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Westminster Hall

Thursday 26 January 2012

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

International Development (India)

[Relevant documents: Eighth Report of the International Developmen t Committee. The Future of DFID’ s Programme in India HC 616 and Seventh Special Report HC 1486 (Government reply).]

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

2.30 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): It is good to initiate this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to have the opportunity to debate the United Kingdom’s important relationship with India across a range of areas, of which development is just one key facet.

I am pleased to see one current and one former Select Committee member present. Our Committee decided to undertake a review of the UK development relationship with India against a background of critics of aid—those who either do not believe in it at all or want it cut—homing in on the India dimension as a target for demonstrating that, somehow, it was not justified. Those critics used various arguments saying that, for example, “India is a middle-income country”, “India has significant economic growth”, “India has more billionaires than the UK” and “India has a space programme”. Those are true facts, but they need to be qualified. I hope and believe that the Committee dealt with these issues constructively.

The range of income for middle-income countries is from a little more than $1,000 to $13,000. India is right at the bottom end of that spectrum and in reality Britons are 20 times richer than Indians or, put the other way round, Indians are 20 times poorer than Britons.

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman may agree that although India is middle-income—quite high and rising every day—at the same time it still has as many people below the poverty line as the whole of Africa. Poverty is also a major factor.

Malcolm Bruce: The Committee addressed that argument head-on. It is worth putting on record that the implication of their criticism is that some critics resent the fact that India has billionaires, success and growth. That is what we hope development will bring; that is the whole idea of promoting development. In reality, the UK has partnered India in a constructive way throughout a lot of different dimensions.

It is worth dwelling on the question of space for a minute. India’s supposedly extravagant space programme has absorbed $6 billion in total over 50 years, which has been used mostly to give India the capacity to launch its own satellites. A country that is a subcontinent in itself, with a border dispute with China and in Kashmir, a Maoist uprising over many years in Nepal, a civil war in Sri Lanka and problems across the region, has every

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reason to want information to protect its own national interest. Indeed, there are many socio-economic benefits, such as being able to monitor the path of monsoons and the impact of development. One Minister said, “If somebody comes to me and says that we have completed a school in X or Y, I can check whether that school has been built without leaving my office, because we have the benefit of these things.” That is perfectly legitimate, proper and proportionate. Developing countries should not be denied aspirations because they have to deal with poverty.

More to the point, it is a fact that in spite of this success India faces substantial challenges in terms of poverty reduction. As the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), a former Committee member, said, there are still 350 million people in India living on less than $2 a day, which is more people in that degree of poverty than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

The focus of the UK’s development programme across the piece is poverty reduction and achievement of the millennium development goals. India needs to be able to deal with those issues in spades, in a sense. It is off-track on MDG 1 on reduction of poverty and on MDG 4 on infant mortality, and badly off-track on MDG 5 on maternal mortality. In these circumstances it is, in the Committee’s view, right and proper that we determine whether the UK’s development assistance can help resolve those issues.

The Department for International Development’s operation report, drawn up since we completed our report, makes it clear that the UK regards development as part of its strategic relationship with India. We should acknowledge that we have a shared history with India, which is contentious but is a fact that has engaged both our countries for several hundred years and, if one parks the fact that they have not all been good and that there have been mistakes and memories that we would rather not have to recall, it is also true that we have achieved a depth of understanding in that relationship about culture, a common language, the same sense of humour and a shared interest in cricket.

There is a natural affinity between the two countries, which is borne out by the scale of the diaspora in the UK and the scale of trade and investment. It is interesting to note that investment between India and the UK is greater than between India and the rest of the European Union put together. These significant, positive benefits reinforce the case made by many hon. Members, who believe that the purpose of development is to deliver poverty reduction and the MDGs and, in the long term, also to create viable states that can develop economically and can and will become development, trade and investment partners. That is precisely what is happening between the UK and India.

In the press release accompanying the publication of the report, which focused on the key issue—I do not often quote myself—I said:

“The test of whether the UK should continue to give aid to India is whether that aid makes a distinct, value-added contribution to poverty reduction which would not otherwise happen. We believe most UK aid does this.”

The other issue that critics raise is that India has a responsibility, as its income rises and economic performance improves, to deliver its own poverty reduction. That is true. The fact is that India is doing a huge amount to achieve that. The transfer of wealth from the rich to the

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poor and the programmes on health, education and work, which are raising people out of poverty, cost tens of billions of dollars and are funded by internal resources managed through the Indian Government. By comparison, the £230 million a year of UK aid is a small amount. Is it so small that it does not matter? We concluded that, qualitatively, that aid was able to help Indian authorities and agencies achieve a faster reduction in poverty and an aspiration to deliver off-track MDGs faster than would otherwise be so and that it was, therefore, beneficial. That is also the view of the Indian Government, which is why they welcome the UK as a partner. It is clear that in these circumstances the relationship is right and proper and should continue.

We looked at DFID’s priorities to try to assess whether we believe that it matched the needs as the evidence presented to us suggested. We found, first, from objective evidence, that India is an unequal society—tackling that inequality is clearly a challenge and a responsibility for Indian politicians and Ministers—and that the contrast between the richest and poorest states is huge. Some of the poorest states in India are poorer than some of the poorest states in Africa. In that context, DFID had identified that it would concentrate a high proportion of the development in four of the poorest states in India: Bihar, which the Committee visited, Madhya Pradesh, which the Committee also visited, Orissa and West Bengal, which has changed its name to one that I cannot now recall. Those are the poorest states, where a relationship has already been established and where there is evidence that DFID’s engagement can accelerate the action to meet the challenge of reducing poverty.

One thing that shocked the Committee, although perhaps those of us who know India well should not be so shocked, was the appalling state of sanitation across large parts of India and, indeed, the acceptance of the appalling state of sanitation. Committee members were genuinely shocked by the figures: 500 million or 600 million people are practising open defecation every day, without any access to the basics of hygiene. That is one of the most fundamental problems that India has to face and one of the reasons why it is off-track on some MDGs.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I compliment the right hon. Gentleman on the report and his speech. During the Committee’s deliberations, was it aware of the disproportionate use of bad sanitation by the Dalit peoples and the discrimination against the Dalit peoples throughout the country? That leads to lower life expectancy and worse health outcomes for them than for the rest of the population.

Malcolm Bruce: We were, and I will come to precisely that point. I am grateful for the intervention.

Let me give hon. Members the example of a meeting that Committee members had in a village in Bihar. There was a discussion about sanitation. It was about the extent to which people there had a problem because the surface water was so badly polluted that they could not use it, so they had started drinking from wells polluted with arsenic and iron. When we got into the discussion, it became apparent that there was no shortage of surface water, but it was heavily polluted because there was no orderly way of managing sanitation. People

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just went to the toilet wherever they wanted to go—anywhere, anytime—and were polluting their own water supply. Indeed, some of them said, “We’re killing ourselves and one another by the way we behave.”

There was a huge divide, I have to say, between the attitude of men and the attitude of women. The women said, “The least we should do is designate certain areas for sanitation and manage them. That will enable us to have clean areas.” The men said that that was sissy, namby-pamby nonsense, that they had always done it wherever they wanted to and that that was what they should always do. It is very difficult for outsiders to get involved in that, but we did watch the argument and concluded that it showed that community-led health and education programmes were as vital as anything.

As a result, the Committee recommended that DFID give a higher priority in its programme to sanitation. We very much welcome the Government agreeing to double the resource that they will put into sanitation in the programme. To be honest, the Committee might want to go even further, but we appreciate the fact that the Government have done that. We welcome it entirely. I will not detain hon. Members by looking for the exact quote in the operational report because I do not have it to hand, but I think that I am right in saying that the expectation is that DFID’s programme will give 5.5 million or 6 million people access to proper sanitation. Proper sanitation usually means pit latrines and associated things. That is 5 million or 6 million people who do have not such sanitation now, but it still leaves about 550 million people who will not have been reached. Of course, there are other people engaged in that work, but the provision is a long way short of what is needed.

The second issue that we were especially concerned about was malnutrition. Those who follow the progress of developing countries will know that as poverty falls and incomes rise, there is a correlation with a reduction in malnutrition, especially in children. However, in India, that is not happening. There, malnutrition is decreasing at only a quarter of the normal rate. Again, there appear to be quite a lot of social awareness problems. It is customary, for example, for women to diet during pregnancy in order to have small babies, which are easier to deliver. No one points out to them that they may be small babies, but they are likely to be severely malnourished and, indeed, at risk of not surviving. It is said that the word “nutrition” and the concept of nutrition do not even translate into quite a number of indigenous local languages. We welcome the fact not only that nutrition is a target area for DFID, but that the particular target is the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, because all the evidence is that that is critical to whether children survive beyond the age of five and grow up.

The connection between the issues that I have mentioned and maternal and child health is pretty self-evident. That is clearly an important priority, because the maternal health MDG is the one that is most off-track in India. The fact that that is an area where DFID can make a contribution is extremely welcome.

I will now deal with the intervention by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Social exclusion was an issue on which there absolutely was focus. It is a slightly delicate issue, but one on which DFID and the Indian Government can to some extent work to reinforce each other. It is evident that the poorest people, the people whose communities are furthest

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off-track in relation to MDGs, are those who are socially excluded: the Dalits and other low castes, the hill tribes and minority religious groups. When one talks to the Indian Government, they say, “Our constitution and our political drive is to include these people,” but given that, culturally, they have been excluded from the community, it is very difficult to enforce that. Sometimes it is helpful for a development partner to identify with statistics and information why the problems persist and the practical measures that could be taken to tackle them. I think that DFID has said that it will prioritise that.

The final issue, on which we would welcome an update from the Minister, was the commitment by the Government, which is entirely consistent with the idea that India is in transition out of being a development recipient to becoming perhaps a development partner, that 50% of the UK programme in India should, by the end of the programme, be targeted on private sector development. In principle, the Committee wholly supported that, because ultimately development is about generating a viable private sector that can generate a tax base, wealth and everything else to sustain the public services.

However, we were not entirely convinced as to whether DFID had any idea about how it would deliver on the target and with what partners. That is not to say that it was an illegitimate target, but I think that we are entitled to say to DFID that it needs to flesh out what it intends to do. I therefore ask the Minister these questions. How can the Government ensure that that private sector development reaches the poorest states and the poorest communities, rather than the low-hanging fruit, which are easier to reach and for which the market might deliver anyway? What might be the role of CDC in its newly revamped format; will it be part of that? What about the role of UK Trade & Investment? We discovered that it is very active in places such as Mumbai, Hyderabad and so on, but does not get to Bihar, Orissa and so on. The question is whether that needs to change.

We accepted, once we had discounted the critics, who simply want to discredit aid and development altogether, that there were legitimate issues about a country such as India, which is developing and creating substantial wealth, technology and innovation of its own, as well as having an aid and development programme. However, when we look inside that, there are two things that absolutely justify the maintenance of the partnership. What I am talking about is entirely in the spirit of the International Development Act 2002, which is focused on poverty and the MDGs.

First, the Indian Government are putting very substantial resources into redistribution and raising taxes to fund their own poverty reduction programme; and they are lifting millions of people out of poverty each year. However, the pace at which they are doing that needs to be accelerated. The UK is important as a partner less because of the resource that we are putting behind that and more because of the expertise and technical help and support, backed by resources, that we can put in. That will help to achieve a situation whereby hopefully by 2015 India will have made material progress towards eradicating poverty, the off-track MDGs will be coming back on-track and we can move from a relationship whereby India is a client state for development to one whereby we are states that are co-operating on partnership and development. Indeed, that is already happening in third countries—for example, in parts of Africa.

