Skills are hugely important. I completely agree with the right hon. Member for Barking that the culture in the civil service puts too much emphasis on rewarding

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people who pursue policies and interests rather than commercial skills. That reflects the culture of a civil service that was borne out of a 19th-century approach to government administration. Today, the emphasis is not on government administration, but on delivering services to the public, often through third parties. We therefore need to reward commercial skills, not focus on policy. That will require behavioural and cultural change throughout the civil service. Ministers can only do so much: those values need to be adopted by those at the top of the civil service.

I welcome the Minister’s efforts to deliver the Government’s capabilities plan to address skills shortages, but over and again we see that these values are not being adopted throughout government. Every permanent secretary needs to be a champion of ensuring that those behaviours are rewarded. If we do not, we will see poor value for money for the taxpayer. We have already seen that when Departments are not comfortable with managing commercial contracts, they tend to go with one supplier. That is creating new private sector monopolies funded by the taxpayer, which is bad for performance and bad for accountability. We need to ensure that our civil servants have the skills that will give them the confidence to manage contracts properly; otherwise those monopolies will get bigger and bigger. Let us have more rewards for civil servants who are actively grasping commercial challenges and actively pushing competition. There have been some good examples of that.

As I said during the speech of the right hon. Member for Barking, it was refreshing to see a prison officer reach the top of the offender management service, and to note the perspective he brought to that position. We are always encountering permanent secretaries who talk in a policy-wonkish way, but I am talking about real service delivery and real operational performance. Someone who becomes a chief executive after being a prison officer working on the front line will understand the whole business. He will know where the bodies are buried, and what needs to be changed. That is so much more effective: let us see more of it, please.

We have become used to very poor management of transport projects, but the senior responsible owner of the Thameslink project was the same person throughout. Let us see more of that as well.

I do not think that we need a commission. I think that we have seen enough government failure on the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Administration Committee. We know what is wrong; let us just get on with fixing it—and my right hon. Friend will.

4.31 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I congratulate the Public Administration Committee The hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) is absolutely right: we need behavioural and cultural change to be at the heart of the system. Successive Governments have argued in circles about the structure of government—about which bit belongs where, and all the rest of it—and have never come up with the perfect structure, simply because there is no perfect structure. Let us take the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Where does the science bit belong, where does the sport bit belong, where does the culture and museums bit belong? The arguments are enormously difficult, and no one will ever come up with a perfect solution.

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It is blindingly obvious that there must be a much better porous membrane between the structures of Departments to make things work, but there are massive cultural obstacles in the way of that. During the 1997 Parliament, I did some work for the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on the delivery of technology. The paper that I produced for him pointed out that the problem was not about the technology itself, but about the people and the business processes. For far too long, we have been stuck in the rut of saying “We do it this way because we do it this way.” In case after case, I was able to demonstrate that a fundamental shift in the way in which the business processes operate will produce better efficiencies, better productivity, and—most important of all, as the hon. Member for Thurrock observed—better services for the people whom we are here to represent.

I think that the arguments for having a good look at the structure and the mechanisms that operate are not just philosophical arguments but practical arguments that matter a great deal to the people whom we represent. The way in which we should do that is a matter of debate. My Select Committee recently undertook some work on horizon scanning, which is covered by the Minister’s Department. We heard some very fine evidence from Jon Day, who leads that work for the Government, and who described very clearly the problems of silo government and how it can be broken down. I am sure that that evidence will feature when we write our report, but it is already in the public domain.

A number of Members have talked about the problems of contract management. That, too, has been a massive problem within the system. We need a professional contract management system that is fit for purpose and very few Departments can claim they have cracked that problem.

I conclude, contrary to my very good friend my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), that the place to do this work is inside the House. I agree with the Public Administration Committee. We need the practical experience Members of Parliament bring to this debate: knowledge of what is missing from the delivery of services to their constituents and knowledge of the practical problems of dealing with the complex structures within government. That is where Members of Parliament from both Houses can contribute significantly to the debate.

These are not issues that will necessarily cause any rift between the parties because I think there is a genuine desire to improve the business processes and the way in which the civil service relates to us, the Government and the people we represent. I do not see this creating a great divide, therefore, and I do not think the Government should be worried that it will slow their reform programme at all. This can happen in parallel, and I urge the Secretary of State to think about how we can make that happen and deliver a profoundly important report by the PASC.

