“While the Government promotes arms exports to repressive regimes, it is pure hypocrisy for it to talk about supporting human rights and democracy.”

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) mentioned that there does not seem to be a reference in the report to what is regarded as the cornerstone of our arms export policy—that we do not export to countries that may use those arms for internal repression or external aggression. I would be pleased to get the reassurance from the Minister that that remains the Government’s objective when it comes to arms sales.

I share the concern of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) about the attempts to promote cluster munitions sales at the arms fair in the UK, which I know she raised at the Human Rights Watch report launch the other day. I would appreciate a reply from the Minister on that.

I will just skim over some of the other points. The delay in the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010 is another matter of concern to us, as is the postponement—cancellation—of the Gibson inquiry. I appreciate entirely why the Government have had to do that while a criminal investigation is ongoing, but can the Minister assure us that a future inquiry will be established on the basis that has the respect of NGOs, former detainees and the international community?

I shall just mention one of the countries specifically dealt with in the report, because the issues surrounding it are very much current. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) talked about Sri Lanka. We have recently had the report published by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. I hope that, at some point over the next few weeks, we will find time for a full debate on that in the House, because there are many question marks over the report, in relation to the terms of reference of the commission and its recommendations. I know that I am asking the Minister

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a lot of questions, but it would be helpful if he could he say whether there will be an opportunity for further debate on that, because there was only a written statement from the Government.

Finally, I would like to raise the decision to exclude countries not eligible for overseas development assistance from the human rights and democracy programmes. That runs the risk of excluding countries that could benefit from human rights projects. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is concerned that such an approach will limit the choice of which countries it works with. Will the Minister update us on that and clarify the support available to countries that are not eligible for overseas development assistance? What assessment is being made in the Department of the impact of that decision?

5.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): Through their contributions, all colleagues have made as clear a practical demand for more time to debate the subject as ever I could. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has done so in the past couple of minutes—I think there were 20 questions in 90 seconds. I am not the powers that be in relation to scheduling, as colleagues know, but I entirely take the point. Again, as most colleagues know me reasonably well, they will know that, if I could, I would spend an hour answering all the questions. I will certainly take the matters raised back to the Department. I am stepping in for the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), today as he has another engagement, but I am sure that both of us feel the same.

Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. You have presided over yet another excellent debate, in which colleagues from all parties have demonstrated a common commitment. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway)— I thank him for securing the debate and for how he has led it—the Government share the concerns raised. I appreciate the generous remarks made about the Government’s commitment to the matter, which were, perfectly properly, interspersed with demands for us to do more. That is the right of the House and of individual colleagues. There is an underlying sense of our commitment to the matter—Government in, Government out. That is very important and is a benevolent ratchet that the House applies to try to get us to do even more.

As is clearly the case, I cannot possibly answer all the questions. I will do my best to answer some, but I will also note all the colleagues who are present and ensure that a letter goes to them covering the particular issues I do not mention. Everyone here will then have a record. As I know of your personal interest in these matters, Mr Rosindell, I will perhaps copy you in on that letter, so that you are also aware of it.

I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for its positive and constructive engagement with the FCO in our work to promote human rights. I add to that a thanks to all those who are engaged in this work overseas, often in dangerous places—not just the NGOs, but the journalists.

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They do an extraordinary job at great risk to themselves in bringing us much of the information on which we have to rely and take a view.

The Government take a positive, activist approach to human rights around the world. As Ministers have consistently said since taking office, Britain will continue to stand for democratic freedom, universal human rights and the rule of law. Our values are essential to and indivisible from our foreign policy, and we will raise human rights concerns wherever and whenever they occur. All FCO Ministers take an active interest in human rights, and I am proud to be involved in this work. Indeed, reference has been made to the Foreign Secretary’s human rights advisory group, which has met three times since its formation in December 2010. It has challenged us to raise our game on business and human rights, an issue raised by a number of colleagues, and on promoting freedom of religion and belief.

We are not over-idealistic. We are interested in achieving results. We take a realistic and practical approach, working with the grain in countries throughout the world. We consistently raise human rights issues, including with major powers such as China, but we seek to do so in a way that we judge will have the most impact. The 2010 Command Paper that we are discussing today highlights 26 countries of concern in many regions of the world. They are those that have the most serious and wide-ranging human rights concerns. We also take account of the level of UK engagement, and consider where we can have an influence, and where there is potential for a broader, positive impact on a country or region.

The FCO has continued to fund projects around the world that make a real difference, including through a dedicated human rights and democracy fund. FCO-funded projects have helped to overturn death sentences in Africa, and in Uganda and Kenya alone that has resulted in hundreds of death sentences being overturned. Work that began in Mexico to increase the protection offered to journalists by the state was taken up throughout central America. We have made a tangible difference to the lives of some 60 million to 70 million disabled people in India by improving their access to polling stations, Government websites, and state television news.

On Colombia, which the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) mentioned, human rights were a theme of the visits to the United Kingdom of President Santos in November 2011, and Vice-President Garzón whom I met on Monday. One example of what has been achieved in Colombia—I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman—is that the Prosecutor General has created new specialist units to deal with crimes of forced displacement and forced disappearance following on from the recommendations of a project funded by the embassy.

China has been mentioned. We supported Chinese officials conducting pilot independent monitoring of pre-trial detention facilities, carrying out prison reform, improving the treatment of those with mental health conditions in the criminal justice system, and supporting the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence in criminal trials. I cannot answer the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Bristol East, but I will write to her about the presence of officials with the Chancellor. She can certainly be assured that such matters are not neglected or forgotten when dealing with China.