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The Committee’s conclusion was that to have terminated the aid programme in India prematurely would have deprived millions of people in India of an opportunity to be lifted out of poverty, and Britain and India of developing a relationship that could be mutually beneficial to the poor people not just in India but in Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the world.

On that basis, I am happy to say that the Government are fundamentally right to stay in India. We have made some constructive suggestions about what the priorities should be, some of which they have accepted. We also have some questions which the Government will need to answer over time if they are to fulfil their own stated ambitious objectives.

2.50 pm

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I endorse everything that has been said by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) in his position as Chairman of the Select Committee.

Over Christmas and new year, I started reading the Max Hastings tome, “All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945”. In his introduction, he explains that one of the most important truths about war, as in all human affairs, is that people can interpret what happens to them only in the context of their own circumstances. The fact that objectively and statistically, the sufferings of some individuals are less terrible than those of others elsewhere in the world is meaningless to those concerned. The same logic can be applied in the case of India and aid.

I am a relatively new member of the Select Committee, and India was my first overseas experience. Since then, the Committee has visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and, in December, South Sudan. It is when one visits these places that the relativities of poverty strike home.

In New Delhi, we visited a slum inhabited by third-generation Bangladeshi immigrants; children as young as two and three were rummaging through bins to find waste to recycle. They were paid 1 rupee for a kilo of glass. The community had hooked in—dangerously and, needless to say, illegally—to the electricity supply with the most primitive devices that I have ever seen. In Burundi, the prospect of electricity for a local community is a pipe dream. People must interpret what happens to them in the context of their own circumstances, which is why India must be placed in context. It has a population of 1.2 billion people, 400 million of whom live on less than $1.25 a day, and 800 million of whom live on less than $2 a day. I am pleased that the Government and the Select Committee are not far apart in their assessment of India, which was pored over in some detail by the Chairman just a few moments ago.

I want to highlight just three issues from the report: sanitation, which has already been covered; private investment; and discrimination and social exclusion. On sanitation, the Government agree with the Select Committee’s view. The right hon. Member for Gordon mentioned Bihar. On our visit, the Committee split into two groups; one visited Bihar and the other visited Madhya Pradesh. I did not visit Bihar, but when we all joined up together, we discussed our experiences.

In Bihar, a state of 90 million people, public defecation is routine. In some parts of the state, toilets are available but people still choose not to use them because they are

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considered unhygienic. Water supplies beneath the ground are contaminated with minerals, while above-ground supplies are contaminated with waste. I am therefore pleased that the Government agree with the Select Committee’s view that the emphasis must change from health to water and sanitation. Put simply, poor sanitation is creating a huge number of health problems in the country.

On social exclusion and discrimination, despite the fact that untouchability was outlawed by article 17 of the Indian constitution, it is none the less alive and well. In Madhya Pradesh, we visited a Dalit village and had the opportunity to talk to some women and girls. We asked for examples of discrimination, and two were offered immediately. Manual scavenging, which has been outlawed, is still rife. For anyone who does not know what it is, let me explain. People who are in lower castes have to carry the night waste of people from a higher caste, and they are paid 8 rupees a month per household. One lady explained that she carried out that task for 100 houses. It led to skin infections and miscarriages.

Another example is of a young girl who, because of her under-nourished state, looked about six or seven, when in truth she was about 13 years old. She explained to us that when she went to season her food at school, she was told by the teacher to stop. She was not allowed to put her hand in the same salt as the other children. When she pluckily replied, “I am a human being, too,” the teacher said, “No, you are not.” That is utterly extraordinary and demonstrates that discrimination is still alive and well. There is much work that needs to be done in that area. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is good that that is recognised, both in our report and in the Government’s response.

The third element is the Government’s private sector investment policy. I must declare that I am a sceptic. I agree wholeheartedly that jobs and growth take people out of poverty, but I remain unconvinced by the Department for International Development’s approach. I direct Members’ attention to paragraph 75 of the report. In an evidence session, I asked the Secretary of State for more details about how the investment would take place. He replied that

“you do not have to have a prescriptive line on this.”

I disagree. This is British taxpayers’ money, and it is the Select Committee’s job to ask the difficult questions. It is the Secretary of State’s role to provide the answers, and he could not do so, as the record demonstrates.

The Government’s formal response puts a little more flesh on the bone. Like the right hon. Member for Gordon, I want the Minister to give us more detail on what investments will take place. When we were in one of the villages in India, we met a woman who had bought a buffalo. She then bought another buffalo through a micro-finance project. When she paid off the loan, she said of her work-shy husband, “He now thinks that it is his business,” which demonstrates that those types of subtleties take place across the globe. Half of the money from the Government programme will go to private investment. We must be told how that investment will take place, because not everyone can buy buffaloes to provide milk for the local communities and repay the loans. I therefore remain sceptical, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

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In conclusion, there is a widespread recognition that the development relationship with India has to change, but I urge caution. The Daily Mail would have us believe that the Indian Government are building space shuttles, which is certainly not the case. In truth, the satellite technology that they are using is more about putting in place communications systems for their vast country, not space exploration.

India is a nation of extremes—wealth and poverty, and freedom and oppression. There is one issue that we must not forget. If we believe that the millennium development goals are the benchmarks by which we will eradicate global poverty, India must be part of the solution. With 400 million people living on less than $1.25 a day, and a further 800 million people living on less than $2 a day, we will never achieve our goals unless India is part of the solution. On that cautionary note, I will end my contribution.

2.58 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, to follow the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann), and to talk in a debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), whose expertise in this field is second to none in this Parliament. Moreover, he has been an enormous help to me in my role as chair of the Liberal Democrat committee on international affairs, although I realise that today he is speaking in a less partisan role.

I also bring a little bit of personal experience to this debate. I worked for a development agency in India during the 1990s. I was seconded by Oxfam in the UK to the fledgling organisation, Oxfam India, which already had a locally registered charity and an overwhelmingly Indian staff force. Indeed, we had a Hindi slogan, milka hum garibe per pa sekte heh vijay; if my Hindi is not too rusty, that means that together we can overcome poverty. It was an important message that that was not a western import, but something that mattered to all the citizens of India. With your indulgence, Mr Davies, and because I am sure that it is within the terms of the debate, as Oxfam is a DFID partner, perhaps I may congratulate Oxfam on the 60th anniversary this year of its presence in India, and congratulate Oxfam India on its admission as a full member of Oxfam International with an Indian board and a completely Indian staff. That changing relationship is, in microcosm, an illustration of the changing relationship between Britain and India.

Traditionally, India has been the largest recipient of UK aid, and the Select Committee and many other people, as my right hon. Friend said, have raised questions about the continuing nature of Britain’s aid programme with India. India is now a middle-income country, but it still has more people living below the notional poverty line of $1.25 a day than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. The future DFID programme will focus on many of the poorest states in India. States such as Bihar and Orissa are among the poorest in the world, and would certainly be low-income countries if they were separate nations.

On nutrition, the Select Committee’s report draws attention to some remaining alarming facts. India scored 23.7 in the 2009 global hunger index, putting it in a

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category where levels of hunger are considered to be alarming; it is at a level comparable to that in Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe. Almost half of Indian children are undernourished, which amounts to one third of the world’s undernourished children. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon said, India is far from on track to achieve some of the millennium development goals.

Recent research by Andy Sumner of the Institute of Development Studies shows that 70% of people around the world who live below the poverty line live in middle-income countries, where income may be badly distributed, and there may be issues of equality as well as development and superficial growth. It may be attractive superficially to withdraw aid from middle-income countries, but it must be done carefully and gradually, because there are existing commitments to anti-poverty programmes, many of them involving, as my right hon. Friend said, public health, education and empowerment, and not simply providing goods and structures.

The Select Committee’s report rightly noted the scale of the Indian Government’s expenditure on things such as nuclear and space programmes, which have been controversial, but they identified them, rightly in many cases, as an essential part of India’s development. They are fundamental to India’s development of energy infrastructure, and to telecommunications infrastructure, and flood monitoring, which is a direct benefit to some of the poorest people in India. Without a satellite system and the so-called space programme, it would be difficult for India accurately to monitor the impact of flooding, and to map flood-risk areas. It may as well be criticised for developing a telephone system or solar energy. I am glad that the Select Committee agrees.

There seems to have been a large measure of agreement between the Select Committee and DFID; not only does the Committee support many of the emerging priorities for DFID, but the Government, in their response to the report, agreed with a large number of the Committee’s recommendations—the focus on poorer states, sanitation, nutrition, and the priority given to maternal and child health, social exclusion, and working with the private sector.

I heard the comments of the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow on the relationship with the private sector, but when I lived in India and worked for a development agency there, I became aware that the contribution that organisations such as Oxfam, and even Government programmes the size of DFID’s, make to poverty on a grand scale was dwarfed by the potential for the private sector to impact on people’s lives, for good or ill. There are good examples of Indian corporations such as Tata pursuing effective social responsibility programmes that are much more developed than anything we in this country tend to call corporate social responsibility. The reality of poverty is often staring them in the face every day, and the Indian corporate sector has a proud record of poverty alleviation.

At the same time, other companies go in recklessly, especially to the poorest states, and exploit natural resources without properly consulting local populations, causing immense damage, sometimes environmental, often social and often costing many lives. The biggest and most famous example is Bhopal, but there have been others on a smaller scale since. Wearing my hat as chair of the all-party group on tribal peoples, I know that some of those examples involve tribal people in

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states such as Orissa, where companies such as Vedanta Resources were exploiting aluminium potential through bauxite mining, and could easily have trashed the local environment that was precious to the tribal people there.

We must be cautious in our approach to the private sector, but DFID’s instincts are absolutely right, and the private sector can sometimes bring light-footedness, flexibility and imagination to development, with an overall potential that is much greater than simple Government-to-Government development aid. That high level of agreement between the Select Committee and the Government is very welcome.

Malcolm Bruce: It is important to note that the Committee is responsible for holding DFID to account for Parliament, and I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend that we take evidence, and we are prepared to address criticism, but that includes backing a Department—particularly when it is under attack for what it is doing—addressing some of the critics, and helping to confront some of the arguments the other way. It is not that we instinctively want the Department to work, but we have a constructively critical approach. The agreement is based on a thorough analysis of the evidence, not some sycophantic, cosy relationship. It is important that that is understood.

Martin Horwood: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I did not mean to imply even that the Committee had not found fault with DFID’s programme. It has given a clear direction on things that in many cases must change, but it is welcome that the Government have accepted many of the Committee’s recommendations straightforwardly.

The Secretary of State has said that the UK is in the final mile of its aid relationship with India, and that represents an honest assessment of Britain’s maturing relationship with one of the world’s leading new powers. Increasingly, the way in which countries such as Britain will help to alleviate poverty in India is not necessarily through aid, but through fair and open trade. The European Union’s proposed free trade agreement with India—it might even be mentioned at the forthcoming European Council if we are lucky—is important.

India and Britain are allies on climate change and the ongoing United Nations framework convention on climate change, and I think both appreciate the risk to the poorest people in the world, including those in India, and the need to emphasise adaptation to climate change as well as mitigation in the international climate finance fund, and Britain’s climate finance programme. They are collaborators on international peace and security, and they have shared experience on development issues, which could be valuable to countries around the world.

The time is coming when the last vestiges of a colonial relationship should be laid gently to rest and handed over to the historians. India and the United Kingdom now need to stand side by side in the world, standing up for shared values of democracy, respect for the rule of law, and human rights, and with deep concern for the world’s poor and how to help them in practical and cost-effective ways through development assistance. Both countries have an enormous amount to teach the rest of the world about development. The eventual end of

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Britain’s aid programme to India, when it comes, will be a proud moment to be celebrated by both parties, but it should not be the end of the story.