4.36 pm

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): This has been an extremely good debate, with exceptional speeches from all Members who have contributed. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on securing the debate. His speech was very thoughtful, and in “Truth to power” his Committee has produced a weighty, detailed report that must be taken seriously.

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I hope in my remarks to give him a bit of guidance about what the Labour Front Bench thinks of his report’s recommendations.

Our deliberations have also benefited from recent reports from the Liaison Committee and outside bodies such as the Institute for Government. In addition, today my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) have launched GovernUp, which is described as an independent cross-party project

“to consider the far-reaching reforms needed in Whitehall and beyond to enable more effective and efficient government.”

Based on the thoughtful speeches of my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman, we look forward to GovernUp’s research and recommendations with some eagerness.

We have benefited from many former senior Ministers’ insights this afternoon. I am not a former Minister, but I am a former special adviser and had the privilege of working closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne. In my time in government, I found the civil servants who supported Ministers on policy advice to be wholly dedicated, impartial and exceptional men and women. I think sometimes we should be careful in debates such as this not to reinforce the stereotypes of civil servants as faceless bureaucrats. Thankfully, nobody has done that in this debate, but sometimes in popular culture that can happen. The reality is that civil servants are public servants. As well as serving Ministers, they serve our constituents, sometimes on a daily basis. and they serve some of the most vulnerable people we represent at their times of greatest need. Civil servants prosecute criminals, represent British interests abroad and help to protect our borders.

The model of our civil service has stood the test of time, ever since Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan’s reports 150-odd years ago. It is a model of political impartiality, objectivity and integrity. Those values should be maintained at the heart of the civil service, and they are values to which I reiterate our absolute commitment.

The function of the civil service is not only to serve Ministers and the Government of the day. Civil servants prepare and transfer their expertise from one Government to the next. A fact that is sometimes overlooked is that the civil service enables us in Parliament to hold the Government to account. It is civil servants who draft answers to parliamentary questions—of course, Ministers sign them off and sometimes change them, but it is the civil servants who draft them in the first place. The civil service also provides factual information to our Committees and Libraries. A healthy, functioning and impartial civil service is important not only for a healthy, functioning Government but for enabling Parliament to hold Ministers to account. As “Truth to power” points out:

“Nobody…argues that the Civil Service should be immune from change.”

I am sure that everyone in the Chamber would agree with that.

I was impressed that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne, in making a point about the inertia of the civil service, managed to quote both

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Tony Blair and the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. That is quite an unusual coalition. My right hon. Friend was right to make that point; that is what the debate is about. It is about ensuring that we reform the civil service so that Ministers are able to pursue the agenda that they were elected to implement and that the British people supported when they voted for them.

We should also bear in mind that the civil service is undergoing a significant reduction in numbers, with an overall reduction of 138,000 planned by 2015. In that context, we need to ask ourselves what the policy-making functions and the implementation of policy in a much-reduced civil service will look like. We will need to make sure that a civil service with those numbers can continue to serve Ministers and to enable Parliament to hold those Ministers to account.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) said that her speech was merely skimming the surface. I thought she made an incredibly powerful speech, however, and I am impressed that she would describe a contribution of such depth as skimming the surface. She rightly talked about the way in which Departments work in silos. She also made a point about the nature of the Government and how the concept of individual Departments is completely alien to many of our constituents. The citizen is increasingly frustrated and baffled as to why their interaction with the Government has to be conducted through so many different agencies. How many times do they have to hand over their personal data—whether for a driving licence, a passport, a tax return or benefits—to many different Departments? We understand how it works, because we are politicians, but our constituents find the number of Departments increasingly baffling. Any Government who wanted to make changes in those areas would probably run up against the type of inertia that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne was talking about, but these are the issues that we have to confront in the modern world.

The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs made a thoughtful and, at times, quite sparky contribution to the debate. I was not expecting such a sparky debate, but I enjoyed his speech. He too alluded to the way in which Government Departments work in silos, as he did in his joint article with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne in The Times today. We really have to confront the problem of departmental silos, because many of the issues that we are going to have to deal with—long-term trends in health, climate change, the opportunity of opening up big data and raising the trend rate of growth over the medium to long term, for example—will require increased cross-departmental working. That is why I am particularly interested in the outcome of the research of the think-tank that my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman have established.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) and many others have referred to the skills gap and capability problems in the civil service. We are all familiar with the horror stories that have appeared in the press, including those relating to the west coast main line and to the contracts for broadband roll-out. The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has been candid about the failures in introducing

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universal credit—indeed, there have been some spiky exchanges across the Dispatch Box on that subject. His candour has been refreshing, but we have to acknowledge that there are commercial problems within the civil service, and we must tackle them.