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In the immediate aftermath of the Arab spring, which my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mentioned when he opened the debate, Tunisia ratified the optional protocol to the convention against torture. We are funding early work through the Association for the Prevention of Torture to help Tunisia to implement the optional protocol, including by establishing an effective national preventive mechanism.

I am pleased to say that we have seen progress in human rights in some unexpected quarters. As was mentioned, the new Government in Burma have made some important political reforms in recent months, and released hundreds of political prisoners. Earlier this month, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Burma, and signalled to the President that we would support the Government in their efforts. The large release of political prisoners that followed his visit was a particularly welcome sign, but there is much to be done to repair the damage of the past, and the Select Committee can be assured that the Government are very alert to that.

Turning to some of the issues that colleagues have raised, I will do my best to deal with them. While we are on the Arab spring, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mentioned detainees in Libya. I was there just before Christmas, and the truth is that there is a Government there who are committed to principles that we regard as crucial, as set out by the national transitional council during the course of the conflict. But they are dealing with a system that, frankly, hardly exists. There is no structure for handling judicial cases in the manner that we would expect in relation to the detainees. There is concentration on doing the job. They know that the treatment of detainees is a key distinction between the new Government and the Gaddafi regime, so they want to get it right. There is a problem with capacity, and we must be understanding of the position in which they find themselves, after not just eight or nine months of conflict, but 40 years of a structure that is not conducive to the quality of justice and care of detainees that we would expect. We are working with them on that, and will continue to do so. They know how important it is. The transitional Government have acknowledged clearly that human rights abuses are taking place in prison, and they have promised to tackle that. We will also work with them on that.

My hon. Friend spoke about the problems relating to funding and the relationship with official development assistance. It is not the case that just because a country is not eligible for ODA funding that human rights support stops. We have some 12 programme funds, providing £139.5 million to support a wide-range of projects around the world, many of which include a human rights element. Such support is not consequent solely on the ODA criteria. The conflict pool and other funds are available, and we will continue to make them available. Indeed, some of the Arab partnership money is also being diverted to such projects as well.

Let me say to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), whom I know well from her interest in this subject over such a long period, that I will do my best to help her out a little in relation to the human rights advisers. I do not think that we are far apart on this matter. There is no deliberate obfuscation here. She suggested that the letter of my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State, obscured the issue. Let me read the key paragraph.

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the Committee—

“asked for details of the number of FCO staff engaged in human rights work across the world. Human rights represent an integral part of our Foreign Policy. It is therefore the case that all our Missions have a responsibility' to monitor and consider human rights. In order to give you a clearer sense of how much the FCO does, I have asked the department to do further work on estimating the scale of resource devoted to human rights work across the network, taking into account our wider policy not to provide full details of staffing numbers overseas for security and operational reasons. In Human Rights and Democracy Department (HRDD), we continue to have 25 permanent staff, plus one contracted Human Rights Adviser.”

In every post that I have visited over the past year, there are colleagues who are engaged in this work as part of what they do. The number of colleagues who will be engaged will vary according to what the circumstances are, but they are all engaged because it is a key principle of what we are involved in. The fact that there may not be a specific adviser in each post does not detract from the importance of the work, as, I trust, the compilation of the report and the commitment that we demonstrate might exemplify.

The reasons for being cautious about staffing numbers overseas for security and operational reasons has, I think, been explained to the Committee in private before, and there are good reasons for that. The matter of the defence attaché is different because it involves a different Department. Our caution is not designed to obscure a commitment to human rights. Our commitment is demonstrated by the work that we do and the fact that everybody is imbued with this sense of commitment, as opposed to numbers.

The right hon. Lady raised issues about arms exports and the like. This is a difficult area. If people are being clear cut, they would say that no one should sell arms; it is a very straightforward moral issue. As soon as we get into the position of saying, “Hold on, some countries have a legitimate right to defence and we are very good at supporting countries that might need to defend themselves,” then we get into the area of judgment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) knows that well; his Committee scrutinises everything that we do in great detail. Our criteria are open. They include prohibition against weapons that would be used for internal repression or the continuation of a regional conflict. However, that does not mean that in each and every case where there might be human rights concerns about some aspect of domestic policy, it necessarily governs a decision on arms that might be needed to protect and defend a state from incursion by others. The number of licences that we revoked after the start of the conflicts during the Arab spring showed that we have a flexible system that takes account of changing conditions, which is what is wanted. I know that my right hon. Friend will be exploring this matter further with the Foreign Secretary during a Committee session shortly.

The arms trade treaty, which was mentioned, is very important to us. I was shaking my head vigorously because I do sign off the odd letter in relation to this. I get a bit cross when NGOs from outside suggest that we lack commitment to the ATT. The ATT is mine and it comes under my remit. I am very committed to it and we are working very hard to get it right. Please do not

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feel that there is lack of commitment to this. It will be hard to get an agreement, but our commitment is very strong and very real.

I could say so much more. The fact that so many colleagues have such a strong commitment to this area matters a lot to the Government. I hope they feel that we share that commitment. We could debate each of the

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areas mentioned—Sri Lanka, Israel, the occupied territories, Iran and Pakistan—and I suspect that we will in due course. I will be happy to respond to colleagues’ letters and to speak on these issues in time to come.

Question put and agreed to .

5.30 pm

Sitting adjourned.