3.9 pm

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): I am delighted to take part in this well-informed debate, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who chairs the Select Committee, for initiating it. He spoke with great knowledge and tact, and he put his questions and criticisms in a probing rather than a partisan way. I hope the Minister will be able to respond to many of them when he sums up.

I would like the Minister to clarify the Government’s position on aid to India somewhat in the aftermath of the Select Committee report. India is home to one third of the world’s poor and to more than 20% more poor people than all of sub-Saharan Africa. Across India, a child dies every 15 minutes from a preventable disease, one in three people remain illiterate and more than 400 million Indians have no access to electricity.

As the right hon. Gentleman outlined, poverty is largely focused in four Indian states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Paschim Banga—the state whose name I think he was looking for, which used to be known to us as West Bengal. Between them, they are home to nearly one fifth of the world’s poor.

In 2009-10, Britain spent £295.1 million on development projects in India. Of that, 45% went to the Indian national Government, while 48% was spent in partnership with those four states, which are the poorest in India. Britain’s aid targets were health, education, rural poverty, trade development and civil society. Its projects are achieving quite significant progress, providing 9 million slum dwellers with access to water and sanitation last year, putting 30 million more children in primary school since 2003, saving 17,000 lives per year by improving health care and lifting 2.3 million people out of rural poverty since 2005.

The Indian federal Government no longer believe themselves to be an appropriate recipient of development aid—at least not since our Government asked whether they thought they should receive it. Previous Governments had adopted a different approach, saying that that was not a question they would ask the Indian Government and that they simply wished to provide aid to achieve the millennium development goals for the world. Of course, once we ask the question, it is difficult for a proud federal Government such as India’s to say that they still want aid. I think the Government made a mistake in asking that question, but it is on the record, and both countries have set out their position, so it has to be respected.

The International Development Secretary gave a mixed message on the future of DFID’s Indian programme in his speech on Christmas eve, and we should probe this further. He defended the Indian aid programme, highlighting the fact that

“India is a place where there are more poor people than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa”

and stressing the success the Indian Government have had. However, he went on to say:

“Now is not the time to stop the programme in India but I don’t think we will be there for very much longer.”

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The Secretary of State is an eminently reasonable man, for whom I have tremendous respect, and he has done a first-class job since he arrived in the Department. He is a reasonable man and he speaks reasonably, but others do not always speak reasonably, and the right hon. Member for Gordon outlined their argument. Indeed, in yesterday’s debate on UK-India trade, which took place in this hall, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) put things rather differently. He spoke of India’s economic growth of 7% a year, and said that, with its nuclear and space programme, it had the responsibility to ensure that the benefits of that growth were more evenly shared among its people.

I want to take this opportunity to echo the words of the right hon. Member for Gordon and to address that distortion. India is on course to reduce poverty from 55% in 1990 to just 22% in 2015. No other country has ever managed such a sustained reduction in poverty, taking one third of its population out of poverty in a mere quarter of a century. India has put huge resources, proportional to its budget and its GDP, into poverty reduction. It spends a higher percentage of its budget on education than we do in the UK, its free food programme is the largest hunger-alleviation programme in the world and the employment guarantee scheme has been incredibly successful at getting people into work wherever possible. Since 2004, India has increased the percentage of GDP it spends on health, education and social services from 5.35% to 7.2%. As I say, it spends a higher proportion of its annual budget on education than we do in the UK—12.7%, compared with 11.5%.

Despite India’s impressive growth and her progress on infrastructure and urban development, and despite the fact that her middle classes have quadrupled in size in the past decade, India simply could not afford to alleviate her poverty on her own, even if she poured all her resources into it. A 2009 World Bank report noted that even if India legislated for a 100% marginal tax rate, the funds raised would plug only one fifth of its poverty gap. The idea has been peddled that India just needs to tax its flowering industries and its billionaires a little more, but that is a myth, and I am delighted that the Chairman of the Select Committee has nailed it this afternoon.

We must continue to support India in alleviating poverty. That is an international responsibility, and we must meet it. Will the UK Government commit to tying our aid to India to net reduction reductions in poverty and to India’s increasing ability to pay for poverty reduction itself? In that way, any decision to stop helping some of the world’s poorest people out of poverty would be based on facts on the ground, which can be established and quantified, rather than on what sometimes seem to be the whims of the populist press in the UK.

Those who argue for an end to aid should consider how things would be if Britain bordered the world’s next superpower and was surrounded on all sides by failed and unstable states, some with nuclear capacity. Would they then be so critical of relatively high spending on defence and space?

While I welcome the renewed focus on the three poorest states, I think we need clarity. As yet, we have had no comprehensive plan for how DFID will work with the private sector, but only a small number of specific examples. There are hints that much of this

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work will involve microfinancing, but will the Minister clarify the situation and perhaps expand on what is being done?

The Select Committee has criticised DFID’s internal knowledge of, and experience with, the private sector, particularly in-country. The delivery of such a large fund will require a far greater specialist team, but DFID has announced no plans to implement one. In total, DFID has only 58 private sector specialists, divided between all its projects across the globe. Does the Minister propose to enlarge that team to deliver the micro-level projects that such private sector funding may require?

In his Christmas comments, the Secretary of State described the fund as returnable to the taxpayer, but neither the India project plan nor individual project descriptions give any explanation of what he actually meant. The most likely explanation is that he was alluding to the fact that a large percentage of the funding will be delivered through microfinancing, which is repayable to the fund, and which can then be reinvested. If that is the case, describing it as returnable to the taxpayer in the UK may be misleading. If it is not the case, and the money will literally be repaid to DFID and then the Treasury, will the Minister tell us? We need a guarantee that when these funds are returned, they will be reinvested in full in India to alleviate poverty there.

Another area of concern is the long-term future of the India programme. The Secretary of State has guaranteed funding until 2015. We should certainly support that, but he has also said that he does not think it will continue for much longer, and that he sees it as a short-term programme. That troubles me for two reasons: first, insecurity of funding streams makes planning budgets at national, state and local levels nearly impossible. Deliverers need to be able to count on funding streams in the medium to long term to plan budgets efficiently and effectively. Secondly, although India has made progress in combating poverty, as I outlined, by 2015, 22% of the population will still be living in poverty. We need a guarantee that any reductions will be tied firstly to the rate of reduction in poverty, and, secondly, to increases in India’s capacity to bear that burden itself.

I welcome the tightening of focus on the three poorest states, but not if it comes at the expense of the many millions of people living in poverty in other Indian states. For example, Orissa, which was the fourth bilateral partner state with DFID, has, in large part through DFID’s work, succeeded in reducing the poverty rate from 21% of its population in 2006 to 4% in 2011. That is a phenomenal achievement. However, the population of Orissa is 36 million, so the remaining 4% means that there are more than 1.5 million people still below the poverty line. That is a population equivalent to the whole of Gabon, Gambia or Botswana. Yet the Department appears to be shifting its focus to sub-Saharan Africa.

The Government are, I think, pushing in the right direction on their India aid programme, but we need clarity about the detail, and we do not have that clarity yet. Will the Minister flesh out what the increased private sector focus will look like, and how and by whom it will be administered? The Government need to provide a sense of security to central and state Governments in India by guaranteeing that any cuts to the programmes will be made for the right reasons, and

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they need to stop playing up to the hysterical and factually incorrect opinions that too often come from their Back Benches.

3.22 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I welcome the fact that we are having a debate on India and on human rights; I also welcome the Select Committee reports and the responses by DFID and the Foreign Office. However, it is unfortunate that two debates are being conflated into one afternoon. Traditionally, for the past 10 years or so, there has been a specific one-day debate here on human rights. I hope that what has happened today is not a harbinger of a future when the human rights debate will be added to something else, rather than being given a stand-alone debate. That is not something for Members at this sitting to decide, but I hope the message will get back to the Backbench Business Committee that an undertaking was previously given that human rights would take up a whole day throughout this Parliament. I hope that that will be adhered to in future.

I want, if I may, to refer to both human rights and India in the debate, which I understand goes on for three hours and can cover both subjects. Am I correct on that, Mr Davies?

Philip Davies (in the Chair): The first half is about India. The second half is about human rights.

Jeremy Corbyn: So why does the Order Paper say they are together?

Philip Davies (in the Chair): One follows the other. The next debate is about human rights.

Jeremy Corbyn: And at what time are we concluding this one?

Philip Davies (in the Chair): We conclude this first and the next debate will be about human rights.

Jeremy Corbyn: So I am half right; I have got half the time.

Philip Davies (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman can speak in the next debate—I think he indicated that he wanted to speak in it.

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes indeed.

Philip Davies (in the Chair): Human rights should wait for the next debate, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to speak about India he can do so now.

Jeremy Corbyn: I shall briefly make a couple of points on India. My points will be half made, because, as I said, time is restricted and it should not be.

I welcome what has been said about the enormous poverty in India, and the number of people involved. I do not agree with the view in the popular press that we should not give aid to India; I think we should. I want to draw attention, as I did when I intervened on the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), to the treatment of Dalit peoples. I say that because I am chair of the trustees of the Dalit Solidarity Network.

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Dalits are the largest group of people in the world who are systematically discriminated against on the basis of their descent and caste. They perform the worst jobs in the dirtiest conditions, and have the shortest life expectancy, the lowest level of education, the worst housing and the lowest pay and employment levels of any group in India or, indeed, the rest of the world. After numerous meetings with DFID, I accept its assurance that British aid is tied; the Department makes the point that we are not going to be involved unwittingly or otherwise in discrimination against Dalit peoples through our aid programmes, and that several projects and programmes enhance the lifestyle, values and opportunities of Dalit peoples. I welcome and support that aspect of what is happening.

I want to draw attention to the issue on a wider scale. It was raised at the Durban millennium summit in 2000 and will no doubt continue to be raised elsewhere. It cannot be right that a country with India’s aspirations to modernity and to taking its place in the world, including a permanent place on the UN Security Council—a country that is obviously a major power in every aspect—can allow such discrimination to continue. Whenever I have raised that matter with Ministers or politicians in India, during visits to India, or with the high commission here, those concerned always point to the Indian constitution, which was written by the great Dr Ambedkar, who was himself a Dalit, although he later changed his faith from Hindu to Buddhism. Dr Ambedkar’s constitution is a remarkable document and clearly outlaws discrimination on the basis of caste or descent. However, it is equally clear that in reality Dalit people’s opportunities to get access to justice do not exist in many parts of the country. Denial of access to the law, discrimination against them by the police and by employers, and the traditions that are continued in many villages, are inimical to the interest of Dalit people.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to discrimination against Dalits, and not just Hindu Dalits. There is continuing discrimination even among people who identify themselves as Christians, or even Buddhists or Muslims, who are from Dalit families and communities. However, he must acknowledge the long-standing campaign by the Government of India to reduce discrimination and provide work opportunities. The Government should take considerable credit for the progress that they have tried to make with an admittedly enormous social problem.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, and I accept and understand that, because of the constitution and pressure from leaders of the Dalit community—which he rightly points out is not entirely Hindu but includes many different faiths—for a long time the Government of India have established reserved occupations and employment levels for people of Dalit descent. There is therefore a certain level of public employment of Dalit peoples, which is often the only access to any kind of normal, sustainable employment. The discrimination operates through the informality of other work, and through discrimination by a large number of private sector employers—but, interestingly,

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not usually the international ones; it is much more likely to be the smaller, local businesses. Some progress has been made, but the protection of a proportion of employment in public service for Dalit people often enables Governments to feel satisfied that they are doing their bit. However, it does not address the wider issues of the fundamental discrimination that goes on elsewhere.