The report pulls no punches in its assessment of the skills gap across the civil service. Lord Adonis, in evidence to the Committee, said that, in his experience, some civil servants were

“poorly trained and their experience of the sectors in which they work is very poor”.

The Institute for Government has recently found that the civil service has suffered from “weak corporate leadership”. I think I am correct in saying that the data published by the Cabinet Office when it launched the civil service reform plan showed that out of 15 permanent secretaries at the main delivery Departments, only four had significant operational delivery or commercial experience. We would warmly welcome initiatives that increased the commercial experience of the civil service and developed the skills of the work force. I hope that the Department and Ministers involve all the workplace trade unions in meaningful discussions about and in the design of any such initiatives.

I am also worried about the general sense that there is a quick turnover in civil service posts. I recall from my few years working in government that civil servants moved quickly and Ministers would sometimes be surprised that a civil servant with whom they may have had a close working relationship on a particular project was suddenly moved to another part of the Department and working in a different area. My worry is that we sometimes lose, or we can lose, expertise in that way, although I understand that civil servants want to develop their skills. Again, we need to think about this carefully.

None the less, Labour Members believe that a number of the Government’s reform proposals have merit, such as requiring greater scrutiny of major projects, reducing the turnover of senior responsible officers, and the plan for integrating corporate functions. On the latter measure, may I press the Minister to say something about the shared services centres for functions relating to IT, human resources, pay and payroll? When they were created, some TUPE-ing over of staff took place, with time-limited agreements on no compulsory redundancies. We now understand that there will be job losses and offshoring of work, so will he give us his views on that? Is he confident about the data security issues?

Some Members have referred to the extended ministerial offices. We will want to study the Government’s proposals on that and what they mean for accountability of Ministers and of civil servants. More generally, when we are discussing these issues, we must remember that the morale of civil servants is important—a happy work force is a more productive work force. We have previously had exchanges across the Dispatch Box about check-off, and Departments are reviewing that. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on those reviews and when he expects Departments to report back, if it is not going to be the Cabinet Office doing this.

The Opposition are examining and thinking carefully about our views on civil service reform. We warmly welcome the initiatives taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne and the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs. The case

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for a parliamentary commission made by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex should be taken seriously. We are not going to commit today to supporting such a commission. It would need to have cross-party support, and some Members have spoken in favour today and others have spoken against. We are not ruling such a commission out indefinitely, but today we do not feel we can commit to supporting it. None the less, these debates should be taken seriously and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

4.48 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on securing this debate. It has been a really good debate, conducted with a lot of intelligent, thoughtful comments and insights. It has been particularly marked by a very bipartisan, consensual approach, with a high degree of agreement from those in all parts of the House. I am particularly grateful for the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) and I wish to pick up on a couple of points she made. She is absolutely right to say that we need to work on the ability of the civil service to accommodate and assimilate people coming in from outside. I also completely agree with her on the issues about women succeeding in the higher realms of the civil service, which is why I have just commissioned some work on examining exactly where and why the problems arise, so that we can address this in a substantive way. She is right to draw attention to it.

I start by saying that there are many absolutely brilliant civil servants. I have no doubt that we have some of the best civil servants in the world. Just this morning, I was with a number of civil servants in Birmingham. One example stood out, and it involved part of the Department for Communities and Local Government. The national planning casework unit, half of which is based in Birmingham, told me that its casework has risen over the past four years by 24%. The speed with which it is delivering the outcomes has improved markedly, and it is doing that with less than half the staff it had to begin with. That is a remarkable improvement in productivity.

As has been pointed out, there has been a significant reduction in headcount across the civil service. It is already down by some 16% or 17% with more reductions to come, and yet no one would say that the civil service is delivering less. There is a significant improvement in productivity. The downsizing has taken place through the recruitment freeze and through reforms to the civil service compensation scheme—the scheme was so generous as to be broadly unaffordable for the Government—for sensible voluntary redundancies to reduce the size and to reflect the need for things to be done differently. Some Departments, such as the DCLG and the Department for Education, have halved in size.

