Paper, it is for individual schools to identify their own needs and to address them as they think best. We need to encourage and enable teachers to take better advantage of the great opportunities presented by the burgeoning range of digital technologies, and to use them to improve their teaching and efficiency.

As my hon. Friend has said, the Secretary of State emphasised the fact that technology is a priority in his speech to the Schools Network conference last month and at the BETT technology show this morning. Like me, he wants to encourage the innovative use of technology both within and beyond the classroom. We need to equip our pupils with the technical skills and the knowledge to meet the needs of the 21st-century workplace.

This country has an exemplary record on the use of technology in schools. There is on average one computer for every seven primary school pupils, and one for every three in secondary schools. Primary schools spend an average of £12,400 each year on information and communications technology, and an additional sum of almost £1,500 on software and content. No one should doubt the importance that we attach to the use of technology to support our teachers.

I recognise that some will fear that the passing of Becta, to which my hon. Friend referred, has left a gap in the provision to schools of specialist advice on technology. We are in a period of transition, but this should be seen as an opportunity for the commercial sector and professional organisations to adapt their services to fill that gap.

My hon. Friend has spoken about the curriculum. We are in the process of reviewing both the national curriculum and the suite of qualifications. I think that we all agree that the current ICT curriculum, to which he has referred, is in need of an overhaul. It is outdated and needs to be reformed. We see the teaching of technology-related knowledge and skills as an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum that schools offer their pupils, but it is also our belief that, in a fast-moving and continuously evolving area such as ICT and technology in general, central Government are

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not necessarily best placed to define the knowledge that pupils need to acquire. As my hon. Friend has said of the early career of Bill Gates, he did not learn the skills that he used to build the Microsoft empire from technology lessons at school. He had a general, good education and he used it to develop his own work in understanding computers and software.

I have been fortunate over the past few months to meet representatives of those who work in the industry, particularly the ICT industry, who are concerned about the lack of a rigorous foundation in programming and the consequences of that for the wider economy. They are persuasive advocates and their detailed submissions to the national curriculum review have been very welcome.

As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the Secretary of State addressed the BETT technology show and took the opportunity to announce that the Department for Education will shortly open a consultation on the withdrawal of the existing national curriculum programmes of study for ICT from September this year. This is an interim measure that is intended to give schools more flexibility to develop their own programmes of study to meet the needs of their pupils more effectively. This move may have come as a surprise to many people, and we recognise that we are taking a wholly new approach.

Mr Graham Stuart: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gibb: I will happily give way to my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education.

Mr Stuart: I am grateful to the Minister. I, too, have met, in recent months, representatives who have made an impressive case. Can he explain—because I do not know the answer—why, until last year, there was not a single computer science GCSE? All we had were programmes of study and qualifications in, as he has said, operating programmes. The actual educational material was not in the courses. Why was that? How did we get into that position, and how will we make sure that we will not allow such things to happen in future?

Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend is right and that situation undermines the status of ICT. We have seen that in the GCSE figures. In 2000-01, something like 95,200 people took the GCSE in ICT, and last year that figure went down to 31,800, so something has gone very wrong with the content of the specification in ICT GCSE and in the programmes of study that were in recent reviews and that have led to this problem. There is a widespread belief that the existing programmes of study for the subject lack ambition, and that they serve to inhibit schools from engaging with innovative and inspiring ICT initiatives. We have heard that from so many sources—from teachers and pupils, from industry and, indeed, from my hon. Friend just now.

Some of the biggest names in the computer-related industries have told us that, in its current form, ICT is turning pupils away. That, in turn, is hampering the development of more relevant ICT-related GCSEs, with a focus on the more rigorous disciplines of computer science programming. That has had disastrous consequences for our digital industries, which face ever-increasing competition from emerging economies all around the world.

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Eben Upton, a computer science academic at Cambridge university, was reported in yesterday’s Guardian as saying of applicants for degree courses whom he was interviewing:

“None of them seemed to know enough about what a computer really was or how it worked…Children were learning about applications, which are pretty low-value skills. They weren’t being properly equipped to think about how computers are programmed…Computing wasn’t being seen as the exciting, vibrant subject it should be at school—it had become lack-lustre and even boring.”

Our proposed change to the ICT curriculum will offer a chance for the subject to be rejuvenated, freeing teachers to explore and innovate, and hopefully to inspire a new wave of pupils to pursue computing and ICT. We need highly-skilled programmers if we are going to continue to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s markets, which will be increasingly dependent on, and driven by, the new digital technologies.

That is why the Secretary of State made the announcement that he did this morning. Pending the outcome of the national curriculum review, ICT will remain compulsory at all key stages in schools and it will be taught at each stage of the curriculum. The existing programmes of study will no longer be compulsory, but they will still be readily available for reference purposes on the web, although no school in England will be required to follow them. Subject to the consultation, from September this year, all schools will be able to use whatever resources they choose to teach the subject, and there is a wide range of excellent materials to

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choose from. I know that industry and specialist organisations, such as the British Computer Society, e-skills UK and Naace are already working on an alternative ICT and computing curriculum.

John Pugh: The worry is that we will go from one phase of prescription to another phase of prescription. We will not get back the days when young men came in and programmed BBC Micros on BASIC and such things, and got very excited about it. Technology is changing enormously. Years ago, if someone in the computer industry was asked about the key skill required, they would have said, “Keyboard skills,” yet touch-screens and so on will make those very skills obsolete. The model that the Minister is suggesting, which involves not only advice from above but interaction from below, is probably the right way forward.

Mr Gibb: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for the radical notion of removing the programme of studies. As the Secretary of State said this morning:

“Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum. Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11 year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch”—

5.13 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).