I know that the Minister is fully aware of the matter, and I hope that the Select Committee on International Development, and the rest of the world, will keep its eye on it. The way in which 200 million people in India and in some other countries, such as Tibet, are treated because of discrimination by caste and descent is simply wrong. Apartheid in South Africa was wrong, and Dalit discrimination is equally wrong anywhere in the world.

3.29 pm

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and to the Foreign Affairs Committee for its inquiry. I also welcome the contributions to this debate.

A range of issues have been cited, including sanitation, health, tackling discrimination and exclusion, and the continued need for a focus on poverty reduction, given the changes proposed by the Government in respect of the important role that the private sector needs to play in Indian development. We must consider how we make such a transition in a way that maintains focus on alleviating poverty and tackling inequality.

India is a hugely important country for our aspirations in meeting the millennium development goals, for the future of international development and for economic development and growth. As the right hon. Member for Gordon and others have pointed out, our two countries not only have historical links—as shown by the success stories of the UK’s Indian population—but a strong future to look forward to and be optimistic about, if we play our cards right, both in terms of our work in international development and in terms of our economic relationships. Those relationships include the strengths that we have through our diaspora communities here in this country and their trading and family links with India, as well as their interest in alleviating poverty in India. Of course, the diaspora communities play a key role by providing remittance aid and support to India. We have a rich array of mechanisms for contributing to India in order to see it thrive and, in time, we ourselves will benefit from helping India; indeed, we are already benefiting.

We can rightly be proud of the progress that we have all worked for in making our contributions through the UK aid programme and other links towards India becoming a middle-income country. Although India takes the credit for getting to that stage of development, our relationships with and contributions to India should not be underestimated.

As right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, 72% of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries and, given that fact, we must change the way that we provide development aid. Once India was squarely in the group of developing countries, but now it is a roaring economic success story. The three decades following India’s independence saw minimal progress, but that

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legacy was cast aside in the next three decades, as India enjoyed staggering growth figures. India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, even at a time of global economic crisis. Its economic growth has topped 7% in just about every year since 1980. As President Obama said during his 2010 visit to India:

“India is not emerging, it has already emerged.”

What is remarkable about India’s growth is that it has not just been dependent on labour-intensive, low-priced exports to the west. Instead, it has been driven by a new middle class consuming domestically produced goods, the rise of service industries and a focus on high-tech manufacturing. Innovation and entrepreneurship have been central to the birth of the new India, which many of us are very excited about, especially those who have an origin there. I myself do not claim to have an origin in India, but many people in my constituency and in other Members’ constituencies do. Their presence in Britain is a positive example of the links between Britain and India.

As the former colonial power, Britain has had a long, if sometimes chequered and challenging, relationship with India, which several Members have pointed out. As we look to the future—not only the future of India, but the future of Britain—we have a unique opportunity to build a new and special relationship between the two countries, which will provide a significant opportunity for the UK economy in the years ahead. We can already see the benefits of that relationship, and in the years to come there is no reason why we should not continue to see them.

Although our aid programme is not about promoting economic opportunities, as several Members have pointed out, if we can establish an appropriate aid strategy, there will be great dividends, not only for our economy but for India’s. It will be of mutual benefit for the two countries.

Having said that, there are two Indias and that has been reflected in the Select Committee’s report and in the contributions to this debate. One India is vibrant, innovative and at the forefront of a new political and economic powerhouse, but the other India looks much less inspiring. The testimonies that have been given in the Select Committee’s report, some of which were given to the members of the Select Committee on their visit to India, show that there are two Indias. There are references in the report to human rights violations and discrimination, which are faced by particular groups, such as the Dalits, women and other religious minorities. There are also concerns about lack of freedom of speech and other human rights violations, and we should maintain our focus on those issues.

The reality is that, behind India’s story of success, there is also deep poverty, which all the Members who have contributed to this debate have highlighted. There are 800 million people in India living on less than $2 a day, half of whom—400 million people—live on only $1.25 a day.

A third of the world’s poor live in India. As several hon. Members have pointed out, there are more poor people in India than in sub-Saharan Africa. Tackling such poverty and inequality must be the focus of our development programme.

Regarding the work that we have already done, when Labour was in power, there was a great focus on reducing

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maternal mortality in India. Huge progress has been made in that area, but much more needs to be done, given that India still accounts for a fifth of all maternal deaths globally. Child mortality in India has also fallen, but each year 1.83 million children in India still die before the age of five. The Select Committee’s report highlights many of these continuing challenges and, in essence, points to the need for a continued or even renewed focus on alleviating poverty.

Although the promotion of the private sector’s role in providing aid to India is significant, and builds on some of the work done under the last British Government, there are major issues that need to be addressed, as has been pointed out already in this debate. If we are to channel 50% of our aid to India through private sector development, it would be valuable to see precisely how that will be done. What kind of programmes will be beneficial for pro-poor development? It is also important that there is sufficient monitoring and evaluation of the programmes and their funding, including programmes that are in the private sector. Just as we set tests for non-governmental organisations when we channel aid through them, it is vital that the same standards of measurement and transparency are applied to aid that is channelled through private sector organisations.

There are great opportunities for developing the private sector’s role in providing aid. We can see the impact that microfinance has already had in many parts of the world, including in India, Bangladesh and many other countries. However, although we welcome the role that the private sector can play in tackling poverty in India, there is a real need to ensure that our focus remains on poverty alleviation. Right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted the need for that focus on poverty to remain, and it would be valuable to see more detail in the Department for International Development’s plans, to build on the detail that has already been provided.

I want to highlight a couple of other issues, one of which relates to monitoring. We believe that the Department should provide further information on the significant investment being channelled through the private sector, including details of the kinds of investment and of how it will focus on poverty. The second issue relates to gender, on which there has been some emphasis. How precisely could programmes such as microfinance be used to support women and create economic opportunities for them?

I welcome the contributions made by the members of the Select Committee and, in this debate, the focus on ensuring that we continue to provide assistance to India. Looking forwards to 2015, we must consider how best Britain can maintain its focus and act as a catalyst through its aid programme, but we must also ensure that we have a way of exiting that ensures that India can be genuinely self-sufficient. We must leverage our influence and resources in such a way that over the coming years—post 2015—India is genuinely in a position to itself provide the welfare systems and support needed to tackle poverty and is no longer dependent on aid, from Britain or anywhere else. The facts and numbers show, however, that we are a long way from that, and Britain must therefore continue to maintain its commitment to the aid programme until such time as India is genuinely in a position to lift the millions who remain in poverty and who require our assistance.

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3.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien): I congratulate the Chairman of the International Development Committee, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), on securing this important debate, and I thank him for his excellent speech, which reflected the combined work of him and his Committee members. It not only focused on the India programme, but set it in a context that had a huge read-across to the justification and principles that underlie where we should place our UK effort to be partners in aid, and then to graduate to development and to securing a better future for people who have many disadvantages. His comprehensive, thorough, thoughtful and evidence-based speech got the debate off to a most respectful and useful start. Our timing happily coincides with the Foreign Secretary making, as we speak, a keynote speech to launch the King’s India Institute at King’s College, on what is India’s republic day and the 62nd anniversary of the signing of its constitution, so there is some poignancy to the debate.

Let me put the debate into context. When the coalition Government came into office in 2010, we made it clear that we wanted to build a different style of international development, one based on dynamic partnerships that reflected our networked world and focused on a relentless pursuit of results and value for money in the Department for International Development’s work. Our vision acknowledges the prominence and value of Britain’s involvement in the alliances on development that were so important in the past, but also looks to the relationships and international forces that will shape the future.

Engagement with the emerging powers is a cornerstone of the policy, as the Secretary of State for International Development set out in a speech at Chatham House in February last year. I am sure that Members will have noted, as did the Secretary of State in that speech, that in the space of a few short decades the world has become a very different place. Whether we are talking about the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—the Asian dragons, the tiger economies or the gulf giants, the new powers will influence world affairs in the future, and it is therefore in our interests to engage with them now.

Of all the emerging powers, it is India with which we will have the most multidimensional relationship and partnership. Our shared history, and political and personal links, all mean that India is important to the United Kingdom, and the Prime Minister’s visit so soon after the election in 2010 reflected the importance we attach to the relationship.

As the right hon. Member for Gordon is aware, in the last year we have completed a root-and-branch review of the aid programme to ensure that our spend is targeted where it can achieve the greatest results. The review made it clear that we can achieve real results for poor people in India. Why? Because the Indian Government are ploughing record tax revenues into poverty reduction programmes, and in that environment, our development expertise can ensure that the impact of those resources is maximised for the benefit of the poorest in Indian society. Indeed, we estimate that the United Kingdom’s aid has lifted 2.3 million people out of poverty in rural India in the past five years and put an additional

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1.2 million Indian children into primary school since 2003, demonstrating that there has been a succession of Administrations with a shared responsibility.

The value of these efforts received cross-party endorsement when the International Development Committee completed its assessment of the UK’s development programme in India and concurred with our decision to continue our funding until 2015. I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s perfectly legitimate, well-articulated and constructive criticism, and his constructive approach to holding a Department of State to account—through his Select Committee, in this case—and I hope it is noted that DFID delayed finalising the 2011 to 2015 operational plan for India until after his Committee had made its recommendations. We were then able to take the recommendations into account before publishing the operational plan on the DFID website in October 2011.

The pace of India’s transformation to date has been remarkable, as hon. Members have noted. Although economic growth has slowed in recent months, India is still achieving enviable rates of growth—rates we would give our eye teeth for—lifting 15 million people out of poverty every year. But we know that the benefits of the growth are not being shared equally and the scale of Indian poverty remains massive. India’s poorest states—each of them larger than most African countries, as has been well noted—still face huge development challenges. More than half the girls in Madhya Pradesh do not yet go to secondary school, more than half the young children in Bihar are undernourished, and one quarter of all pregnancies are unwanted or mistimed.

Our decision to maintain our programme in India was coupled with a very clear conviction, well picked up by the Select Committee, that the programme should also be radically different. Because of India’s economic growth and its own increasing resources, we are bringing the development partnership up to date. Since the publication of the International Development Committee’s report on the future of aid to India, we have agreed a new approach with the Government of India, and I think that the right hon. Member for Gordon importantly wanted to ensure that that had happened.

The approach has three main pillars. The first is an innovative new private sector programme, using returnable capital to promote pro-poor private investment in India’s poorest states. Rather than just read out the bullet points, I will give a bit more detail, to pick up on some of the points raised, particularly by the hon. Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). It is in the interests of the poor and the UK taxpayer that resources are used sparingly and only where most needed, attracting private capital where possible, but it makes good value-for-money sense, and it is certainly good for poverty reduction, to use our resources over and over again if we can. So the answer is yes, the resources will be reapplied for India. I say “if we can,” because we must ensure that we preserve at all times the ability to apply rigour.

Malcolm Bruce: Is my hon. Friend able to say what the CDC’s role will be? The CDC is being revamped, and it seems that some of this returnable kind of capital would be appropriately delivered through that body. Is

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there an active dialogue between DFID and the CDC about how the private sector funding will develop in India?

Mr O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. In many degrees, this is a question of a stratified approach. It is really to do with the risk appetites and the profile of the funding instruments that lie behind it. I can certainly confirm that we hope that the revamped CDC will be able to take a greater interest in applying its patient capital approach, particularly to some of the infrastructure support that lies behind economic development, not least in the poorest states. But let us be absolutely clear, with the DFID instruments, we are able to put forward the funding that we do because our capital can take bigger risks in riskier places than even that of the CDC. We have to recognise that there is a connection, but not necessarily an overlap.