There have been significant improvements, with some brilliant civil servants doing terrific and important work, but we need continuing and significant further improvement. No one argues otherwise, and no one in this Chamber today has said anything else. It does not matter whether we call it change, reform or improvement. We need to recognise what is great. We talk about the British civil service being the envy of the world, but what is the envy of the world is the essence of the Northcote-Trevelyan

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settlement. Northcote was a politician and Trevelyan a civil servant—an early example of collective leadership. What that said was not primarily about impartiality, but about permanence, and appointment and recruitment on merit. The principle of a permanent civil service capable of serving the Government of the day, regardless of their composition, is crucial. The values of impartiality, honesty and integrity are really important, but they are passive values and to them need to be added the dynamic values.

The Northcote-Trevelyan settlement is a bargain, which says that a new Government cannot replace existing civil servants with their own appointees, because the other side of the coin of impartiality and permanence is the ability to deliver the priorities of the democratically elected and accountable Government of the day. That means that the civil service must be able to deliver it. If it falls down for too long on that side of the bargain, the case to allow the Government to bring in their own appointees and thus to disrupt the settlement, which none of us wants to see, will mount.

The truth is that in the public sector productivity flatlined for too long. That happened across the public sector as a whole, and the civil service represents only a part of that work force, but none the less it was a concern. Things have improved markedly over the past four years.

When people talk about the British civil service being the best in the world, as they often do, we should just reflect on the fact that in the World Bank’s Government effectiveness index, we ranked 15th, behind countries with systems similar to ours, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We need to deal with the constant concerns that are expressed about the leadership and management of change. Those concerns are also expressed by civil servants themselves in people surveys, which is an excellent institution that will continue. The capability deficit in commercial and digital project management is repeatedly flagged up by the Public Accounts Committee, the Public Administration Committee, the Liaison Committee and the Institute for Government and we are on the case, as we have been for the past four years. Some of the problems that have arisen with contracts have come to light precisely because of the improvement in contract management. They went unnoticed for far too long and came to the surface in an alarming and distressing way, and we are working hard to deal with them, including by setting up the Crown Commercial Service, the Major Projects Leadership Academy and the Major Projects Authority, to which the right hon. Member for Barking referred. We have strengthened the hand of senior responsible owners by making them directly accountable. The Government Digital Service is almost, but not quite, what the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) was proposing—that is, a public corporation for Government IT. None the less, it is an agency within government that has massively improved capability. I rather agree with him about the need to insource some of the capability, as too much IT capability was outsourced.

Much work has already been done and the problems are well understood and are being addressed, but we need to do that much more quickly because too much public money—taxpayers’ money—is at risk.

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Impartiality is, of course, important. That does not mean and has never meant being impartial to the Government of the day. The civil service must be very partial towards the Government’s getting their programme implemented; otherwise, the bargain starts to fall apart. The essence of impartiality is not indifference to the Government of the day but the ability to be equally passionate and committed to implementing a future Government’s priorities and programme. It is important that this impartiality does not turn into a cold indifference. It must be a passionate commitment to delivering the Government of the day’s priorities. That is hugely important.

There is much that has been done and much that needs to be done. Let me now come on to the proposal for a commission made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex. Differing views have been expressed on both sides of the House and a huge amount of work and analysis is already going on. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on setting up another institute to study the issue and make proposals. That is very important.

As it would run alongside an active reform programme commanding very widespread support—it has slightly surprised me how little controversy has attended the civil service reform programme—one must ask what a commission would add at this stage. There would be scope-creep: the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) would like to add localism, the hon. Member for Luton North would like to add the size of the state, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) would like to add the Scottish civil service, and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) would like to consider a wider joining-up across government than that which relates to the civil service.

I am afraid that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex has slightly added to my concern about whether a commission would delay the implementation of the existing reform programme. His Committee’s last report suggested that the Government’s modest proposal that the Prime Minister should be able to choose between two appointable candidates should not be implemented until a commission had considered it, thus lending support to exactly the concerns we have expressed for some time. If relatively modest proposals that command such widespread support can be successfully implemented, the current system will have been reinforced. If they cannot be implemented in the way we are proposing, I suggest that that would be the time for root-and-branch examination through a commission.

4.58 pm

Mr Jenkin: I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister and everyone who has spoken in the debate. I agree that it has been an interesting debate in which there has been a great deal of consensus and agreement. Let me just respond to the last point made by my right hon. Friend. The point we are making in our report is that it would be wrong for the Government to overrule the Civil Service Commission without Parliament having some say in the matter, because the Civil Service Commission was established by Parliament to provide precisely that kind of check and balance in the system to stop the Government making such a decision merely on the

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basis of royal prerogative. Personally, I am sympathetic to the idea that ministries should have more influence and choice, as they had in the past, over decisions about the appointment of permanent secretaries.

In all the speeches today, I have not heard a single solid argument against the civil service commission. Every argument in praise of GovernUp and the work it is doing is an argument in favour of the civil service commission in Parliament. How can we let one thousand flowers bloom, as the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) said—my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) endorsed that—if we stamp on the one flower that has democratic authority and legitimacy on the question of the civil service in Parliament?

Nick Herbert: It is a weed.

Mr Jenkin: My hon. Friend says it is a weed, but I think he demeans himself by being derogatory about so many others who have offered their service in this, including Members who are supporting—

5 pm

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

Business without Debate

filming of private deliberative meetings


That, notwithstanding the practice of the House, a Select Committee may, with the unanimous consent of all its members, permit the filming of private deliberative meetings for the purposes of the documentary which was approved by the House of Commons Commission on 15 July 2013.—(Mr Evennett.)

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Blasphemy Law (Pakistan)

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

5 pm

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for this opportunity to debate the application of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. I consider myself to be a passionate, strong friend of Pakistan; I want to see it succeed. It is the country where I was born and spent the first six years of my life before moving to Gillingham as a little boy, which is the constituency that I now have the great honour to represent. I also had the great privilege to serve as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, who lost her life during her quest to reform the country.

Pakistan aspires to be a global player and to have a greater international role, but its current blasphemy laws tarnish Pakistan’s name and reputation. Pakistan needs to implement the aspiration of its founder Quiad-i-Azam Mohamed Ali Jinnah, who said in his address to the nation at the creation of Pakistan:

“You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques, or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

For Pakistan to implement the aspiration of its founder, it must reform the blasphemy laws. These laws contravene international human rights standards, restricting freedom of speech and expression.

The UN Human Rights Committee has said that blasphemy laws are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a signatory. They are often used to punish minority communities as well as Muslim communities and to settle personal vendettas and land disputes. The blasphemy laws were expanded in Pakistan between 1980 and 1986 by General Zia-ul-Haq, who added several clauses, including section 295C to the penal code of Pakistan, which stated that anyone who defamed the Prophet had to be killed.

While Pakistan has never yet carried out an execution under its blasphemy laws, this may change after the recent ruling by Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court that the death penalty should be the only penalty for blasphemy, although the Government of Pakistan have so far refused to accept this direction. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, at least 14 individuals are currently on death row and 19 more are serving life sentences, giving it the largest number of prisoners of belief.

We need to urge the government of Pakistan to address this issue head on. The blasphemy laws have been misapplied in many cases. Take the recent case of Mohammad Asghar, which has been raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) in this House. I pay tribute to the way in which she has raised that case at every level to ensure that justice is achieved for her constituent. He is a vulnerable British national with a history of mental illness and has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, having allegedly written blasphemous letters which were never posted.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, but is he aware that there is still a problem with getting even

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medical attention for this gentleman, who lived in Edinburgh until relatively recently and whose family lives in my constituency? He has a mental health problem, but unfortunately it appears—the Minister might wish to comment on this—that it has been difficult to get in anyone who can make a medical assessment of his state.

Rehman Chishti: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. She is right, because individuals I talk to and experts who deal with such matters say that if someone is put in custody under the blasphemy laws, getting access to them and providing them with medical equipment are concerns. Additionally, there is a risk to the safety of those who are remanded in custody in blasphemy cases, and I hope that the Minister will address that real concern in his response.

I know that the Foreign Office has raised the case of Mohammad Asghar with Pakistan’s high commission and the Chief Minister of Punjab, but the criminal justice process can take many years, which means that a large number of innocent victims are languishing in prison waiting for their appeal to be heard. That is true in the case of Asia Bibi, a 43-year-old Christian mother of five children who has been in prison since June 2009. She was sentenced to death in November 2010 for allegedly blaspheming the Prophet after an incident with fellow Muslim village workers because she was thirsty and drank water from a well and a cup belonging to a Muslim woman. Such a totally pathetic, illiterate cultural practice is contrary to the virtues and principles of Islam.