Barry Gardiner: I am particularly grateful to the Minister for addressing the point about the returnability of capital, because it is an important one to clear up. Will he state absolutely categorically that “returnable to the taxpayer”, which I believe is the phrase the Secretary of State used, does not mean that the capital should be returnable to the British taxpayer but that it should go back to the fund, and then, as the Minister said, be reapplied for the alleviation of poverty?

Mr O'Brien: I confess that, in all my briefings, I have not seen the phrase “returnable to the taxpayer” used by anybody. Let me be clear: this is returnable in relation to the repeated use of the resources for the application of their purposes in India. That is the idea. The International Development Act 2002 allows us to use returnable capital instruments, such as equity investments, guarantees and other hybrid forms—combined loans and equities—that promote development and poverty reduction.

There are entrepreneurs who improve the delivery of basic services. For instance, Irfan runs mobile clinics that provide a comprehensive range of outpatient medical services to poor people who are left out. He needs capital to buy the mobile vans and operate a professionally managed unit to provide quality service and make a profit. We can help entrepreneurs like him to do both, so that we have development and the sustainability provided by a profitable business. That is an example of a private sector programme.

The second pillar that we have agreed with the Government of India is a programme to help women and girls break the cycle of poor nutrition, poor education and early pregnancy that traps so many in India in poverty. That will focus our programme on the poorer states of India, particularly Bihar, Orissa—which has been renamed Odisha—and Madhya Pradesh.

A good example of transformation relates to some of the basic issues identified not only by the right hon. Member for Gordon, but by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. Mention has been made of manual scavenging—people cleaning toilets with their hands—which is not something that any of us could easily contemplate. The Department of International Development is supporting the Indian civil society organisations and there has been a series of successful local campaigns on the issue. We hope that, soon, this shameful practice will no longer exist.

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Jeremy Corbyn: I am glad that the Minister is addressing this issue. What monitoring is taking place of private sector organisations that might be in receipt of equity capital via Britain or public sector organisations, in order to ensure that there is no discrimination anywhere on the basis of caste and descent? We should support the Dalit civil rights organisation and others, as the Minister has rightly said, to lift them out of the poverty and discrimination from which so many of them suffer.

Mr O'Brien: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He focused in particular on the Dalit population, and the third pillar that we have agreed with the Indian Government directly addresses his point. It is a new programme of co-operation with India on global issues, such as climate change, trade and food security. Linked to that is addressing full-on social exclusion. We have agreed with the Government of India and Odisha to set up a conditional cash transfer scheme to help more than 220,000 tribal and Dalit girls who are currently in the last year of upper primary school get the opportunity of secondary education.

Our civil society programmes in India are consistent and directly target the poorest and most vulnerable people, particularly the Dalits. They also target tribal people, Muslims, women and disabled people in order to get them to organise, understand their rights and get access to services and opportunities that they have often been denied. In direct response to the International Development Committee’s recommendation, we will increase the funding available to civil society organisations to work with the poorest and most excluded people in the poorest states. That will cover 120 of the poorest districts in India. DFID’s poorest areas civil society programme—PACS—focuses explicitly on tackling social exclusion, discrimination and inequality. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned monitoring and evaluation, which are crucial because otherwise we would not receive any feedback. They are designed into the programmes, so we will be able to report on them as they develop and make sure that we are held to account on their performance.

Mr McCann: On pro-poor private investment, one of the Committee’s issues was how that would be scaled up so that half the budget could go on those types of projects. We have witnessed microfinance projects, but the scaling up of those would mean thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individual projects. We are most concerned about how that would be managed. Will the Minister provide more detail on whether he expects microfinance projects to be the foundation of how the money will be spent?

Mr O'Brien: I hope that I will have enough time to answer that question. I have a great slug of information to add on the private sector but, given the topic of the debate, I want specifically to cover the recommendations of the IDC’s report. The IDC has made a valuable contribution to the new shape of our programme in India and its recommendations encompass the points highlighted by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).

As the Committee noted, UK aid matters in the poorest states, where there are the fewest donors and where growth has not yet made a significant impact on poverty. We are therefore focusing on those poorest

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states, and we will help states access India’s own resources, improve the environment for business and investment, make sure that the public get a better deal from public services, improve financial procedures and reduce corruption.

We have taken note of the Committee’s recommendation to concentrate more resources on needy sectors, and we plan to double our support—this is an important point, first raised by the Chairman of the Committee—for water and sanitation over the next four years, giving 5 million people access to better sanitation. We want to increase the amount of burden-share that others may assist us with, but let us be clear that, through community approaches, for every pound we spend on sanitation, we expect Government partners to spend approximately £20. We are piloting community-led total sanitation in Bihar and, assuming that it proves effective, will roll it out.

The Prime Minister of India recently described child malnutrition—another point raised by the Committee Chairman—as a national shame. Over the next four years, DFID aims to reach more than 3 million children through nutrition programmes, including—not least over the first 1,000 days and with the Governments of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha—a programme on child-feeding, micronutrient supplements and diarrhoea management. Trained community health workers are very much part of that programme. Our energies are focused on delivering the results expected of our programmes. For instance, 447,000 births between 2011 and 2015 will be delivered with the help of nurses, midwives and doctors in those three states, but it is too early to finalise our plans for post-2015.

I appreciate the interest of the Committee, but let us be clear that we will not be in India in a development relationship for ever. Our aim over time is to move from an aid-based relationship to one based on shared contributions to global development issues, not least climate change.

Malcolm Bruce: Will the Minister acknowledge that, according to our discussions with the Indian Government, they themselves see the relationship changing and coming to an end? It is not just a decision for the United Kingdom Government; it will be a joint decision between the UK and the Indian Government.

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Mr O'Brien: I appreciate that. It has to be a progressive partnership throughout. There will be some gradations of transfer. As I think the right hon. Gentleman recognises, in the past it was not appropriate to draw a line and there will be no absolute cut-off in the future.

We all know how important the private sector will be. The Secretary of State visited India recently. We believe in helping entrepreneurs who have innovative and creative ideas get access to some form of funding—above and beyond microfinance—to help them have a lasting impact on poor people. That is demonstrated by the increasing numbers of staff in our Indian office who are focused on these matters. The Secretary of State also secured the Government’s approval of a new programme promoting investment in India’s poorest states. The Samridhi partnership is the first private sector development project, and it will be delivered in partnership with the Small Industries Development Bank of India. He also supported the expansion of microfinance plus patient capital to entrepreneurs. Such projects will be developed and we will have to monitor and evaluate them, but the important thing is to make sure that they deliver the necessary profitable, sustainable businesses, as well as the pro-poor development goals that we all want to achieve.

As the Secretary of State found on his visit, we have made progress on the transformation of our programme. Our challenge now, as noted by the Committee Chairman, is to press ahead with work to achieve ambitious results. We plan to deliver for India’s poor and to work together with India to secure development outcomes on a global scale and in the context of a gradual but important process of graduation from aid to, ultimately, a truly global partnership based on trade.

3.59 pm

Malcolm Bruce: I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, which has been extremely positive and constructive. The Committee’s mood and the Minister’s response is that we are working in partnership with the Government and the people of India. Indeed, what we are doing, we are doing together and in full participation. The fundamental concern and objective is to ensure that the poorest of the poor people in India get the support that they need to stop being poor as fast as possible. The UK’s ability to accelerate that process will be the most positive measure and judgment of our engagement.

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Human Rights

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: Eighth Report of the For eign Affairs Committee, The FCO’ s Human Rights Work 2010-11, HC 964, and the Government s Response, Cm 8169 .]

4 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak for the first time with you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. As you are a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in your own right, I can think of no one more appropriate to chair this debate.

The Committee has published its report on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2010-11 human rights report. I am delighted that we have the chance to debate it today. Human rights are under the spotlight around the globe, so nothing else could be more important to debate. I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench, having seen him in other incarnations today; he is obviously having a busy day. I pat the Foreign Office on the back for its decision to honour its election pledge to continue publishing its annual report on human rights, albeit in a more cost-effective form.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee was not here for the earlier debate on India, which lasted for one and a half hours. Apparently, we now have only one and a half hours to debate human rights. Will he use his good offices as Chairman to ensure that, in future years, we have a full day’s debate on international human rights? It is simply not good enough for the British Parliament to spend one and a half hours a year on international human rights.

Richard Ottaway: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I suspect that that point may be made by other hon. Members today, and I agree completely with the sentiment. For that reason, I do not intend to speak for too long, to allow others to speak.

I welcome the fact that the Government are still publishing human rights reports, although in a more modest form than in the past. I am delighted that Amnesty International welcomes that as well and has said:

“It is something that we value enormously…we have real respect for this report”.

I also welcome the fact that the Government continue to update the list of countries of concern online on a quarterly basis and that they have established an advisory group on human rights that includes practising lawyers, academics and representatives of non-governmental organisations, many of whom have eminent positions in the human rights system. Again, Amnesty welcomes that, for the obvious reason that, if experts talk to the FCO, it can produce a more informed report.

The report was based mainly on the period from January to December 2010. Much has happened since then in the human rights field, with the Arab spring, Bahrain, Syria, Russia and numerous other important events. On the Arab spring, the Foreign Affairs Committee

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will go to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in two or three weeks’ time. The role of the Foreign Office in recognising and promoting human rights there will be a part of our inquiry as it develops.

I will touch on a couple of countries of concern. The first is Bahrain, about which I suspect we may hear more and where there have been many developments. I will not go through them now, as colleagues will be well aware of them, but it was our view that Bahrain should have been included in the report’s list of countries of concern. In response to the Select Committee’s requests for an update on the situation in Bahrain, the Secretary of State wrote to me saying:

“We do not hesitate to express disagreement with the Bahraini authorities. Although we do not agree on everything, Bahrain is a key ally of the UK and this close relationship allows us to have the frank discussions that often are necessary. We have, therefore, made it clear to the Bahraini Government that the civil rights of peaceful opposition figures, along with the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, must be respected.”

I support that approach. I recognise the Bahraini regime’s dignified response and its establishment of the independent commission of inquiry, but I encourage the Foreign Office to keep on the button as far as Bahrain is concerned, to follow through on the commission’s work and to ensure that the Bahraini Government implement the necessary reforms.

The second area of concern is Libya. Again, I need not remind the House of the developments there, but it is worth quoting the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who addressed the UN Security Council recently. She raised concerns about the detainees being held by revolutionary forces, saying that some 8,500 prisoners were being held in about 60 centres. She said:

“The lack of oversight by the central authority creates an environment conducive to torture and ill treatment.”

The Minister responded by confirming that the Government

“do not lose sight of the victims of this conflict. The conditions of those in detention have been raised by Ministers on visits, and directly with the Libyan Government.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 609.]

The situation at the moment is pretty dire. Militias are free to roam around, and unlimited weapons are available. We need basic adherence to the fundamental human rights that we consider important. Again, the Committee will consider that.

However, it is not all bad news. Across the globe in Burma, distinct improvements have been made. I like to think that that is a result of pressure by the international community. Changes have been made to the electoral law that allow Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to register for the forthcoming by-elections, political prisoners have been released and moves have been made towards greater media freedom, all of which are important human rights advances that we recognise, welcome and accept. We must work to secure more critical resolutions in the UN and make our concerns known at the highest level with Burma’s neighbours, as well as our expectation that continuing pressure will be kept on the country. I urge the Foreign Office to remain vigilant and press for further reform, but we should recognise that the improvements have come about partly as a result of the Government’s influence.