Pope Benedict said at the time that what had happened in Asia Bibi’s case was unacceptable and called for her release. Her case is still awaiting an appeal before the Lahore High Court, but the proceedings have been postponed several times. On 24 February and 17 March, the hearing was cancelled when one of the two presiding judges failed to attend. On 26 March, the counsel for the complainant failed to appear. Perhaps at the next scheduled hearing, on 14 April, justice will be rightly done in this case. It is in the interests of justice and the credibility of Pakistan’s judicial system that the case is heard at its next listing and a judgment is made on the evidence before the court.

Even if Asia Bibi is released, her and her family’s lives will be at risk. Her family has already gone into hiding after receiving death threats. In Pakistan, even an accusation of blasphemy can be enough to precipitate violence against the innocent.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate. It is imperative that ordinary citizens have faith in the justice system. Unfortunately, those afflicted by injustice are not only the victims, but lawyers and witnesses. The date of 2 March marked the third anniversary of the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the then Minister for Minorities in Pakistan and the country’s only Christian Cabinet member. I understand that although a suspect has been detected, his trial has been jeopardised by death threats to lawyers and witnesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that the international community should be pressing strongly for justice in this high-profile case, because what would impunity for Shahbaz Bhatti’s attacker say

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about the prospects in Pakistan for a plural and tolerant society in which diverse religious belief is honoured and respected?

Rehman Chishti: I fully concur. It is right and proper that, in any civilised, democratic country, lawyers and the judiciary must be able to do their jobs without harassment. Judges must be able to deal with cases impartially and fairly, so I agree that it would be a dark stain on Pakistan’s legal system were there not justice in the case of Shahbaz Bhatti.

Linked to that—my hon. Friend will understand this point—is the case of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab who raised Asia Bibi’s case, who was shot dead by his bodyguard four years ago. The bodyguard has still not been sentenced. Why was that case not tried in the terrorist courts, rather than the civil courts, as Pakistani jurisdiction allows? Questions must be asked about why sentencing has not been dealt with in that case, even though the governor was clearly murdered.

There have been too many cases in which those acquitted have faced the violence of the mob, for example when two Christian brothers were gunned down outside a court in Faisalabad, or in June last year when Ghulam Abbas, a Sunni Muslim, was pulled from a police station, beaten to death and his body burned, or even the case of an elderly man who was shot dead in Punjab after being released from prison. Blasphemy cases can also trigger rioting, as with the case of Sawan Masih. As The Times reported, when he was sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet during a conversation with a Muslim friend, a mob burned dozens of Christian homes and set fire to two churches.

While Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have received international criticism, reform has received less attention in Pakistan because of the risks involved in raising such issues. Those who have spoken out, such as the Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and the politician Salmaan Taseer, have found their own lives sadly cut short.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend know whether the UK has linked the considerable amount of aid we give Pakistan to the blasphemy laws in any way?

Rehman Chishti: I do not know whether the development aid we give Pakistan is linked to its blasphemy laws, but I know that it is spent on education, which is crucial for changing hearts and minds and ensuring that Pakistan becomes a tolerant society. Those who might drift into radicalisation or extreme values can then be given hope and opportunities through education.

The violence and assassinations do not mean that reform is impossible. Although repeal might be difficult in the short term, changes could be made so that the laws are dealt with by the higher courts, rather than the lower courts, which are more susceptible to intimidation. Specialised prosecutors and specifically trained judges should also be appointed to deal with blasphemy cases. As Pakistan has specialised terrorist courts, there could be specialised courts for blasphemy cases.

There should also be a body in the Ministry of Law to authorise prosecutions so that once an allegation has been made to the police, the matter is referred to the federal body in the Ministry before a charge is filed. That way, all the facts and evidence can be assessed

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before the individual is charged, because once an individual is charged it can take a very long time for the case to be heard, and in the meantime the individual is remanded in custody, which poses safety concerns, as many individuals awaiting blasphemy trials have been killed in prison.

In 2012, while on a visit to Pakistan, I met President Zardari, Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, and members of the Christian community. The Christians raised real concerns about the application of the blasphemy laws leading to the persecution of the Christian community. When I spoke with 12 High Court judges and a Supreme Court judge and asked why the laws were being abused in Pakistan, sadly some of them said that there was no abuse of the laws, which raises real concerns about the impartiality of the judiciary in these cases.

The Minister might well say that the Government have raised these issues, and the individual cases, with the Pakistani Government, and that they have a close relationship with that country but can do no more than push for reform. I know that the United Kingdom has a close relationship with Pakistan, that the Government are working to strengthen and deepen it, and that there is real influence there.

I attended many Foreign and Commonwealth Office meetings while working with Benazir Bhutto from 1999 to 2007, including meetings with the British high commissioners to Pakistan, Pakistan desk officers at the FCO, and the then FCO director for South Asia, as well as meetings with Foreign Secretaries, including the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and the former right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband). In those meetings, everyone was focused on seeing a transition to democracy in Pakistan.

The United Kingdom had a key role in bringing democracy to Pakistan. If the UK can do that, then it can play a key role in pushing for reform of these laws in Pakistan. I recently met Pakistan’s high commissioner to the UK to make the case for reform. There is also an opportunity for the Government to press these concerns during the forthcoming visit to the UK by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that this issue will be raised with Prime Minister Sharif.

I also urge the Minister to work with experts such as the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who was also Bishop of Riwand in Pakistan, and who has written and spoken extensively on how these reforms can be made. Bishop Michael recently met Prime Minister Sharif to raise this matter. I would be grateful if the Minister were able to arrange during Prime Minister Sharif’s visit a meeting between him and Members of Parliament who have expressed concern about these laws, and to ensure that experts in this area such as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali are present.

When people have been acquitted in blasphemy cases, they often face the prospect of being killed when they are released from prison. Will the Minister consider working with other countries to accommodate individuals who have been prosecuted or persecuted for their conscience and freedom of belief and expression?

Promoting respect for human rights and freedom of religion and belief should be an integral part of our foreign policy towards Pakistan. Pakistan needs to reform the outdated blasphemy laws that tarnish its name and deprive its people of their basic human rights. I understand

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that the people of Pakistan themselves have suffered as a result of radicalisation and being a front-line state in the war on terror in Afghanistan. However, the Government of Pakistan must reform these laws, not only because they tarnish their reputation but because it is the right thing to do, for these laws are bad laws. I look forward to hearing from the Minister in relation to this matter.

5.17 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing this debate. He spoke with passion, sincerity and very detailed knowledge. It was clear that he has a great love for Pakistan and its people and wants to see Pakistan move further towards the human rights of all its citizens being properly recognised and safeguarded.

I also want to acknowledge the interventions by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). The cross-party nature of these interventions will have demonstrated to anyone observing our affairs that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, particularly in relation to the use of the death penalty, concern the entire House and no particular party or faction.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham knows, my noble Friend Baroness Warsi has raised this issue in many conversations with senior members of the Pakistani Government, who are in no doubt about the concern that we attach to human rights in Pakistan and, in particular, to the issue of blasphemy as an offence.

In the past 15 years, an estimated 1,274 people have been charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The fact that I can contrast that total with just nine reported cases that we know of between 1929 and 1982 demonstrates the importance of this issue and why my hon. Friend was right to draw the House’s attention to it today.

On the specific cases raised by hon. Members, I assure the House that we have made representations at the highest level. We continue to do so, and to do whatever we can to ensure that those who are facing charges or trials are treated properly and with respect for their human rights.

I say to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that I am advised that Mr Mohammad Asghar has had a mental health assessment but has not yet been seen by the specialist whom his defence lawyer would like. We continue to do what we can and remain in contact with his lawyer to try to make sure that representations are being made by his legal team to have his mental health concerns taken fully into account in future proceedings.

To answer my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire, we do not link our aid programme to Pakistan directly to progress on this issue, but we design the programme in a way that helps to improve both the cultural understanding of the importance of human rights and the observance of human rights in practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham pointed out that a great proportion of our aid to Pakistan is directed at improving education there. The figures show that roughly one in 10 of all children in the world who are without any schooling live in

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Pakistan. Raising education opportunities is one important way in which to help bring about the sort of social change we wish to see there. Another element of our aid programme to Pakistan is directed towards giving particular help to people from minorities within Pakistan, to enable them to understand their rights and to have greater opportunities in Pakistani society.

Although it is important that the relationship between the United Kingdom and Pakistan is a broad and deep one, founded on history, human contact, development assistance, trade and a common need to resist terrorism, it is also important that that relationship is such that we can speak frankly to our Pakistani friends in Government about the kind of human rights problem that we have been debating tonight. To impose a death penalty for blasphemy is a breach of the international covenant on civil and political rights and of the universal declaration of human rights, to both of which Pakistan has subscribed.