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The next report will consider some cross-cutting issues, subject to the Committee’s agreement. We will be considering involvement in rendition, and we welcome the fact that the UK has examined its own human rights practices in that area. We are looking forward to hearing in more detail why the detainee inquiry chaired by Sir Peter Gibson has been brought to an end. From what I hear, it was clearly the right decision, and I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has kept open the intention to hold an independent, judge-led inquiry after all police investigations have been concluded. That is obviously the right way forward. I hope that the Minister can confirm that.

The Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for soft power, wrote to us in November to say that Ministers have commissioned further work on the strategy and that a final version of the paper has still to be published, but did not include a date. Can the Minister update us on what is causing the delay and what exactly will be published? We touched in our report on the public diplomacy aspects of the Olympic games, so our dialogue with the Foreign Office on that matter has been ongoing.

I shall briefly touch on programme funding and official development assistance for human rights. There seems to be a bit of a dichotomy in that one has to be eligible for ODA funding to qualify for a human rights funding programme. It is conceivable that a country that at first sight may not qualify for ODA funding—the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development has gone now—has a human rights aspect that needs funding. That seems a little odd.

In conclusion, I should like to raise the fact that the World Service is being jammed by Iran and that there are problems with the BBC Persian TV output, which is particularly important in this area. Independent research shows that, in that part of the word, the service is the most trusted, impartial and objective international radio programme, which is probably why the regime is jamming it. I understand that Iran is a member of the International Telecommunication Union, which is a United Nations body. As such, it has committed itself to the free exchange of information and data for the benefit of all. Iran is therefore in breach of its obligations under that treaty. Again, I hope that the Foreign Office can take that up with the regimes.

I will now leave it to other hon. Members to express a view on our report, which we think is particularly important. We will publish another such report this year. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other colleagues.

4.11 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, although I suspect it is a case of poacher turned gamekeeper. You are normally on the Foreign Affairs Committee along with us, and I am sure that you would have made a contribution to this debate if you were not chairing it.

I acknowledge the importance of the annual report, which was an initiative of the previous Government. I am glad that this Government have carried it on. As chair of the all-party group on human rights, I must say

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that the report provides a useful tool by which to understand the FCO’s stated positions on particular issues, as well as for parliamentarians and civil society to challenge and measure the Government against those ambitions and principles.

I welcome the FCO’s initiative to release quarterly electronic updates on the countries of concern listed in the report. However, it is critical that the report continues to be annual and comprehensive and that it is released publicly in a paper format. I agree with others: it is a pity that a debate of this kind is being squeezed into a very short period. Such a debate should be held on the Floor of the House, not in Westminster Hall.

The Foreign Secretary states in his foreword to the 2010 report that human rights are part of the FCO’s “irreducible core” and that the promotion of human rights is

“indivisible from our foreign policy objectives”.

Those are very worthy statements and, of course, I welcome them. In April last year, I sent a written question to the FCO seeking to ascertain the number of identifiable human rights officers posted to British embassies and missions overseas, which is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. The Government say that they support human rights as a general principle, and I am sure they would acknowledge the importance of bilateral defence relations and country-to-country trade. British embassies around the world have identifiable personnel who are responsible for ensuring that British positions on defence, trade and investment are heard and, we hope, acted upon. It seems to be perfectly reasonable, therefore, to ask how many human rights officers operate and in which countries.

In the response—not from this Minister; it was on a particularly busy day—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), said that all staff at all locations had human rights as a top priority and that

“For operational and security reasons we cannot give further details of staff deployments and activity levels”.

I asked that question again when the FCO Minister responsible for human rights appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and I was given a similarly implausible answer. I say implausible because, in answer to a written question in the other place on 8 November 2010 about the number of military attachés deployed in British embassies overseas, the Government were able to give a detailed list of attachés in individual embassies in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa, including the distribution by rank.

Today, the Committee received a letter from the Foreign Secretary in which he, again, does not answer the question. He obscures the issue by raising security and operational concerns, so I still have not got an answer. However, he did promise to come back to the Committee with an estimate of the scale of resources devoted to human rights work across the network. I look forward to that and hope it will be more enlightening than the answers that I have received from FCO Ministers to date. Someone with clout must be identifiably responsible for human rights—monitoring and reporting, meeting civil society and advocating British positions with academics and Government officials, gathering data on the ground

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and producing expert information on political, social, economic and legislative developments that have worrying consequences for human rights in a given trouble spot. That is precisely the kind of human intelligence we need to understand emerging problems and, where possible, prevent them.

I should like to refer to striking the balance between trade and human rights. What the Arab spring has shown is that the UK has been much too lax in the monitoring of the sales of arms and dual-use equipment to Governments in the middle east and elsewhere. That applies to the previous Government as much as it does to this one. Although we have applauded popular calls for democracy in the middle east, we have frequently seen those calls answered with British-made weaponry and surveillance equipment. The licensing of a wide variety of weaponry and components to countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen has been misguided. Licences must be rejected when there is a substantial risk of arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.

Let us consider, for example, the case of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Through summer and autumn last year, very credible human rights non-governmental organisations were documenting severe human rights abuses by the Bahraini security services—those allegations have since been backed up by the King-appointed independent commission of inquiry—and Saudi troops were being sent into Bahrain. Yet in September last year, both the Bahraini and Saudi authorities were invited to attend the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair here in London. For those of us concerned by human rights and the momentum of the Arab spring, it seemed completely absurd for our Government at one moment to wring their hands over the situation in Bahrain and say that they were doing all they could, while simultaneously the self-same Government were invited to London and encouraged to buy more weaponry. How can the Government be regarded as credible among civil society and the populations of the middle east when they seem intent on undermining that credibility with those kind of inconsistencies?

On a matter related to human rights credibility and the arms fair that I mentioned a moment ago, I serve on the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which has been hearing some alarming information about the trade fair. That is important with regard to our discussions, because the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), gave a speech at the trade fair and said:

“defence and security exports play a key role in promoting our foreign policy objectives.”

At the same trade fair, it was discovered by campaigners that two Pakistani exhibitors were displaying promotional material for cluster munitions, which of course are banned by international law. That is not the first time that DSEI has been involved in controversy over exhibitors promoting banned equipment. Both the organisers and the Government should, by now, have a clear and robust compliance procedure to ensure that the UK is not a safe haven for the promotion of weaponry and equipment that is otherwise banned. It should not be left to NGOs and activists to police events that a Defence Secretary endorses as having a key role in

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promoting our foreign policy objectives.


I am recovering from flu, Mr Rosindell, and getting a bit croaky, so I shall wind-up quickly.

I urge the Government to reassert their diplomatic influence at the UN in 2012 to press for a comprehensive global arms trade treaty that will have a genuine impact on poverty and armed conflict in some of the most fragile societies. In recent evidence provided to the Committees on Arms Export Controls, the UK working group on arms—a coalition of NGOs, including Amnesty and Oxfam—told us that

“other supportive states (including major UK allies) have been telling us at the UN that their impression is that the UK has ‘rolled back’ in its leadership and activity on the ATT. Comments tend to focus on UK interventions at the ATT being notably much less substantial than in previous years, a reduction of political profile, and an absence of senior official activity”.

The Minister is vigorously shaking his head.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): Absolutely.

Ann Clwyd: The working group also questioned whether the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Ministry of Defence were allocating sufficient resources to ensure a meaningful treaty. Given that the UK Government—both this one and the previous one—have pressed so hard for a global comprehensive arms trade treaty, would not it be a monumental defeat for British diplomacy if we failed to engage all our resources at the last hurdle and ended up with a weak, ineffective treaty?

The examples that I have given do not suggest that the Government are neglecting human rights; it would not be fair to say that. Excellent work is being done both here in London and in embassies around the world. The Government need to consider whether all their actions genuinely reflect the statements that they make on the importance of human rights and whether we sometimes undermine the excellent work done on the ground by FCO staff.

Can we welcome Bahraini princes to Downing street and be taken seriously when we say that we are deeply concerned about human rights there? Are we undermining our position on the global arms trade by not setting the highest standards for Government-endorsed arms trade fairs?

Human rights are not just for the FCO; they must be reflected in the work of the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and, not least, in Downing street. I urge the FCO to work with those other arms of government to establish how they can ensure that human rights are not placed in a box at the FCO. I suggest that the FCO deliver a report next year that takes into account all the Government’s external relations activities, including those beyond the FCO, so that we can judge the efforts of the whole Government, not just one of their arms, in furthering the cause of international human rights.

4.24 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who makes such a conspicuous contribution to human rights in this House. Like others, I am very glad that we have finally got this debate. The House may not appreciate that notwithstanding the

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admirable decision by the late Robin Cook to produce, for the first time, a Foreign Office statement in full written form on human rights, this is the first debate that we have had on the Foreign Office annual report since 18 December 2008, over three years ago. That delay was, in part, due to the intervention and the timing of the last general election. I earnestly hope that we will re-establish an annual debate on the Foreign Office’s human rights report and that that debate will be a full three hours in length, as it has previously been. The Chamber will be glad to hear that I will be severely truncating my planned two-hour speech to ensure that all hon. Members can make a suitable contribution.

At the outset, let me say to the Minister that I welcome the fact that the Foreign Office has, deservedly, devoted substantial resources to producing this 355-page written document. That is an admirable use of resources. It is invaluable to have it and I strongly support the point that has been made by the Chairman and other right hon. and hon. Members that this must continue in a sensible portable form—in written and published form.

I want to start by referring to a recent document that has come out following the Foreign Office’s annual report and our own report on that. It is “Human Rights Guidance,” which the Government have recently published in relation to overseas security and justice assistance. I wish to highlight two points in relation to that. First, in his foreword to “Human Rights Guidance”—I very much welcome this—the Foreign Secretary says:

“It is of fundamental importance that HMG work on security and justice overseas is based on British values, including human rights and democracy, and this guidance is designed to support that.”

Given the fact that the Foreign Secretary says that, I find it surprising and disappointing that when we get to paragraph 13, where the Government list the human rights that must be upheld when security and justice assistance is provided, the list fails to include any specific mention of women’s rights. It includes, entirely rightly, violations of the rights of the child, but there is absolutely no reference whatsoever to violence against women or women’s rights. I hope that the Government, like me, will regard that as a very serious omission. It is an even more striking omission when the letter that the Foreign Secretary sent to the Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), yesterday, rightly includes women’s rights among the five global human rights priorities that the Government have set. Why is there no reference to women’s rights in this very important human rights document? I hope that the Minister will reflect on that.

There is a further, equally surprising omission, which I wish to highlight in my capacity as Chairman of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. This security assistance refers to assisting in particular what are described as “security institutions overseas”. Those institutions are defined in the guidance. It states:

“The institutions typically (but not exclusively) of relevance in this context are: armed forces, police, gendarmeries, paramilitary forces, presidential guards, intelligence and security services (military and civilian)”.

In other words, they are organisations that feature armed personnel in overseas countries. My question for the Minister is why, in that document, which includes

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checklists for officials here and overseas in our embassies to follow, there is no reference anywhere to the requirement under the EU and UK “Consolidated Criteria” in relation to arms exports to follow those criteria, which, critically, include no sales of weapons, ammunition and so on that could be used for internal repression. Why is the document 100% silent on that crucial requirement? That is a further question that I put to the Minister.

There is another important sentence in the Foreign Secretary’s foreword. He says:

“It is in police stations, detention centres and court houses that the state exerts its greatest powers over individuals and so where fairness, human dignity, liberty and justice are most critical.”

I regard that sentence as 100% right and I am very glad that the Foreign Secretary has highlighted the critical point that autocratic dictatorships down the ages have always said to themselves, “If we can get those who oppose us locked up behind bars, we can do with them what we like.” That is where human rights are most vulnerable. I am glad that the Foreign Secretary highlighted that. I shall return to that sentence in relation to a particular country later.