At the risk of stating the obvious, these are Pakistan’s laws and it is only Pakistanis and the Pakistan Government and legislative bodies that can deliberate upon and make changes to the laws. As an external partner to and friend of Pakistan, we try to calibrate the language that we use in public about both individual cases and the general problem so as not to make things worse for people who might be at risk of persecution. There is no doubt that extremists within Pakistan are keen to look for any alleged evidence of western interference in their country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham said, the space available for open debate in Pakistan about blasphemy—let alone campaigning—has become severely restricted over the past 20 years or so. It is important to recognise that although we are safe to debate this problem in this place or to discuss it with our constituents, men and women in Pakistan face abuse, threats, lynch mobs and even death for questioning the laws of their country in an equivalent way. We need to be careful about rushing to condemn people for at times being unwilling to stand up in public to tackle the iniquities of these laws when they would take severe risks upon themselves by doing so.

It is also evident, however, that the blasphemy laws are open to abuse for personal gain, typically in commercial disputes. Although used predominantly against other Muslims, it is true that they are also used to persecute religious minorities, especially Christians and Ahmadis. The Government believe that is an intolerable abuse of freedom of religion and belief, and we must ensure that our objections to it and our wish for reform are clearly stated.

This matter is a key part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights work bilaterally, with the EU and in other multilateral organisations. My noble Friend Baroness Warsi has led the way in raising the profile of religious tolerance, both in this country and in countries overseas, including with the Pakistani leadership.

Sadly, many in Pakistani society face death threats, including journalists, minorities, Ministers and officials. Only last weekend, we were shocked to hear of an attack on Raza Rumi, a journalist and commentator known for speaking up for democracy and human rights. He survived, but tragically his driver died. Our high commissioner in Islamabad noted:

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“Mr Rumi has repeatedly spoken up for democracy and, in a democratic society, everyone has the right to speak up for their beliefs without fear of attack. We are committed to supporting the Government of Pakistan in encouraging an atmosphere of tolerance, where debate can flourish.”

He ended by sending a message of support to Mr Rumi and his fellow journalists across Pakistan who stand up for free expression in the most incredibly difficult circumstances.

Rehman Chishti: The Minister outlines a scenario in which those who talk about democracy and tolerance pay the price, or nearly pay the price, with their death. Shahbaz Bhatti lost his life because he wanted reform in Pakistan. Does the Minister agree that it is important that we in the UK urge Pakistan to ensure that those who have committed such horrific murders are brought to justice? On Shahbaz Bhatti’s case, if there can be no justice for a federal Minister who is a Christian, what hope is there for ordinary minority Christians, Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan?

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Whenever we make representations on individual cases, we address not only alleged abuses of human rights—such as the withholding of access to medical treatment—but the right of any individual to due and impartial legal process, including proper legal representation.

For all the reasons I have given, Pakistan remains listed as a country of concern in the FCO’s annual human rights report. The 2013 report will be published next week, on 10 April, and I urge Members to take note of what it says about Pakistan.

Last August, Human Rights Watch noted the “impressive gains” made in Pakistan since the restoration of democracy in 2008, but warned that those gains could be lost unless the Government halted serious human rights abuses. We agree.

It is true that no person convicted of blasphemy has yet been executed, and so far all death penalties imposed under blasphemy have been quashed by a higher court on appeal. However, hundreds of alleged blasphemers remain in jail pending the appeal of their original convictions and, regardless of the outcome of those appeals, the power of mob justice has made intolerable the lives of many of those against whom blasphemy has been alleged. We understand the cultural difficulties and why blasphemy is regarded as so offensive, but we must continue to pursue the issue with visitors from the Pakistani Government to this country, as well as through our contacts in Pakistan.

It is not within the gift of Her Majesty’s Government to organise the meeting for which my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham asks, but we will put his proposal to the Pakistani Government. I certainly hope that Prime Minister Sharif will find time during his visit to have discussions with Members of this and the other place on a wide range of issues, including human rights abuses, one egregious example of which has been the focus of this debate. I hope that we and our Pakistani friends can support a debate, a review and, above all, a long overdue reform of a dangerous and iniquitous abuse of human rights.

Question put and agreed to.

5.30 pm

House adjourned.