I shall now deal with a number of individual countries, starting with Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I am glad that those are again rightly listed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office among the countries of concern. As the House knows, one of the most important human rights organisations, if not the most important—it is important to stress this; it is a Jewish human rights organisation—is called in English the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. In Israel, it is called B’Tselem. As I am sure right hon. and hon. Members know, B’Tselem is loathed in many sections of the Israeli community and particularly in parts of the Israeli Government. That reflects most eloquently the extremely important and invaluable job that B’Tselem does in highlighting human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Last year, I tabled a written question that the Minister himself answered. I asked what had been the Foreign Office’s financial support for B’Tselem during the past five years. I was delighted to receive the Minister’s written answer on 12 October. It told me that after a gap of several years, the Government had made a grant of £135,000 to B’Tselem in support of its efforts to improve the human rights situation for Palestinians in the west bank, the Gaza strip and East Jerusalem.

I urge the Government to continue to give support to B’Tselem for the extraordinarily important work that it does in trying to highlight and expose the human rights abuses that are taking place in the face of the continuing relentless and, indeed, I have to say ruthless policy that the Israeli Government have followed for many years of bringing about illegally the de facto annexation of East Jerusalem and the water-bearing parts of the west bank.

I now turn to Bahrain, as other speakers have done. Like others, I have noted that at the time the 2010 human rights report was prepared Bahrain was not listed among the countries of concern, and—again, like others—I found that a somewhat surprising omission, given that for years now the Sunni, autocratic Government of Bahrain have engaged in consistent and serious discrimination against the Shi’a majority in the country. I certainly hope that Bahrain will be included among the countries of concern when the Government produce their next human rights report.

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Of course, I appreciate that Bahrain is strategically of great importance. I know, as we all do, that it is the home of the US fifth fleet and that we face a sensitive and delicate situation in the strait of Hormuz. I also know that Bahrain provides a port for other NATO naval vessels, including our own. However, that is not sufficient grounds for going soft towards the leadership in Bahrain over the gross abuses of human rights that occurred in the country in the wake of the Arab spring against unarmed civilian demonstrators and, as we know, even against doctors and nurses who were performing their professional medical duties, as they were bound to do.

I note the Foreign Secretary’s statement in his letter to the Select Committee Chairman on 12 January, in which he sets out the Government’s human rights agenda as far as Bahrain is concerned, and I urge the Foreign Secretary to adhere tenaciously to the points that he set out in that letter.

If there is one country in the Arab spring firmament in which the leadership most deserves to be brought before the International Criminal Court in the Hague, it is Syria. I know that that will not happen to President Assad and those around him, for the simple reason that it would be blocked by the Russians who, of course, have a very important naval facility in Syria. Notwithstanding that, there is a real opportunity for the British Government to take the initiative. It looks as if the Arab League effort to try to stop the violence in Syria may now be in some considerable disarray and I hope that the Foreign Office is asking itself intensively what steps Britain and other countries can take to try to exert further pressure and to develop further policies that will stop the violence in Syria, and to help the move from autocracy to democracy in Syria that is urgently needed.

Like other right hon. and hon. Members who listened to the “Today” programme this morning, I was considerably moved by the broadcast from Syria, particularly hearing the crowd in a suburb of Damascus shouting, “Freedom, freedom, freedom”, in the background. I earnestly hope that the British Government will not be deaf to the cries for freedom emanating from the thousands of very brave people who are seeking freedom in Syria.

Lastly, I come to China, which brings me back to what I said about the Foreign Secretary’s statement in his foreword to “Human Rights Guidance” about human rights being in most danger when the state exerts power against individuals

“in police stations, detention centres and court houses”,

and other parts of the criminal justice system. No country in the world uses its state power more ruthlessly and more consistently than China against those who wish, entirely peacefully, to take a different view from that one-party, authoritarian state about how their country should be governed, a power that is used ruthlessly to imprison anyone who takes a different view, using the terrible, catch-all criminal offence of subversion against the state. As the House knows, in China in just the last few weeks, there has been a spate of arrests with sentences of some 10 years meted out to people such as Li Tie, Chen Wei and Chen Xi, to name but a few.

The Foreign Affairs Committee recently asked the Foreign Secretary how the Government’s human rights work fits with the promotion of trade, an issue which

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the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley has also raised. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary replied to the Committee’s Chairman in his letter of 25 January and stated:

“We do see our trade promotion and human rights work as mutually reinforcing”.

That line is convenient for the Government, and nationally self-serving, but in my view it is an illusion. The determined prosecution of human rights, and the determined prosecution of trade are not, in my view, mutually reinforcing; they are inescapably mutually conflicting.

The uncomfortable reality for Ministers—I accept that it is uncomfortable for them—is that they have a hard choice to make in relation to China and other countries around the world. Do they stand up straight and firm on human rights, or do they basically say that they will go through the motions on human rights and give first priority to our country’s commercial interests? In my view, on the evidence to date, this Government have made the same choice as the previous Government, and have said that they will give top priority to trade. We will pursue that issue in the arms export area with Ministers and in the report that is currently under consideration.

In conclusion, I find the Government’s position on human rights somewhat mixed. Much of the wording, but not all of it, is right, but in translating the words into hard action, in some countries at least, the action falls significantly short of the words. I am sure that the Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to have its scrutiny of the Government’s human rights policy very high indeed on the Committee’s agenda.

4.43 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure, Mr Rosindell, to speak under your chairmanship. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on touching on so many areas in the Select Committee’s report and the Government’s response. That makes it easier for me not to have to go into some of them. I agree about the importance of having an extensive debate. During the previous Parliament, we had from 2.30 to 5.30 pm in this Chamber to discuss Select Committee reports, such as that on human rights. I hope that in future we can have longer for such discussion. Having said that, I congratulate the Committee’s Chairman on obtaining a slot from the Liaison Committee, because it is not always easy to do so when there are competing demands.

I want to touch on a few countries, and then to make a substantive point. A few weeks ago, we had a debate in this Chamber on Iran. The hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) mentioned the jamming of the BBC’s Persian service. The Minister was also present at that debate, and I had an exchange with him about the Iranian Government’s propaganda channel, Press TV. Although it is not the British Government’s decision, I want to put on record my satisfaction that Ofcom has made the right decision on that.

The wider question of human rights in Iran needs to be highlighted. As we move into this sanctions period and the tensions that will undoubtedly arise in the coming weeks, it is important that we do not forget those millions of people who demonstrated for democracy and freedom against the repression and the rigged election in 2009.

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We also need to highlight some other countries. Our Committee did not highlight Nigeria, and the Government do not regard it as a country that warrants concern. None the less, the situation there has deteriorated remarkably quickly in recent weeks. Human rights is not just about what Governments do but about what non-state actors— insurgent groups, criminal organisations and terrorist organisations—do to abuse the rights of women, religious and cultural minorities and to carry out appalling human rights abuses against people because they have a different faith, clan, name, orientation or political belief. That is what is happening in Nigeria today and it is very worrying. I hope that we can get some update from the Government about that. Nigeria is an extremely important country in Africa and in the world as a whole. It is one of the largest and most significant African countries.

Similarly, we have ongoing issues in Pakistan, which were highlighted in our report. We have talked about the appalling murder of the Christian political figure, Salman Taseer, and the repression and the human rights abuses. Terrible crimes are being carried out by groups over which the Pakistan Government have no control. Given that more than 1 million people of British-Pakistani heritage have a close association with Pakistan, we need to keep our eye very closely focused on the country. Whatever we are doing with regard to withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan, we cannot withdraw our interest in the region as it is inextricably linked with our internal political dynamic relating to our British-Pakistani association.

Concerns have been expressed about the position of human rights in Colombia. I understand that the situation there is improving, but there are still reports of deaths and disappearances of political human rights activists and trade unionists. I know that the President of Colombia was here recently and that there have been some improvements and political change, but we need, none the less, to remind the Colombian Government that they still have some way to go before they fully meet the aspirations that they should have for human rights and trade union rights.

The European Court of Human Rights has just made an important judgment in which it upheld the idea of the memorandum of understanding and the removal, with assurances, of individuals from this country to Jordan. At the same time, it rejected the decision to remove the terrorist Abu Qatada from this country. I believe that that was regrettable and that the decision should be contested. None the less, it is important to understand that that judgment means that in general we can carry this process forward. We mentioned that issue in our report and it was referred to in the Government response. Will the Minister update us on where we are on that issue generally without necessarily commenting on the specific case?

Finally, I want to raise the more substantive problem of Sri Lanka. We as a Committee made some firm recommendations in which we commended Channel 4 for its documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, which showed the horrific scenes of the crimes carried out in the early part of 2009, at the end of the awful Sri Lankan civil war, between the Tamil Tigers and the forces of the Sri Lankan Government, both of whom carried out appalling human rights abuses.

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We reaffirmed our view that an independent international war crimes inquiry should be held to investigate the allegations of atrocities carried out by both sides. The Government said in their response that they would await the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Sri Lankan Government. As many of us predicted, that commission did not carry out the kind of investigation or produce the kind of report necessary to deal with the issues adequately.

The report was published towards the end of last year. The Government have now commented on it, as have numerous other countries. The British Government said that, on the whole, they are disappointed by the report’s findings and recommendations, and that there are gaps and unanswered questions. The US Administration expressed concerns that the report does not fully address the allegations of serious human rights violations. The Canadians have also been critical, and India has called for an independent and credible mechanism to investigate the issues.

It is time to return to the Human Rights Council to push the issue up the agenda again. I know that last time there was a blockage, the HRC, disgracefully, commended the Sri Lankan Government on their behaviour and refused to hold an international inquiry. I know that it would be difficult to take the Security Council route, because China and probably Russia would block it and the non-permanent members, including India, probably would not be supportive either, as they were last time.

Interestingly, last time, among the opposing countries in the HRC was Mubarak’s Egypt. Things have moved on since then. Maybe, given developments in the Arab world, it might be time for us to go back and see whether there is now more international support to raise the issues again in order to get a UN inquiry. Ban Ki-moon clearly tried to push for one. He went as far on the issue as he could as Secretary-General, because he could not get the institutions to go with him. He set up a United Nations panel of experts, who said that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission

“fails to satisfy key international standards of independence and impartiality, as it is compromised by its composition and deep-seated conflicts of interest of some of its members.”

That is clear. The Sri Lankan Government must understand that setting up an internal process that does not have the confidence of the international community or the Tamil population will not lead to the necessary reconciliation within the country. People are still in detention or are not being allowed to go back to their homes. There are issues involving settlement and what is regarded as an attempt to change the demographics in the north of the island, and there are serious concerns about individual human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The Government are all-powerful, the constitution gives the President great control and the Opposition—not just the Tamil Opposition but others—are intimidated or inhibited in many ways from doing what is needed internally. They need international support and solidarity. That is why it is important that the British Government speak out loudly, clearly and unambiguously, using whatever channels they can—the UN, the HRC and the Commonwealth—to raise those issues continuously.

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4.53 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I praise the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) for initiating this debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, especially the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who gave an eloquent declaration in defence of human rights and some well-made points about the rights of women and the valuable work of organisations such as B’Tselem, which I am happy to endorse.

While I am heaping praise on people, I would not mind praising Conservative Ministers—from the other side of the coalition, I guess—not only for producing human rights reports, which is the easy part of the process, but for the frequent declarations that I have heard in the House by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is here today, and by the Foreign Secretary, making clear Britain’s absolute commitment to human rights in a wide range of contexts.

As a Liberal Democrat in the coalition, human rights are central to my political beliefs. I date human rights policy back to a Liberal campaign—the Midlothian campaign—by possibly the greatest Liberal, William Gladstone, who in 1880 explicitly balanced the national strategic interest with the rights of people who were not even British citizens at the time. In many ways, that was the origin of international human rights policy. I am proud and humbled to stand in that tradition. For that reason, I welcome many of the recommendations, some of them quite tough, in the Select Committee report.

I particularly like recommendation 3, which states that

“failing to take a stronger and more consistent stance against human rights violations by overseas regimes can carry risks for the UK. In particular, any suggestion that the FCO downplays criticism of human rights abuses in countries with which the UK has close political and commercial links is damaging to the UK’s reputation, and undermines the department’s overall work in promoting human rights overseas.”

The report relates that to north Africa and the middle east, but it applies worldwide, although it was the Arab spring, as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said, which highlighted in some areas of policy, such as arms control, the weakness of some of our human rights checks on Government policy—not just this Government, but certainly the previous one, from whom we inherited the system. For instance, it appeared that, instead of a human rights check being carried out to consider the potential for arms to be used for internal repression, checks were made in respect of whether they were being used for repression at that moment, which effectively excused every regime in north Africa and the middle east, many of which had the most appalling human rights records. The report’s recommendations relating to that are well made.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to include Bahrain in the next human rights report and their response to the situation in respect of the Arab spring, which included cancelling more than 160 arms export licences, some clear declarations in the House of Commons and the declaration, in response to the Committee’s report, that more work by Government was needed in this area.

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First, in connection with the international arms trade treaty, we may possibly have some international collaboration that may contribute to some solution to that issue. What is the current state of negotiations on the international arms trade treaty? Does the Minister think that that could enable us to address human rights matters in the context of international arms sales? Secondly, if the Government have concluded that further work between BIS and the FCO is needed on this matter, is not it about time for them to agree on how that should be done and get on with doing it in some form? Thirdly, and finally, the Committee’s specific recommendation that we review arms sales to Saudi Arabia is well made. That is potentially a lucrative market that is valuable in respect of growth, and so on, but it is morally unacceptable to sell arms to repressive dictatorships, which may use them on their own people and may already have used military matériel in helping to suppress dissent in a neighbour’s territory.

I shall resist the temptation to do a world tour of human rights and will focus on Russia and China, two big, influential powers with domestic human rights issues, which are also major international players and permanent members of the Security Council and are therefore important in that respect.

In the case of Russia, I want to focus, first, on the appalling case of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009. There is a campaign to bring his persecutors to justice but there is a sense among some of those who are campaigning on his behalf that Britain is perhaps a little behind other states in taking firm action on this case, despite the fact that Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer working for a British company and Bill Browder, who is spearheading the campaign to bring Magnitsky’s persecutors to justice, is a British citizen.

In the US, the Netherlands and Switzerland, we have seen sanctions or progress towards sanctions, in the form of targeted visa bans or the freezing of assets, against the individuals implicated in the Magnitsky case. Moreover, because the Netherlands and Switzerland are part of the Schengen agreement, their action could close off most of Europe to those individuals. Nevertheless, I want to hear from the Minister if the Government are considering whether Britain should take similar action.

Then there are the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, who are now widely acknowledged by many people as political prisoners. Khodorkovsky has never seen his granddaughter. When representatives of the media or other third parties visit him in prison, those visits are taken away from the number of visits that he is allowed to receive from his own family, so he is suffering considerably.

There also ought to be honourable mention of Vasily Aleksanyan, who was a legal counsellor to Khodorkovsky’s company, Yukos. He died in prison last year, having turned down the offer of what was in effect a plea bargain, whereby he would perhaps have incriminated Khodorkovsky and Lebedev. He turned that offer down and it probably cost him his life.

I want Ministers not only to continue raising the cases of Magnitsky, Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and others, and consider imposing visa bans, but to reflect on some of the language that we are using about the European Court of Human Rights. Although I completely agree with the Government that the ECHR needs reform—the backlog of thousands of cases is clearly unsustainable

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and there are real problems with the Court being used much too freely—the campaigners for these Russian human rights defenders have expressed concern that the type of language and rhetoric that we are using about the ECHR is remarkably similar to that being used in Russia. We must guard against giving domestic Governments too much power to decide which cases go forward to the ECHR, because we may actually see cases such as those of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev being caught in that trap. Those cases are in that queue of thousands of cases that are waiting to be heard at the ECHR.

I will very briefly discuss human rights in China, as I can see, Mr Rosindell, that you are getting a little impatient. I want to draw attention to the situation in Tibet, and the three deaths and the continuing disturbances there. They have resulted from what seems to be an increasing denial of human rights, particularly religious rights, in that part of China. It is very unhelpful for the Chinese Government routinely to condemn secessionist groups, because the current elected administration-in-exile of Tibet is not actually calling for secession any more but looking for peaceful dialogue, and that opportunity should not be lost.

In the case of both China and Russia, however, there are some hopeful signs. Both countries are now more open societies than they were in the past. In the case of China, it is maintaining the “one country, two systems” approach to Hong Kong and actually tolerating a very free society there, but it has a myopia about human rights worldwide and is implicated in supporting some fairly unpleasant regimes around the world. Also, although China and Russia went along with action on Libya, their failure to support a firm UN resolution on Syria does neither country any justice.

There are many brave human rights defenders around the world who look to the British Government for leadership. I hope that we will continue to provide leadership and that we will perhaps even go further, as the Select Committee has recommended.

5.4 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I have four minutes in which to deal with the world’s human rights, so I will do my best. There is a message in that comment—this situation is ludicrous. Allowing one and a half hours to discuss the human rights of the whole planet, in what is apparently the first debate on this subject since 2008, is ludicrous. I appeal to the powers that be to ensure that something changes in that regard.

Very quickly, there are several points that I want to make. The first is about participation in the UN Human Rights Council. Britain is a full participant in that council, which I frequently attend on behalf of a non-governmental organisation called Liberation. The council has greatly reformed its ways, and the in-country peer group review that takes place every three years is a valuable tool, which we should use to the full. The British Government appear to have broken with the tradition of allowing the European Union to represent us at the council, and they make regular contributions, particularly on the death penalty. I hope that that extremely important new tradition continues. If we allowed ourselves to be represented solely through the

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European Union, an awful lot of cases would simply never be raised, such as the treatment of Roma people in Hungary and other places, so it is important to maintain an independent representation.

My first point is about human rights in Europe. I was present, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who presided over it, at the launch of Human Rights Watch’s “World Report 2012”. In the report is a fascinating essay by Benjamin Ward of that organisation, part of which states:

“At first glance, the idea of a human rights crisis in Europe might seem farfetched. But scratch beneath the surface and the trends are truly worrying. Four developments stand out: the rollback of civil liberties in state responses to terrorist attacks; the debate around the place of minorities and migrants in Europe, a debate too often laced with xenophobia; the rise of populist extremist parties and their baleful influence on public policy; and the diminishing effectiveness of traditional human rights institutions and tools. Unless governments wake up to the scale of the threat, the next generation of Europeans may see human rights as an optional extra instead of a core value.”

Those are very tough words, and very well put.

The narrative that has been developed by the popular press of constant attack on the European Court of Human Rights and its processes and potential judgments, is very unfortunate and misplaced, and it is damaging and dangerous to our own human rights. I regret the way in which the Prime Minister decided to go to the Court, and how it has been presented as an inefficient, incompetent organisation. Yes, there is a very large number of outstanding cases. Most of them are inadmissible. The issue, however, is one of resources for the court rather than of criticism of it. The Chagos islanders have a case before the Court’s grand jury, and I look forward to the result. I hope that the Government accept and abide by whatever decision the court takes, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm that they will.

We attack the institutions of human rights at our peril, and I hope that the Minister will say that the British Government intend to continue their participation in the European Court of Human Rights, and to continue with their acceptance of the European convention on human rights and its place in British law. The convention is an instrument of defence. Roma people in Hungary, and Travellers in other countries, have nowhere else to go, and victims of racist attacks across Europe are in part protected by the judgments made. We do well to state our strong view that we believe in human rights, and in the UN and European conventions. We should be proud of that, not afraid of it, frightened by it or intimidated by it.

5.8 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the Members present on their contributions. I, too, will not attempt a world tour of human rights, but I pay tribute to the Members who have talked in detail about the situation in countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Colombia and Sri Lanka. It is not possible for me to canter through those countries, but there were some very well made points.

I entirely endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) among others, about one and a half hours not being

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sufficient time for a debate of this nature. There is inevitably a time lag with such reports, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since this report was compiled, with developments in countries such as Bahrain and Syria. I hope that next year’s report is given the full justice of a debate in the Chamber, and a full-length one too.

Of course, Labour Members share the Committee’s belief that all Departments need to provide a clear, consistent and robust message on the fundamental importance of human rights. I note that the Committee’s report expressed concern about the delay in the Government’s strategy on the use of soft power, which has been mentioned. I hope that the Minister will take that back to the other Departments and urge them to do all that they can, and particularly to use the opportunities presented by forthcoming events such as the Olympics, to promote the Government’s human rights message.

More troubling was the conclusion by the Committee that the Government had failed to take

“a stronger and more consistent stance”.

Obviously, the Government have to be nuanced in the manner in which they respond to individual cases and to take into account the likely impact of private or public condemnation. Although I note that the Department’s official response was that the Government

“will not downplay criticism of human rights abuses”,

perhaps the Minister could respond in more detail on the Committee’s concerns and some of the concerns expressed by hon. Members today, particularly in relation to Saudi Arabia, Syria and Bahrain, and respond to the concern of Human Rights Watch that the UK may create an impression of double standards.

Throughout the report, a common theme is the greater emphasis under the current Government on the Foreign Office’s role in promoting the UK’s commercial interests. Of course, it is very important that we develop strong trade links with other countries, particularly at a time when the domestic economy is faring so badly, but there is always a balance to be struck, not least if the Foreign Secretary is to achieve his stated aim of a foreign policy that always has

“consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core”.

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has asserted that the UK must place

“our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy.”

When the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), gave evidence to the Committee, he said that the Government saw no inherent contradiction in those two statements, although he acknowledged that they could give rise to “short-term tensions”, so perhaps this Minister could elaborate on how the Department manages those short-term tensions. To what degree do we tolerate human rights abuses by a company that we are trying to secure a greater trading relationship with and to what extent do we use the trading relationship as a means of putting pressure on the other country to deal with those human rights abuses? I think that people will share my concern that in some instances the commercial relationship is deemed far more important than dealing with the human rights abuses.

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The Foreign Affairs Committee emphasised the need for human rights to feature more prominently across the Government, so will the Minister tell us what progress the Foreign Office is making with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, UKTI and UK Export Finance in particular? Let me single out one country in relation to which there is particular tension. The Committee highlighted that as a particular concern. I am referring to China. It is notable that the Chancellor of the Exchequer chose Asia for his first international visit of 2012. Obviously, Asia is a continent of great economic importance for us, but there is a careful balance to be struck. Will the Minister tell us whether officials were present during the Chancellor’s visit to raise the UK Government’s concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in that country and to make clear that, regardless of the purpose of the visit—whether it is primarily about economic matters or about other matters—human rights issues must always be on the agenda while such abuses exist?

The Committee noted its concern about the Prime Minister’s decision to visit the middle east to promote UK arms suppliers during the early stages of the Arab spring. It now seems that the UK continued to export between July and September last year to Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I would appreciate the Minister’s response to the conclusion of the Campaign Against Arms Trade that